What is it about?

This interview addresses the urgent need for sustainable practices in the fashion industry. Thomas-A. Kredt, a renowned expert in textile engineering and a dedicated advocate for environmental sustainability, offers a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and innovations in Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finishes. The focus is on the transition from C6 chemicals, examining their ecological and health impacts. Mr. Kredt’s extensive experience and commitment to sustainability provide valuable insights into how the fashion industry can adopt more sustainable alternatives and meet pressing environmental challenges.

    – The interview was conducted by Lisa Träger on June 10, 2024.

Hello and thank you for taking the time for an interview Mr. Kredt. Could you please briefly introduce yourself and tell us about your background and experience in the textile and fashion industry?

Thomas-A. Kredt: Certainly. I am pleased to participate in this interview, as it addresses a topic of great importance to me. My name is Thomas-A. Kredt, and I have enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the textile industry. My passion for textiles was sparked during my childhood, influenced by my father’s involvement in the field. Although my initial ambition was to become a carpenter, I ultimately chose to pursue a degree in textile engineering. Over the course of my career, I have engaged in numerous projects, including the development of microfiber fabrics for reusable surgical garments with carbon coatings. These endeavors have underscored the critical importance of sustainable approaches, even when they appear complex and costly at the outset.

To delve directly into the subject, it is estimated that C6 compounds are utilized in up to 90% of water-repellent clothing, highlighting the relevance of our discussion on this specific class of per- and PFCs. Could you elucidate the reasons behind the extensive use of C6 as a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finisher within the fashion industry?

Thomas-A. Kredt: C6 is widely used because it offers excellent water-repellent properties essential for outdoor clothing and technical textiles. It ensures that textiles remain water-repellent even under extreme conditions, which is indispensable for many applications, particularly in outdoor and protective clothing.

The long-term ecological consequences of C6 include contamination of water sources and bioaccumulation in the food chain, resulting in significant health risks. How do you evaluate these ecological hazards?

Thomas-A. Kredt: The ecological risks of C6 are significant. C6 compounds are persistent and bioaccumulative, meaning they can build up in the environment and living organisms. This leads to long-term contamination of water sources and soils and can have serious impacts on the health of humans and animals. The accumulation in the food chain is particularly problematic as it can lead to health risks such as hormonal disruptions and cancer.

The textile industry must consider an important question: If, after 80 wash cycles, a water column that originally measured 80 or 100 centimeters is reduced to 10 centimeters, where has the fluorocarbon gone? The answer is that the fluorocarbon has entered the drainage system, specifically from laundry facilities. In such industrial settings, it is feasible to regulate this through legislation and the installation of filtration systems to prevent fluorocarbons from contaminating the environment. However, household washing machines present a different challenge, as they typically lack these filters. As a result, 75% of the ecological footprint of clothing, in terms of CO2 emissions, is attributed to the extensive washing practices of the end consumer. This underscores the urgent need for systemic changes and innovations in both industrial processes and consumer habits to mitigate the environmental impact.

Could you please give us some insight into how the textile industry uses PFCs to achieve the DWR function in clothing?

Thomas A. Kredt: The industry operates on the principle that more is better. To apply the DWR finish, C6 is mixed with plasticizers and other agents and then worked into the fabric through a roller, similar to a rolling pin. However, this process ensures that only about 75% of the chemicals actually remain in the textile, while the rest goes down the drain. This uncontrolled, disproportionate use of C6 to ensure a certain level of water repellency ultimately results in extreme environmental pollution.

If we delve deeper into the industrial process, the situation worsens. In modern laundries, there are stages for washing—pre-washing, main washing, and so forth, similar to household washing machines. Typically, they have three rinsing stages. And guess what happens in the final rinse? Fluorocarbon is added to ensure thorough water repellency. This is like playing the lottery: for every milligram that stays on the fabric, 999 milligrams go down the drain. participates.

The fashion industry faces significant challenges in transitioning from C6 to more environmentally friendly alternatives. A major reason is the difference in cost and performance. What do you see as the biggest economic and technological obstacles in this transition?

