EP13: Wouter De Broeck, Alsico, Circularity in workwear, how to take a leap forward by just doing

In the thirteenth episode of the Ellie.Talks’ podcast, your host Julie Lietaer chats with Wouter De Broeck, Sustainability & Communications Manager at Alsico, a producer of workwear and protective wear. 

In this episode, you’ll deepen your overall understanding of the workwear industry, get insights into the challenges faced, and even more, discover how you can leap forward by taking action and learning by doing.

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    Key takeaways 

    1. Be conscious about the use of the materials by giving them the highest value.
    2. Get insights into where you stand today, CO2 calculations or other tools can help with that.
    3. It’s all about taking the steps forward, “You know nothing until you start doing”.
    4. Involving your employees in new circular projects can offer the opportunity to develop new skills.
    5. Despite the reluctance and the challenge along the way, remember that when a circular project succeeds, the impact is big.

    About Wouter De Broeck; a man who acts

    Originally rooted in media, Wouter De Broeck was done with only writing about the environment and chose to contribute to change. After a master’s in environmental change, Wouter joined Alsico as Sustainability & Communications Manager. 

    Alsico is an international producer of workwear and protective garments. Founded in 1934, this family company has a strong sustainability mission and focuses on circularity. Nowadays, the fourth generation is leading the company. The organisation has 10 business units, is an employer of 9000 people, and produces 400 000 pieces of clothing every week.

    Wouter’s function includes defining the sustainability objectives, setting up relevant actions, annual reporting, establishing and managing progress indicators and certificates, maintenance of contacts with external organizations, and communicating about sustainability initiatives. A busy man as you can tell.

    Circular Vision

    For Wouter, circularity means being conscious about the use of the materials by giving it the highest value. Within the company, they look for a balance between quality and a product’s lifecycle. Furthermore, cascading down waste cycles are a big part of this vision. To limit waste streams, the company repairs or remakes damaged clothing and brings it back into the value chain.

    Challenges in the protective workwear industry

    The selection process for protective workwear is very strict. Designing for the longest use and protecting against harmful chemicals are priorities. There is an availability problem when looking for substitutes for a chemical/material. Besides this issue, recycling certain materials are also a problem, reflective tape for example is still very difficult to recycle or reuse.

    The protective workwear industry is a role model for circularity

    Compared to other segments in the industry, you can say that the workwear industry is quite ahead in terms of innovation and sustainability. When asking Wouter about the reason, he explains that the workwear sector has industrial laundries as one of its biggest customers. 

    Cooperation with these is already done from a more life-cycle approach compared to other customers. Laundries have been setting very high demands on lifespan, quality, and recovery for years, and are able to monitor them closely in practice. 

    In addition, laundries also act as a single point of collection at the end of life, which is an advantage when taking further steps in terms of recycling.

    Insights as a driver for innovative products and lower emissions

    In 2017, Alsico did a CO2 calculation of their entire organization. The results showed that the highest impact on CO2 was coming from the raw materials in the process. Fossil-based materials were the main reason for the company’s higher carbon footprint. Knowing this, Alsico started the search and development process that resulted in a new fabric with 50% fewer emissions. This new fabric will serve as a substitute for the original more polluting one. Furthermore, they are reviewing clean energy throughout the supply chain.

    In-house sorting hub 

    Wouter also revealed a brand new project they’ve just launched. In order to understand the possibilities for recycling better, and to facilitate end-of-life collection & recycling, they have started with an in-house sorting & recycling hub. Alsico now offers its customers the opportunity to return used clothing for recycling. To make the processing of these discarded garments as smooth as possible, they ask to fill in a form on the website. The clients can book a pick-up moment for the used clothing, and Alsico will arrange the transport. Once collected, the textiles are sorted into 6 streams:

    1. Clothing with reflective bands
    2. Worn clothing – white
    3. Worn clothing – colour 
    4. Unworn clothing
    5. Cleanroom clothing
    6. Dust scraps, cutting waste or unused fabrics

    For every stream, they have a collaboration for recycling. Alsico does not only offer this service to customers, but other companies can also make use of the service. They also receive a certificate of processing and recycling once the details of the clothing delivered have been verified.

    The project is considered as a first pilot, managed by people that work in the workshop in Ronse. With the set-up of this new hub, the employees involved get the opportunity to develop new skills such as creating invoices and reporting. With this pilot, Alsico also wants to guarantee work for their employees, giving them the opportunity to contribute to the circular mission. 

    Companies that want to make use of the service pay a small fee per kg of clothing. Prices per kg include 0.05 EUR, which is deposited in a fund for the development and research of high-quality processing. For each kg of clothing, Alsico will also deposit an additional 0.05 EUR into the fund. The first focus for this project is people and purpose, the business model will take shape as the pilot evolves. 

    REHUBS – engagement on European level 

    To create a circular future, collaboration is a necessity. Although there is a high need, the amount of actual successful projects is low. One of the reasons why projects in the industry fail is because of the reluctance in the supply chain.

    However, when a project succeeds, the impact is big. During the podcast, Wouter tells us more about the REHUB project organized by Euratex. This initiative brings together major industry players who share their knowledge. The focus of this collaboration is to get deeper insights into the requirements to get the production of recycled fibres at scale. 

    One of the insights after a technical economical study during this project was that the highest possible capacity for fibre recycling will be 26% off all incoming waste streams. This means that only 1/4 of the incoming waste streams can be transformed into new textiles, which is a quite low percentage. Here comes a new interesting challenge for the future: how will suppliers keep up with the increasing demand for recycled textiles?

    Future Mission

    Alsico hopes to spread the ‘sustainability’ message and be an example for the industry. They have the ambition to be net CO2 zero by 2034.

    Reach out

    Does the story of Alsico inspire you? Great! Don’t hesitate to contact Wouter and join Alsico’s story of circularity.

    “We are open to suggestions for developing projects with our waste streams: if someone has an idea about how to recycle reflective tape and coatings, we are ready to listen and collaborate. We have a couple of open issues that could use a new perspective!”

    Looking for more insights from the workwear Industry? Go to Ellie.Connect to explore our database of workwear partners or go premium and receive the full Ellie.Report on this topic!