RETURNITY® - the fabric of many lives

Reinhard Backhausen , 19 May 2011

Cradle to Cradle® supports the principle that products should be regarded over the full term of their lifespan, from their creation to reclaiming raw materials, leaving a minimum of waste and posing no harm to the environment. Austrian textile manufacturer Backhausen has adopted this philosophy and is helping to move the textile industry to a greener future.

It began with a question

It all started in the cinema. “Daddy, what are you doing for the environment?” That was the question. The father in this case was Reinhard Backhausen, CEO of Backhausen interior textiles GmbH, which since 1849 have been adorning opera houses, underground stations, hotels, train compartments, ships, museums and furniture from Alabama to Zurich with high quality fabrics. The film was An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film documenting former United States Vice President Al Gore's campaign to educate citizens about global warming.

A good two years later Backhausen is doing a great deal more for environmental protection. The company has always been an innovator and a pioneer in the textile industry, introducing the first permanent flame retardant fabrics and three dimensional pleated fabrics. Now, its 160 employees are working like ants on creating environmentally-friendly textiles. Literally like ants, as these creatures do not produce any waste, even though their biomass is four times as large as that of human beings. Steven Spielberg made a film about it, Brad Pitt is fired with enthusiasm for it, and Arnold Schwarzenegger adopted it into his agenda while governor of California, as has the Dutch Government. Backhausen is attempting to mirror the zero waste qualities of nature by applying the Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) concept to its manufacturing processes.

Michael Braungart, professor of chemical engineering and former Greenpeace activist, is the founding father of C2C, the concept of waste-free industry. Within this vision, all products should be kept within biological or technical cycles, meaning that objects have to be produced in such a way that they are degradable, can be composted, or technically recycled. “Only when a product fulfils these principles can it be termed intelligent and therefore good,” stated Professor Braungart, who has designed hundreds of C2C products with his Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA) Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH founded in 1987. These range from recyclable office furniture to compostable T-shirts.

Adapting to Cradle to Cradle®

The idea of an eternal cycle of materials has attracted support by firms such as Nike, VW and Unilever. In Backhausen’s case, this was the result of a chance meeting between its CEO and Albin Kälin, who at that time was CEO of EPEA in Hamburg and EPEA Nederlands. Within two years the company had implemented Mr Kälin’s recommendations. Scientists from EPEA and Backhausen engineers, working in conjunction with the yarn manufacturer Trevira CS, were able to make fabrics “clean”, using new, environmentally friendly dyes and chemicals. The successful product was branded Returnity®, and helped earn Backhausen a gold C2C certificate. Around 90% of the Backhausen collection now uses Reternity® technology, improving not only biodegradability and reusability, but also other characteristics such as light fastness. The increase in costs was covered by around a 2% increase in prices charged.

However, total recycling, in this case the full cycle of re-using or renewing a textile is not completed merely by cleaning the production process. If you buy a fabric from Backhausen, you receive a return pass. When the fabric has reached the end of its useful lifespan, the owners do not throw it away but write an e-mail to service@returnity.at. The sender types “Please collect” in the reference line, and a network of logistic partners and recyclers arranges the recirculation into the recycling process. Then, nothing else stands in the way of the transformation. “The ideal scenario would be to transform the product straight away into a new textile,” explains Mr Backhausen. “But there’s too little material in the pot”. Instead, the fabric is changed into granulate material. This is then transformed into a new product, perhaps into a garden chair. In order to fill the “material pot” for an efficient technical recycling process, Backhausen assigns the Returnity® brand licences to other fabric manufacturers.

Closing the cycle

C2C envisions production processes in which all materials are preserved. This is the only way to close the cycle. As Professor Braungart comments, “the whole campaign requires a change of paradigms in industry. All business activities have to be changed, because materials, including raw materials, now have another significance. We have to create transparency and interactions with the suppliers in the network, but also with customers and consumers. Business companies want to know where the raw materials which are needed again remain in the cycle.”

Michael Braungart also has ideas for technical devices such as televisions, cars, planes and many others. He and his partners have designed a car for Ford in a model experiment, which would be sold to the customer for a maximum of five years’ driving, including 100,000 kilometres, taxes, fuel, maintenance and insurance. After this period the car can be disassembled into its renewable spare parts, which the manufacturer will use in anew in the production process.

C2C-designed products not only make sense from the environmental and economic perspectives, but also from their impact on human health as they do not contain any toxic substances. Textiles have long been linked to potential health risks arising from the dyeing and finishing processes. Returnity® fabrics do not carry this risk, as they use environmentally friendly chemical optimisation processes.

Backhausen has yet to collect its first used Returnity® fabric. The campaign has only been running since July 2009 and the fabrics have a typical lifespan of about four to five years. But, it is anxiously awaiting the opportunity to reuse its first fabrics and is establishing a world-wide network of recycling operations and logistics partners. When fully in action, it will enable the used Returnity® fabrics to be recycled regionally.

Spreading the message

Back then at the cinema, Reinhard Backhausen’s answer to his daughter’s question about his commitment to the environment was: “Whenever possible, I travel by train instead of by car, and I separate the rubbish. We can’t do much more than that, can we?” Today he says he’s ready to fight like a lion for the C2C cause.

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Author

Reinhard Backhausen

CEO of Backhausen

Reinhard Backhausen is the CEO of  Backhausen interior textiles GmbH; and is the President of the Federation of the Austrian Textile, Clothing, Shoe and Leather Industry. He participated in the ‘Designing out the risks’ Expert Forum, hosted at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue, on 22 February 2011.

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Cradle to Cradle® supports the principle that products should be regarded over the full term of their lifespan, from their creation to reclaiming raw materials, leaving a minimum of waste and posing no harm to the environment. Austrian textile manufacturer Backhausen has adopted this philosophy and is helping to move the textile industry to a greener future.

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