Two Steps Forward

How C&A created the world’s first Cradle to Cradle T-shirt

Courtesy C&A
A model sports the first T-shirt of its kind.

This is a story about an extraordinary effort to transform an ordinary piece of clothing.

In June, C&A, the international Dutch chain of retail clothing stores, launched a line of T-shirts certified to the Cradle to Cradle standard, meaning that they were designed and manufactured in a way that is benign to the environment and human health, and whose materials can be recirculated safely back into industrial materials or composted into the soil.

It represents, in no small measure, the future of product design and manufacturing.

Creating a Cradle to Cradle (or C2C) T-shirt — at scale and at an affordable price to the consumer — was no small feat for C&A. It required a board-level commitment, close partnerships with contract manufacturers, an arduous search for replacements for problematic materials and some new messaging to customers.

And so began a first step in transitioning one of the world’s largest apparel retailers to become an exemplar of the circular economy.

C&A is a 176-year-old company founded by two brothers, Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer. It is still privately owned by the Brenninkmeijer family, now in its sixth generation in the business, and has around 2,000 stores in 23 countries, primarily in Europe but also in Brazil, China and Mexico. It competes with other so-called "fast fashion" retailers, such as H&M, Topshop and Zara.

The company has a reputation for being notoriously private and highly secretive. But over the past few weeks, the company opened up about its Cradle to Cradle mission, how it went about creating the T-shirt, why it did so and where it intends to go from here.

The story begins in 2015, when the Brenninkmeijer family invited designer William McDonough to speak to its annual seminar, which brings together family members from across the generations who are part of C&A, from those in their early 20s to those, now retired, in their 80s and 90s. It’s a chance for the Brenninkmeijers to discuss "where are we going, what are we doing and what does it mean to be in a family business together," said Donald Brenninkmeijer, a fifth-generation scion who serves as the company’s chief brand, customer & sustainability officer.

At the seminar, McDonough spoke about the Cradle to Cradle concept he pioneered with the German chemist Michael Braungart, as described in their 2002 book by that title.

As Brenninkmeijer recalled: "That presentation inspired a group of the family to think, ‘What is it that we can do in our businesses and how can we actually take this topic and make this a reality, and get away from just it's-nice-to-talk-about-it to actually bring something to life?’"

It wasn’t exactly out of character for the Brenninkmeijers to engage in such thinking. "In our history, we have stated that our mission is to amaze our customers and be a force for good, both in what we do and how we do it," Brenninkmeijer, who's based in Dusseldorf, told me.

C&A long had backed up that aspiration with a range of sustainability initiatives, particularly related to its materials selection and supply chain. The company is the world’s largest buyer by volume of organic cotton (which it refers to as "bio cotton"), according to the 2016 Textile Exchange's Organic Cotton Market Report (PDF). It hews to the Responsible Down Standard for all of its down purchases. C&A also has ramped up its use of recycled polyester; works with the Canopy Style Initiative to ensure that its cellulosic materials, such as rayon, modal and lyocell, don’t harm ancient or endangered forests; and has worked aggressively to address animal welfare issues in its supply chain, such as banning bovine leather from India, or adopting measures to protect sheep from flies and illnesses.

After the seminar with McDonough, the family discussed the idea of creating a "factory of the future" — "a really world-class factory that would have all of the circular economy elements in it, where the water’s cleaner going out than coming in, 100 percent renewable energy, great building, great livelihoods for the workers, high social and environmental standards and also a living wage," Jeffrey Hogue, C&A’s chief sustainability officer, explained from his office in Brussels.

A three-person task force, from both the company and its foundation, set out to study how such a factory could be built, most likely in Bangladesh, China or India.

But along the way, said Hogue, the group realized, "The factory of the future is a metaphor for something bigger, something that could be transformational in the apparel industry: to shift from a linear model to a circular model."

The conclusion: "What we need to do is we need to create a movement."

Fashion for Good

C&A

The Fashion for Good building in Amsterdam.

That realization led to a partnership between C&A and the C&A Foundation to create Fashion for Good in a renovated building in Amsterdam. The facility, which opened in March, houses programs for both early- and late-stage innovators, along with interactive exhibits and other initiatives that center around five aspects of "good": good materials, good economy, good energy, good water and good lives.

"Fashion for Good was basically put in place to support innovators and accelerate their technologies, and also to scale them to a point where there could be wide uptake in the industry," explained Hogue. "And then to provide some access to capital for the supply chain so that they can implement these innovations in their own manufacturing settings."

For Donald Brenninkmeijer and his family, the vision was "to kickstart a movement towards creating an industry that does good," he says. The birth of Fashion for Good led the family to ask, "What is it that we want to see within the world of retail and the products that we offer?"

