The circular economy in Prato
Textile districts generally represent a source of pollution and environmental degradation, given that they are among the leading industrial sectors for consumption of water resources, emissions into the atmosphere, use of raw materials, release of chemical substances and energy consumption.
In Prato, however, this did not and does not happen thanks to the environmental sensitivity of the entrepreneurs and local public administrations and to some intrinsic characteristics of the industrial districts, such as the nature of their network and the vicinity of the companies that compose it.
As regards the first aspect, we should mention the extraordinary importance that the circular economy assumes in Prato, a term now widely used in the world of fashion and textile production.
In fact, a significant part of Prato fabric derives not from a linear production system, based on the spasmodic consumption of non-renewable production elements, such as water, energy, and raw materials, but from the sum of artisanal and industrial processes, perfected since the middle of nineteenth century, aimed at the regeneration of textile fibres contained in used clothing and / or waste from other textile processes.
The first process, called sorting, is used to divide the scraps and clothes according to colour, quality, and origin.
The operation, following an ancient tradition, is completely manual: a specialized sorter, once the raw bale containing the garments or scraps has been opened, eliminates the parts and whole garments with non-homogeneous colouring, the rags with a percentage of the fibre to be regenerated that is less than 75% and, finally, the linings and accessory parts such as zippers, buttons, and pins.
The remaining material is grouped by colour (ex. white, blue, brown, red etc.) and for the quality of the fibre used.
Another important process, subsequent to sorting, is that of fraying: with it the fibres that make up the materials to be regenerated are brought back to the state of flock.
The fraying is necessary when the raw material has twists or intertwining, and a mechanical effort must be made to break up the textile structure and obtain the free fibre again.
This process takes place, within specialized companies, by means of machinery equipped with rotating elements covered with metal tips that operate in a closed cycle powered and facilitated by the constant action of water.
The fibres thus obtained, at the end of the drying operation, are reintroduced into the production cycle, where they are mixed with a variable percentage of new longer fibres, in order to obtain a yarn and then a completely new fabric that restores the beauty, softness and original performance of the fibres.
All of these processes take place within the same district, thanks to the presence of dozens of specialized companies, allowing a considerable saving of production factors, water, and energy, compared to the classic linear model.
It is estimated that the production of regenerated wool, in which Prato has always excelled, reduces water consumption by 90%, energy by more than 70% and chemicals by about 90%, when compared with the corresponding amount of virgin wool.
These extraordinary collective performances are then accompanied by an effort of a growing number of companies to obtain internationally recognized third-party certifications for their products or processes, such as the Global Recycle Standard (GRS).
Collaboration of the production chain
The ability to reinvent the entrepreneurial fabric is combined with an ecosystem that has always been a model of organization and predisposition for teamwork.
Businesses in the industrial district are part of a network in which they cooperate and compete at the same time, and this has the potential to drive the adoption of innovations and eco-innovations.
Networking is also essential to conducting more radical eco-innovations, which a company alone, due for example to insufficient resources, probably could not do as effectively. This is the case with GIDA and the largest industrial water recycling plant in Europe, a cutting-edge system created thanks to the shared commitment of the Unione Industriale Pratese (now Confindustria Toscana Nord), the Municipality of Prato and Consiag.
Created in 1981 with the first purification lot of the Baciacavallo plant, GIDA today manages a total of 9 different plants located throughout the territory, which operate synergistically to treat 50,000,000 cubic meters of sewage and 300,000 cubic meters of liquid waste (pollutants).
Since 2004 GIDA also manages an industrial aqueduct that extends for a length of about 75 km, in four main branches corresponding to the industrial areas present in the textile district. The overall potential of the industrial aqueduct is approximately 1,500 m3 / hour.
Processes and certified products
In addition to these systemic factors, the producers of Prato fabrics are very attentive to the management of their processes, starting above all from the complete traceability of incoming raw materials and external processes, to arrive at the introduction of cutting-edge practices for reduction / elimination of polluting substances and the certification of the results of this action towards the outside.
On these aspects, many of them have by now equipped themselves with internal procedures and external partnerships of immense value.
Among these tools is 4sustainability®, the sustainable fashion brand launched in 2013 to meet the emerging need for services related to transparency and traceability within the Prato textile district. The release of the brand, which certifies the sustainability performance of the supply chain, depends on the regular verification of indicators based on a rigorous and innovative framework.
Today, there are over 50 4sustainability® certified companies in the area, more evidence of the Prato industrial fabric’s ability to view sustainability as a winning business model and long-lasting development strategy, through concrete projects and measurable performance.
Many of them are also members of CID (Consorzio Italiano Detox), the Italian Detox Consortium, founded in 2016 with the aim of promoting the implementation of the Detox campaign, launched by Greenpeace, for the progressive elimination of 11 highly polluting chemicals by 2020, within the Italian textile industry.
Thanks to the efforts of the consortium, initiated in Prato within Confindustria Toscana Nord, these companies are able to make truly eco-sustainable fashion.
A last noteworthy trend is the one that is leading the companies in the district to progressively use an increasing quantity of intrinsically eco-sustainable fibres: from flax and hemp, vegetable fibres that do not require industrial processes that have a significant impact on the environment, to GOTS® certified organic cotton, with renewable artificial fibres such as Enka® viscose, whose responsible production toward reforestation is certified by FSC®.