Wolford: the cradle to cradle success story of the fashion industry

Andreas Röhrich: Director of Product Development, Innovation and Sustainability at Wolford

“Less bad is not good enough,” are words that drive Andreas Röhrich, director of product development, innovation and sustainability of Wolford, the high-end international hosiery and lingerie brand. These are unexpected words particularly as tights are considered the single-use plastic of the fashion industry. Whilst some hosiery brands are using recycled fishing nets for their tights or producing ladder free tights, none have managed to tackle the environmental challenges posed by hosiery production, like Wolford has.

Wolford is modest when promoting itself as a sustainable brand. If you are serious about sustainability it is not a word you throw around lightly. Their actions speak volumes. As Andreas says, “it is the first company in the world with both the technological and biological certificate in cradle to cradle gold.” This is no small feat as the cradle to cradle regulations are comprehensive and stringent. Companies have to fulfill standards in five categories being, Material Health, Social Fairness, Material Reutilisation, Renewable Energy, and Water Stewardship. Whilst no company has managed to reach platinum status, Wolford have achieved platinum for the category of Material Health, which means that all materials are 100% uncritical and safe for humans and for the environment.

In 2018, Wolford launched two cradle to cradle products and in 2019 were able to launch another ten products within the space of a few months. Their range is growing rapidly largely due to the collective developments being made by companies in the textile industry who are also seeking cradle to cradle certification. For some time, Andreas openly committed to “50% of the Wolford range being cradle to cradle by 2025”. Due to the rapid progress being made, he is keen to push this further. He explains, “I see it much more clearly now than I did six or eight months ago. We have to change our strategy, our target that we say, maybe 2027 it’s 100% cradle to cradle, because I can really see a way now… We have more and more yarns and there are other producers who are thinking about certification for cradle to cradle gold. A simple example is that we recently found a wool yarn producer in Italy who is a certified cradle to cradle gold …Now we will be the first company for autumn 2021 to be launching the first flat knit product that is cradle to cradle gold.”

It has been a long time coming. Andreas joined Wolford 30 years ago when sustainability or ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ was not even heard of. Having said that, Andreas says the Wolford motto has always been, ‘Buy sparingly, choose it well and make it last.’ In his lengthy career at Wolford he is quick to ensure, “I never accepted to reduce a little bit the durability of a product because of price or something else.” This is a standard he sees as even more pertinent today. More than a decade ago Andreas felt things needed to change in the way Wolford was producing if they were going to continue to exist as a company. In the beginning he was drawn to closed loop systems of production more for the financial benefits he envisaged. “We are using 90% man-made fibre and 70% is oil based which is a resource that is not infinite. You cannot give tights to your kids and they do not really last for years… It is really a consumer product that is wasted. We had to really think how we are going to stay alive as a company for the next 70 years. We embraced the cradle to cradle approach so that we can really use the raw material and bring it back.” For Andreas it became clear that, “it could be the anchor for the future success of this company”.

At the time, management at Wolford was more than skeptical. However, they were able to gain financial support from the Austrian Government to pursue the project and Andreas was given the go ahead. Despite the fact that in 2010 there was no cradle to cradle yarn available, Andreas decided Wolford would make cradle to cradle gold certification the goal. As he says, “for me it was very important to have sustainable sustainability and cradle to cradle was the only way.” It took 5 years to develop and only now are they starting to see the first fruits of their investment.

Taking the road less travelled demands lateral thinking, collaboration, and resilience. One of the most fortuitous decisions Andreas made was to choose the most complex item of clothing to seek cradle to cradle certification, the bra. It requires about 40-50 components. Interestingly, until now they have not been able to produce a certified cradle to cradle bra. However, choosing a product that requires so many elements enabled them to achieve a lot of other things along the way, such as leggings, bodies and tights. Had they not taken this route, none of this would have been possible.

As he says, “if you start with the easiest product and you want to expand, it is very difficult because every addition takes so much time. Starting with a big approach it is easier to reduce.” A study on companies changing to the circular economy by the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, proved that this was one of the key factors contributing to their success.

Serendipity also plays a role and in the case of Wolford this was the location of their production facility in the Vorarlberg in Austria. Until the 1980’s, it was the textile region of the world. As production moved to Asia, this vastly reduced, and yet Wolford has continued to source the vast majority of its product needs locally. From the outset Andreas recognized the need to collaborate if he was going to succeed. In 2013, he brought 14 local textile companies together including a research team from the University of Innsbruck to form a consortium. He pitched the idea of collaboration to work towards cradle to cradle certification for their products. They agreed but as Andreas muses, “the big problem at the time was that there was nothing existing”.

They met with Albin Kälin, the founder of EPEA Switzerland; the company responsible for doing the assessment for Cradle to Cradle. Working with their network in the chemical industry, they began to develop the first dyestuffs. This in itself was a major hurdle as no toxic substances were permitted at any stage of the production. Initially they produced 8 colours which was a far cry from the usual palette of almost 300 colours.

Wolford is using mainly man-made fiber and Andreas is of the opinion, “that man-made can be more sustainable than natural fiber.” He believes that there just has to be the will to make it non-toxic and that is dependent on the chemical components. He continues, “for example, PET (kind of polyester), in order to produce it there is antimony, a substance which can cause cancer and in cradle to cradle this is not allowed. It is possible to make a polyester without that, but you have to force [manufacturers] to do it this way because most of the PET production is with antimony. This has to change. It is not recycling or the circular economy that is important. It is that you do not produce substances which are toxic.”

This is why fulfilling the technological and biological cycle has been key to Andreas’ vision for Wolford products. They use Aquafil’s Econyl® which is made from recycled fishing nets and other nylon waste. Made from polyamide 6 it is perfect for clothing fiber and for the technological cycle. They also use Modal fiber, which is made in Austria from local sustainable forestry.

Fulfilling the technological cycle means that products returned at the end of their use, can be depolymerized and spun into a new polyamide fiber without reducing the quality of the material. This process can take place many many times. With the biological cycle, old tights are given to a local waste management company who is able to compost clothing and produce biogas and the same gas is used to fuel production. Collaboration with local companies and most importantly Wolford’s customers was vital for success. Whilst the thought of returning undergarments may seem unlikely, Wolford customers have embraced the idea and are keen to return worn out cradle to cradle pieces to Wolford stores.

Andreas is very aware that his education as a textile engineer coupled with 30 years of experience working in all areas of Wolford has provided the breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding of the industry needed to drive such a transformation. I would add that to be a pioneer requires vision, the courage of conviction and a lot of hard work. He responds, “when I started, I really did it because I wanted our business to survive. But then you start to see things, to think about things and what we are doing.

As human beings we are the ones who have the problem. When you think like this it really makes you change your behavior. I oversee our development team which is about 60 people here in Bregenz. They see they are not only developing tights; they are developing a new way of thinking and a solution for our planet.”

He is surprised and frustrated that not more is being done within the fashion industry as a whole. As he says, “if only we are doing this, this will not help our planet. We need a lot of followers, a lot of people who are trying to copy us and then they need to take action.”

More Interviews

Charles Massy, Regenerative Agriculturist: “We face the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.”

Albin Kälin, a pioneer and visionary in cradle to cradle manufacturing.

Marc Buckley is a man with a mission to reform the global food and beverage industry to positively impact billions of people.