By the middle of 2016, the answer had presented itself: to create Cradle to Cradle apparel at scale and to sell it at a price point that would make it affordable for the masses.

The T-shirt was the obvious place to start. "If you look at a man’s suit, you have 120 components," Martijn van der Zee, chief merchandise and sourcing officer for C&A Europe, explained from his office in Dusseldorf. "In a T-shirt, you’re talking about four or five components. I mean, to do a T-shirt is the easiest product of all."

Of course, what’s "easiest" is relative. There were a number of design and sourcing challenges to overcome. In addition to the basic material, bio cotton, C&A needed to find alternatives to the stitching, which is typically made from polyester or nylon, as well as the care label, also from polyester. Mixing natural materials (called biological nutrients in Cradle to Cradle) with synthetic ones (called technical nutrients) would not pass muster for C2C certification.

There was also the matter of the ink used for printing on the care label. Since the label needed to be cotton, not the traditional polyester, the ink not only needed to be made from benign ingredients, it also needed the durability and legibility that would enable it to withstand washing, stretching and general wear and tear when applied to cotton. The company also needed to find dyestuffs sufficient to create the full rainbow of color choices consumers expect in T-shirts.

Each of these required some level of development in partnership with suppliers before being submitted for certification to the Cradle to Cradle standard, a certification mark issued by the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute. Fashion for Good supported some of the R&D, "to understand what is possible, and how we can proliferate these technologies and these approaches with other brands going forward," said Hogue.

All of this had to be done affordably so that the finished product could sell to consumers for 7 euros, or a little over $8.

Taking the long view

C&A turned to its go-to suppliers for help. One was Pratibha Syntex Limited, based in Indore, in central India. Pratibha, a manufacturer of cotton, yarn, fabrics and finished garments, is a longtime C&A supplier, and a pioneer in many sustainability initiatives. For example, it began producing bio cotton in 1999 and now works with 33,000 farmers to ensure they have adequate education, sanitation and other aspects of a sustainable community, based on the Gandhian principle of self-reliance and self-sustainability. Almost 30 percent of Pratibha’s factory power comes from the 5-megawatt solar panels it installed, and the company recycles more than 90 percent of its wastewater.

"We have been working on a lot of sustainable initiatives over the last 17 years," Shreyaskar Chaudhary, Pratibha’s managing director, told me.

Chaudhary, whose father founded the company, jumped at the chance to pioneer C2C T-shirts. But doing so challenged some of his assumptions. For instance, he said, he had assumed organic cotton and recycled polyester would make an ideal blend. But under Cradle to Cradle, cotton is a biological nutrient while polyester is a technical nutrient. Blending them is verboten under the C2C protocol. Moreover, the blend would contain antimony, a heavy metal commonly used in the production of polyester, further prohibiting it from achieving the C2C standard.

The T-shirt would have to be made entirely from cotton.

That was just the beginning. It took seven or eight months to find dyes that would meet the C2C standard for the wide range of colors demanded by C&A. Organic sewing thread had to be imported from Switzerland, at 10 times the price of conventional thread. It took nearly a year to get the printing right for the T-shirt’s cotton care labels. Donald Brenninkmeijer estimated that the cost of making a C2C T-shirt is 5 to 10 percent higher than a conventional one.

Chaudhary acknowledged that it is unusual for a contract manufacturer such as Pratibha to be investing so much time and effort in product development. "We are working with value retailers who want the greatest bang for their buck, so the expectation is to be extremely efficient." But, he added, "We really need to be looking at a long-term view and make long-term investments. That is something generally manufacturers would not be investing in and that is something brands and retailers don’t expect from manufacturers."

Chaudhary, whose company also produces goods for Zara and other retailers, understands the need for balancing the short term with the long term. "In our manufacturing, we work with fashion-forward retailers, where the shipment has to happen in three weeks. So, on one side, we’re thinking about three weeks. On the other side, we’re taking a view for the next 20 years. One thing I’ve learned from sustainability, it has given me a lot of patience."

He also is concerned about the world he someday will leave behind: "I take responsibility for what I do and it gives me greater happiness to sleep at night. My grandfather, when I was a child, used to always tell me this story that his mother told him, so my great-grandmother told my grandfather. She was illiterate, but she said, ‘You know, we’ve been given the human form to do good for whatever reason.’" That, he said, has driven him ever since.