Thomas-A. Kredt: One of the biggest economic and technological obstacles is the need for a comprehensive reassessment of our practices and processes. A major challenge until now has been the significant cost difference between C6 chemicals and their alternatives. Environmentally friendly options often come with higher production costs, which can be a substantial financial burden, especially for smaller companies. Additionally, the transition to C0 is not yet mandatory, and many products are over-functionalized. For instance, streetwear is often designed to have the same water-repellent properties as extreme sports clothing, slowing down the adoption of alternatives.

Furthermore, these alternatives might not yet match the performance characteristics of C6. In our society, we expect more from products than we actually need. In various areas, the functions of C6—such as water, oil, and grease repellency—are essential for safety, such as in protective clothing for operating theatres or fire brigades. However, when it comes to fashion pieces that aren’t intended for extreme conditions, it is questionable why we still use C6 and rely on its functionality. The customer has become very spoiled and is influenced by companies to expect such high performance.

C6 is not widely recognized as a public issue, leading to a lot of ignorance and low consumer demand for companies to switch to C0. What does not have to be done will not be done. This brings us back to the point of self-limitation and regulation, which is a fundamental prerequisite for a comprehensive switch to sustainable practices.

I advocate for manufacturing products so that they can be reused without chemical or thermal separation. A good example is the antibacterial treatment with silver salt, which is incorporated into the spinning mass. This process prevents the silver salt from being washed out and allows for effective recycling. However, a hospital supplier mentioned that they recycle their wash water and reuse 75% of it in the next wash cycle. This keeps the silver salts in the cycle, causing unwanted side effects. This raises the question: why introduce chemicals only to expend double or triple the energy to remove them later? This demonstrates the need to overcome self-imposed limitations. The chemical industry often operates under the motto, “If it works well, why change it?” But we must pursue more sustainable approaches to reduce long-term ecological damage. The transitioning to alternatives requires not only technological advancements but also a shift in corporate culture and consumer awareness.

Moreover, the entire supply chain must be considered when evaluating the sustainability of alternatives. It’s not enough to focus solely on the end product; the environmental impact of each stage of production, from raw material extraction to manufacturing and disposal, must be taken into account. This holistic approach often reveals hidden environmental costs that were previously overlooked. An example is the coating of pans. While ceramic coatings as alternatives for C6 appear sustainable at first glance, their recyclability is questionable. Throughout the textile supply chain, we must continually focus on sustainability, which is often lacking.

In summary, the primary economic and technological obstacles in transitioning from C6 to eco-friendly alternatives include higher production costs, potential performance issues, recycling complexities, resistance to change, and the need for a holistic supply chain evaluation. Overcoming these challenges requires coordinated efforts from all industry stakeholders to develop and implement truly sustainable practices.

Technological innovations are crucial for developing safe and environmentally friendly DWR finishes. For instance, there is research on biodegradable alternatives and PFC-free technologies. How do you assess the effectiveness of these alternatives compared to C6 in terms of water repellency and durability? Which current innovations do you see as promising?

Thomas-A. Kredt: Vaude, for example, has developed its own solution, which is commendable, but it is an isolated effort. Many companies have their own separate solutions, which I believe is the wrong approach. These isolated solutions may show how good individual companies are, but this has nothing to do with true sustainability. Sustainability means that we, as a society, handle our resources responsibly and carefully.

Yet, we pollute the environment without regard for future generations. There must be a fundamental shift in societal thinking. A company like Vaude might make progress, but that does not mean the general public understands what sustainability truly means. We need a comprehensive program that changes the entire societal behavior.

Additionally, the alternatives must be linked with the recycling approach. The problem with PFCs is that their impacts are not visible, whether during washing or wearing. When considering the sustainability of a product, we must also account for the efforts in terms of time, energy, and costs invested to make a piece of fabric functional. However, in the end, we find that these materials are so complex that we cannot recycle them because we do not know how to separate the components.

This also applies to technologies like dyes that supposedly do not require water. It sounds sustainable, but no one thinks about the final step: how to remove the dye. These questions must be considered when we talk about real sustainability.

The problem with PFCs is that their impacts are not visible, whether during washing or wearing.

