Interview with Prof. Gries and Prof. Schlicht...
Interview with Prof. Gries and Prof. Schlichter, ITA Group

If not now, then when?

Stefan Schlichter & Thomas Gries (Source: ITA)
Stefan Schlichter & Thomas Gries (Source: ITA)

Since summer 2021, the ITA Group has been presenting itself as the International Centre for Sustainable Textiles. The ITA Group consists of the Institut für Textiltechnik of RWTH Aachen University (ITA), Aachen/Germany, as the core and several spin-offs and subsidiaries that address specific market needs and topics. The director of the ITA and the ITA Group as a whole is Prof. Thomas Gries. The ITA Group also includes ITA Augsburg, which is headed by Prof. Stefan Schlichter. We spoke to Prof. Gries (TG) and Prof. Schlichter (STS) about the biotransformation of textile technology and thus the use of biological principles for cycle-oriented value creation processes.

Prof. Gries, the ITA Group has now been set up as the ITA Group International Centre for Sustainable Textiles since September 1, 2021. Why now?
TG: We all want to make our contribution to climate change. It is not without reason that the EU in its new Sustainable Product Initiative increasingly refers to a high level of environmental protection and the improvement of environmental quality. Now climate change is taking on another terrible dimension with climate catastrophes on our doorstep, such as the July 2021 flooding in the Ahr Valley. If not now, then when?
We need to research the important societal challenges and quickly bring new technologies into implementation. Climate change will not wait. Close cooperation between industry and research is an important building block in this. New cooperation formats are needed to make this work.
However, funding programs are not yet agile enough. Bureaucracy is a high barrier to entry. Moreover, funding is often provided separately: Basic research, industry-related research and, somewhere, start-ups. More can be achieved together.

Prof. Schlichter, there is now a new model workshop on recycling at the ITA Augsburg. Please explain your approach to this topic.
STS: Recycling textiles is a central social necessity measured by the very low reuse rate of textiles. We are meeting this major challenge with a clear and innovative approach to solving the problem, which contains 3 important elements:
1. Through the concept of the model workshop, we focus our solution approach on creating a technically, economically and ecologically sensible product before we deal with the process engineering implementation.
2. Our aim in all sub-steps of the solution is focused on a high-quality end product (upcycling), because there is no meaningful market for low-quality recycled products, which incidentally characterizes the main problem of the current plight of textile recycling.
3. Today, many textile products are not well designed in terms of sustainability and recycling (unnecessary material combinations, poor dissolvability of connections, etc.). We counter this aspect with a clear strategy of Design 4 Recycling, which also keeps the next life cycle of the product in mind.

How do you think the world and international cooperation will change in the following years from the point of view of sustainability?
TG: In the 1970s and to some extent even up to the present time, we behaved as if the earth and all its resources were infinite. Now we are forced by the current situation to rethink every action we take. We can already see this from the point of view of Corona: all of a sudden, it was no longer possible to travel, which gave digitalization a big boost. Notwithstanding, digitalization without the use of renewable energies cannot be sustainable. Through Corona, however, we have also learned that pure "digital vision" can complement face-to-face meetings, but not replace them. Therefore, we are now challenged, on one hand, to think about equivalences and, on the other hand, to be sustainable in every single point of what we do.
STS: Today, textile value chains are characterized by a strong international division of labor, which is only focused on the economic optimization of the end products. Here, from the point of view of ecological sense, the evaluation of logistics expenses will lead to the emergence of more localized supplier structures. After all, it cannot make sense to first ship the textile waste to far-away low-wage countries in order to process it there and send it back again. Of course, the textile centers in Asia and Africa will take on other tasks in terms of sustainability, such as the production of more biologically sustainable fibers.

Where do you see your institutes in the next 10 years from a sustainability point of view?
TG: Our main goal for the next few years is the holistic biotransformation of textile technology and thus the use of biological principles for cycle-oriented value creation processes and the conversion of textile value chains from petroleum-based to bio-based. With the BMBF-funded project BIOTEXFUTURE for an innovation space, we have a project to make a significant contribution. This includes, for example, closing raw material cycles, reducing energy and water consumption for production processes and the principle of "design for recycling" as a fundamental paradigm of product development.
STS: The ITA Group has the competence and, more importantly, the will to place all its actions under the guiding principle of sustainability. In this way, we can and will become the leading international research service provider in the field of sustainable textile processes and products. Our international structure with a system of country representatives and bases in important markets such as India, South Korea and Turkey is already helpful in this respect.

What role should the (textile) industry play in becoming more sustainable? How could you as institutes influence this with your competence?
TG: The textile industry has often played a pioneering role in industrialization. It should become aware of this again and set a good example. Climate-friendly production, long-term use and sustainable recycling should be the leading claims in the textile industry. Thinking and acting along the value chains is necessary to make a real difference. In addition, all stakeholders must be involved in the change process:  From the raw material along the textile production chain to the users of the products – including reprocessing and recycling, also in the sense of upcycling. Both regulatory intervention in the market and changes in the attitudes and behavior of market participants are required.
In principle, synergy effects must be used in research to enable interdisciplinary exchange. There are no simple solutions, the research questions are complex and can only be solved with a holistic approach and in a transdisciplinary way.
Do you have a recommendation for the consumer – how should we behave to become more sustainable?
TG: There are already many initiatives or start-ups with innovative ideas in the textile industry. This is also nothing new. Recycling technologies and "green" have been the discussed ever since the oil crisis at the latest. Consumers like to express the desire for locally produced goods. One challenge is certainly that "talking-green" is followed by "acting-green". What needs to be taken into account in the decentralized production of raw materials or biopolymers is that the energy comes from sustainable sources. However, obtaining energy from sustainable sources also means that the raw materials will certainly become more expensive by a factor of 5 to 10. The customer must be willing to pay the price for local production, a more expensive raw material source and a smaller production unit. In order to generate this willingness in the customer, they must again be properly informed.
We should move "away from fast fashion" – one way can be to consume less, keep longer and value more.
STS: As consumers, we need to realize that the cheapest textiles with constantly changing designs (so-called fast fashion as mentioned by Prof. Gries) cannot be sustainable at the same time. When textiles are thrown away with little or no wear, it is a sign of how little value quality and sustainability have in our thinking about textiles. We have to counter this trend with new materials, a function-related design and new usage models in order to bring new types of textiles with interesting and durable functions onto the market that can inspire consumers.

Prof. Gries and Prof. Schlichter, how can you become more sustainable through your cooperation?
TG: By coordinating research and industry even better than before. Prof. Schlichter and I have been lucky enough to know each other for a very long time, both from industry and research. This way, we avoid duplicating work and duplicating utilization of (raw) materials, energy, water, etc., and are naturally more sustainable.
STS: We complement our competences synergetically and thus enable the research and development of efficient new systems, and also use our local networks in coordination with each other.

Has your cooperation changed in terms of sustainability?
TG: Our common goal orientation is under the sign of sustainability, i.e. all research projects in our 2 institutes must deal thematically with sustainability and work out an added value for society here. Our daily work at meetings and business trips must also be compatible with our resource-saving strategy. Basically, we coordinate more than before, we actually work "closer" together, if I may put it that way. This includes personal contacts and thematic priorities.
STS: By placing all our projects under the guiding principle of sustainability, we have programmatically harmonized our approaches with each other and thus find the right solutions more easily and quickly, which are also sustainable in terms of efficiency and solution quality.
The interview was conducted by Mechthild Maas, editor of TextileTechnology, with Prof. Thomas Gries, director of the ITA and ITA Group, and Prof. Stefan Schlichter, head of ITA Augsburg.

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