A bit of explanation

C&A launched the C2C T-shirts — which ultimately received the Gold-level C2C certification, the second-highest of five levels — on June 1 in C&A-branded retail stores in Europe, shipping 400,000 units in 16 colors. This fall, it is rolling them out in Brazil and Mexico. The company won’t reveal actual sales figures, but CSO Jeff Hogue told me, "They’re selling very well. ... It’s beyond our expectations in terms of the sell-through rates, and it’s in line with a hero-type product, or a product that has really strong uptake."

The C2C T-shirt color palette.

The launch mimicked any typical C&A product introduction — a "360-degree program," as chief merchandiser van der Zee described it. The T-shirts were featured online and displayed in the windows of brick-and-mortar stores, as well as in the stores' "style court," the featured area customers see as soon as they walk in the door. "A lot of people bypassing are immediately intrigued," he said.

The product did require a bit of explanation — but not necessarily about Cradle to Cradle, even though the T-shirts are marketed as "C2C certified."

As the C&A website puts it:

The C&A C2C-certified products are manufactured in harmony with nature. They are made of natural, organic substances and are intended to be reused, recycled or safely composted for new products. This approach to product design also means that organic cotton farmers can grow their plants without dangerous, polluting fertilizers and pesticides, and the people involved in the production process are not exposed to any hazardous chemicals.

"We know what this T-shirt stands for, and we know all the technical attributes of this T-shirt in terms of the environmental impact reductions or eliminations," said Hogue. "But we feel that the whole concept itself is too complicated to articulate to the consumer." Instead, he said, "What we talk about is that this T-shirt is designed for its next use. It’s designed to be recycled, it’s organic, it’s socially responsible and it’s respecting nature." Those seeking further details are directed via a QR code to a page on the company’s website.

It was important that the product be launched much like any other, and not treated as a sideshow. Said van der Zee: "If you truly believe that this is a game-changer in the industry and you really want to set this up for success — going not just for one-off but for continuous improvement and continuous increase — then you have to start with some scale because otherwise it never will be scalable."

Generational shift

It’s still early days, but the initial results are encouraging — so much so that C&A is laying out a roadmap for more, and more complicated, C2C items to roll out in 2018 and 2019. First and foremost is to develop patterned T-shirts, adding stripes, embroidery and other design elements. A search is on for a C2C substitute for elastane — an elastic polyurethane material commonly found in hosiery, underwear and other clothing — which would allow for more stylish, form-fitting tops. Finding an elastane substitute also would open up new categories such as underwear. Nightwear is also on the agenda.

Donald Brenninkmeijer hopes that fully half of C&A product introductions will be C2C-certified within a decade, though there’s not yet any formal company commitment to that goal.

And he knows that doing so will mean more than just tweaking products. "Those kinds of big statements, big numbers, that's not likely to be a reality without fundamentally rethinking how the supply chain is working, and what investments are needed to be done."

Meanwhile, much of what C&A is learning is being made available to other companies via Fashion for Good, including a downloadable Good Fashion Guide that walks readers through the process, including listing C2C-certified ingredients and manufacturers. (Fashion Positive, the fashion sector initiative from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, offers a comprehensive listing of C2C certified fashion materials here.) 

"We recognize that at C&A, we're not going to be able to do this on our own. We want to encourage others to go with us on this journey," said Brenninkmeijer. "We can be a leader and that's our ambition: to be a leader in both thought and action in this field. At the same time, we recognize that the more companies we can encourage to go with us on this journey, the more of a change we can make for the future generations that come after us."

Clearly, Brenninkmeijer, 40, who said he is one of "50 or 60" fifth-generation Brenninkmeijers who are part of today's C&A, is cognizant of his family’s legacy.

"The question that we ask ourselves is, ‘How will future generations look back on our actions and will they look back favorably?’ When you know that something is possible, and when you know that you found a way to produce products in a way that they are good for the environment, good for the workers in the factories, good with regards to the materials, then you say it's a no-brainer to continue on this journey and encourage others to go with you."

I asked Bill McDonough, whose 2015 presentation inspired the whole thing, what he learned from C&A about what’s needed to bring Cradle to Cradle products to mass markets. He began by marveling at what the company already had accomplished.

"One hundred percent of the molecules of this shirt has been assessed against 24 endpoints for ecological and human health," he said. "One hundred percent of the molecules. That's amazing."

What did he learn? "I was reminded how dedicated one needs to be and how important it is to get everybody singing from the same sheet music, and that was a beautiful part of this. It goes up and down the supply chain, so everybody has to share the same values. We're all heading for the good together and we can trust each other.

"I think the learning also is that people are ready for this, and the big companies are ready, too, when they have what their customers are asking for. So we're starting to push it all upstream. That's what I've learned. I've learned that we're a lot closer than we think."

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