The transition from C6 to more environmentally friendly alternatives requires significant steps by companies. What additional measures do you believe are most important for a successful transition?

Thomas-A. Kredt: A successful transition requires a holistic strategy. Companies should first conduct a thorough inventory of their current processes and identify potential areas for improvement. Training and raising awareness among employees are also crucial to promote the acceptance of new technologies. Furthermore, companies should form partnerships with innovative suppliers and conduct pilot projects to test new materials and processes and find a comprehensive industrial alternative.

We face a major problem with PFCs because their harmful effects are often not visible, such as when they enter the sewage system, leading to low interest from manufacturers and consumers. An example of how the industry works comes from the 1980s. The first dyeing machines with reduced water usage were developed and implemented. We then had to fill the treatment plant with fresh water to separate waste because it was otherwise impossible. To put it bluntly, the industry often thinks only halfway through the process and not to the end, resulting in ineffective solutions. It is not thought from A to Z, but simply stopped in the middle with an attitude of “after me, I don’t care.”

And then we come back to the problem: we need regulations to control the use of fluorocarbons. Only certain certified companies should be allowed to produce fluorocarbons. These companies must disclose exactly who they sell their products to and for what purposes they are used. Such an approach would mean monitoring fluorocarbons right from the manufacturing and sales stages and making the entire supply chain transparent. This proactive control could help manage the harmful effects of fluorocarbons more effectively and ensure that sustainability is genuinely implemented.

Unfortunately, many efforts to implement such systematic approaches fizzle out due to a lack of consistent control and willingness for full disclosure in the industry. It requires a change in mindset and a comprehensive strategy to tackle these issues at their root.

You have mentioned regulations several times and emphasized their importance. The European Union’s REACH regulation bans certain PFCs, and the United States has the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which imposes similar restrictions. Can you elaborate on the role such laws play in reducing the use of C6?

Thomas-A. Kredt: These laws play a crucial role in reducing the use of C6. They set clear standards and restrictions, forcing companies to look for more environmentally friendly alternatives. Additionally, they promote transparency and awareness of the environmental impacts of chemical substances. However, compliance with such regulations can also be challenging, particularly for smaller companies that may not have the resources to quickly adopt new technologies.

The regulation of PFAS at the EU and global levels has a long history and has been continuously developed based on new findings. Before the EU REACH regulation came into effect, there was an EU-wide regulation for PFOS (C8) because it was considered harmful to human health and the environment. This regulation was later incorporated into the EU POP regulation to meet the standards of the Stockholm Convention (Regulation (EU) No 757/2010) and thus be regulated worldwide.

Similarly, PFOA (C8) was regulated due to its negative impacts and integrated into the EU POP regulation, which has been in effect since December 2020, with transition periods until 2036 for safe alternatives.
PFHxS (C6) was recently included in the Stockholm Convention as a POP and accordingly incorporated into Annexes IV and V of the EU POP regulation. Inclusion in Annex I is still pending.
From February 2023, perfluorinated carboxylic acids with nine to fourteen carbon atoms (PFNA, PFDA, PFUnDA, PFDoDA, PFTrDA, PFTeDA) are also regulated. The EU Commission is currently preparing regulation for PFHxA (C6), which is expected to be decided upon this year.

In conclusion, what do you see as the future for sustainable textiles and fashion, and how can the industry balance the need for performance with environmental responsibility?

Thomas-A. Kredt: The future of the fashion industry will heavily depend on its ability to integrate sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives. It will be crucial for the industry to invest in research and development and to drive innovative solutions forward collaboratively. In the long term, the industry will only be successful if it minimizes its ecological footprint and implements sustainable practices. It is essential that we all become aware of the ecological impacts of our decisions and actively seek sustainable alternatives. Only through collective efforts can we overcome challenges and create a more environmentally friendly future.

Thank you, Mr. Kredt, for sharing your valuable insights with us. Your expertise highlights the importance of innovation and sustainability in shaping the future of the fashion industry.

By supporting brands that prioritize environmentally friendly practices and by making conscious choices, we can collectively drive the change needed to protect our planet. Let’s commit to fostering a sustainable future in fashion and beyond.

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