Texpertise Newsroom: Conventional jeans are usually manufactured using chemicals that are damaging to both health and the environment. How does Wunderwerk manage without them?
Heiko Wunder: Early on, before it was even an issue, I started looking for alternative ways to finish denim without using toxic chemicals and still achieve the desired ‘used’ looks. During my stays in the Far East in particular, I could not imagine that it was healthy for workers to be in the laundry all day, coming into contact with the usual chemicals, not to mention the wastewater. Filtering the chemicals, which at that time was considered state-of-the-art, was in my view not a solution either, because the filters have to end up somewhere too. Visits to various laundries in China, Indonesia, Turkey and Tunisia revealed a whole range of alternatives, which although less efficient, offered a good place to start.
Based on these experiences and in close cooperation with our suppliers, we manged to consistently improve our washes on a sustainable basis so that we were able to meet market requirements and produce really cool washes. Initially quite a blessing, by now we never use lasers and lighten our jeans almost exclusively using ozone, or trioxygen. This happens in a closed cycle, in which neither people nor environment come into contact with the ozone. The 3D effects that don’t materialise with lasers are achieved using handmade finishes. This gives our denim a unique look that, with our high-quality, in part exclusive denim fabrics, is genuinely authentic. In addition to the chlorine compounds usually used to bleach in conventional denim production, we also completely abstain from using potassium permanganate. This has been a no-go for us ever since our inception and in my view its use is not justifiable, neither for the people who spray it on the jeans, nor for the environment. In this respect we are uncompromising, and this is embedded in our DNA.
TN: How exactly does the airbrush technique of using ozone (or oxygen) to colour and bleach denim work?
HW: These are two completely different processes. The airbrushing technique that we used to produce our bleached washes from 2014 to 2017 initially involved bleaching undyed, natural-coloured fabrics using H2O2. We then sprayed the seams with dye using spray guns and washed them so that they looked like genuine bleached jeans, but in fact they were dyed, not bleached. It was a great idea at the time, although it was labour-intensive, and the workers also had to have the appropriate training. In the meantime, we manage without this and have developed techniques to bleach jeans in a way that conserves resources, without the use of toxic chemicals.
In ozone bleaching, the jeans are exposed to ozone in a big machine until the desired shade is achieved. The ozone (O3) is formed in the machine and subsequently transformed back into O2, or oxygen. This process produces no toxic residues. Here too, our principle is to avoid using chemicals that are damaging to the environment in the first place, so that they just don’t enter the cycle. We take a similar approach to oil-based synthetics, i.e. plastics, which we avoid from the start wherever possible. Nor do we think that recycled polyester should be part of a pair of trousers or any other article of clothing worn directly on the body. It’s outrageous that the use of recycled polyester is still marketed as sustainable. Perhaps the brands in question should make more of an effort to address the issue.
TN: Regarding CO2 management – at Wunderwerk, in which areas of the supply chain does clean air play a role?
HW: Air, water and earth are all equally important. We should do all we can across the board in order to keep the impacts to a minimum across all areas of the supply chain. The raw materials and the places in which they are cultivated and processed play a role here, as do the manufacturing processes, i.e. the sewing and the finishing, such as washing, dyeing and the like. We manufacture around 70 per cent of our products in the EU. We also source most of our raw materials in the EU, from Germany too, which shortens the transportation routes. By comparison, with my previous employers, I produced almost exclusively in the Far East or South America for around eight years. When founding Wunderwerk, sourcing more locally was a logical conclusion in order to put the brand on a sustainable and resource-friendly footing. The CO2 issue is an important one, but I think it is prioritised in a way that some other substances are not. Methane, for instance, has a far greater impact on the environment and the climate. This should also be addressed.
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