Rethink the textile industry from the roots

Published on 2021-11-03

Startup Story

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Dario Gruenenfelder, founder of Muntagnard, focus on fashion supply chain transparency and talks about how business success and sustainability do not need to contradict each other: generating more value by reusing and recycling in the textile industry.


Can you explain to us how the project Muntagnard even started?

My colleague and I were both former business consultants. I was in sustainability consulting and he was focusing on strategy consulting and we wanted to start our own business, but it shouldn't just be any business. It needed to combine sustainability and a clear focus to show that business success and sustainability do not need to contradict each other.

We started looking into different industries, different issues and problems, and we soon came across textiles. And while those of us didn't really have a background in textiles, we felt this is the right industry to transform. And since that day, which was almost four years, we have spent each and every minute understanding the sustainability issues, understanding the industry as a whole and trying to develop new and circular solutions inside the textile industry.

What are the challenges in the textile industry that you're trying to address?

I would say that the biggest issues we are addressing are on one side, the textile waste problem. That includes the microplastic pollution of synthetic textiles. And next to that, the unsustainable processes from raw material to the final product, and in our opinion almost non-existent recyclability of textiles.         
So these are the three main issues we're trying to address where we're trying to find new solutions.

What do you do to solve this? 

We are questioning the status quo and how it has always been done inside the textile industry. We try to come up with better solutions that are compliant with our understanding of the circular economy. So we want to foster innovations for the circular economy and we identify challenges in the textile industry and try to significantly improve the key issues with a new way of thinking and new solutions towards the design and also the development of products.

Can you tell us more about how you work on the development and which are the main characteristics of the products that you're developing?

We always say we are not creating products just for the sake of creating products, but we are focusing on products where we have identified key issues

One example that showcases this pretty well is our self-developed fabric made out of Swiss wool. So we saw in the markets that there's tons of Swiss wool still being shorn from the sheep because there are hundreds of thousands of sheep still in Switzerland, but the raw material is not really used anymore and it's often discarded: we saw that issue and we saw the potential that wool has and then started investigating what we can do.         
And from there on, we built our own supply chain to develop a fabric

We talked to the sheep farmers and we bought wool. We shifted to the yarn manufacturer and from there the weaving mill, where we created the fabric, we dyed and finished it according to our standards and expectations. So we basically try to control and influence the whole supply chain of developing such a fabric.

For us, it was very important to walk through each and every step and know each and every partner involved. Because that was the only way for us to understand the key issues, the pain points, and come up with new solutions. And now we're very proud to have our own exclusive fabric made out of Swiss wool. We are the first ones in decades that actually created a Swiss wool fabric to be used in a jacket. I think that explains quite well how we are approaching textiles.

It's important to know that Swiss wool is rather the scratchy kind of: we saw the issue and we try to come up with different development of how can we use this incredible raw material, a t-shirt or a sweatshirt is rather difficult because then you would pretty much get a peeling of your whole skin when you wear it. So we needed to come up with solutions of how to integrate this raw material into a product where it can actually be used and still be of high quality. And so why not create a jacket. 

We developed an outer shell fabric out of Swiss wool and combined it with different other materials to create a beautiful functioning jacket out of that incredible raw material.

One of your key pillars is to have high quality and performance. So starting from a raw material you were able to find a way to use it at its best in terms of performance. So there was a lot of research and development in this. That's a way to show that sustainability is also about researching new ways to use products and make a sustainable use of materials.

Is not really an issue if you do the right research and development and find the right partners. Do you agree with that? 

Absolutely: it's a ton of research and development, and it's not always easy, but it can also be very rewarding because we did go new ways and we developed dozens of prototypes. It took us almost two and a half years to create that final product, that jacket that we're talking about now.

It was a very long way, but it's extremely rewarding at the end when you see that it can actually be a solution that works on the market and in that way. Heaps of people telling us it's not possible: "Why are you doing this? Why can't you just use the materials that everyone else is using?" And for us, it was always about persistence and the ambition to actually create something out of the raw material. So, yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's extremely rewarding.

What is the feedback from customers?

Most customers love the product: it is different and it is intentionally different, it has a bit of a rougher touch and feels. But when people hear about the story and hear about how the product was created and what efforts went into creating that product, they absolutely love it.          
We don't have another product for sale that gets the same kind of enthusiasm from the customers. And the feedback is just overwhelming.

You spoke about the issue of textile waste and recyclability. How are you trying to solve this issue?

When we started in textiles, we soon realized that textile recycling is not working as it's supposed to, in our opinion, and it's not working as most people believe it is currently functioning. We quickly realized that a huge part of textiles cannot actually be recycled into new clothes. It normally gets downcycled or directly incinerated, or lands on landfills, to name the worst example. 

And we knew from the very start that this is one of the big issues we need to address and we need to find the solution, and for us, that means when we do develop and design a product, we need to have that recyclability and that reusability in our minds from the very start.         
When we design and develop, how it can be reused and recycled is implemented in the development process from the very start. And this is how we try to develop our recyclable clothes, to make sure that, in the current system, every product that we have, is either fully recyclable to actually create new products and new clothes out of it. Or it's biodegradable to make sure that it doesn't leave any waste if it should end up on land.

Can you explain more about the topic of mono materiality?

We like to talk about mono-material products quite often, and for us, this is a very important aspect because we realized most of our customers don't know how complex textiles can be and how many blends and mixes of different materials are out there, and what kind of issues those posts have when it comes to clothes recyclability.

For us, that means we try to do more mono-material products: we don't just focus on the main fabric that is used, for example, a hundred percent cotton, but if we produce a hundred percent cotton t-shirt we're using cotton thread to suit together with the product, we use cotton labels, so care labels and everything else, everything.

We realize that quite quickly when we talk to the production partners that we have, that everyone else is using synthetics. So you might have a hundred percent cotton fabric or a t-shirt, but the sewing thread to care labels and all the other parts on the product are normally made out of polyester because it's easier to work with, it's cheaper and it's longer-lasting quite often.

It's not as difficult to put together a product that you don't really need to see or don't need to investigate. Where do you need less attention or more attention on a product? Because as synthetic plastic, basically sewing thread, it doesn't rip as easily as one made out of cotton, for example.

I would like to ask a question about the industry in general because one issue is about companies making products which are recyclable as possible. On the other hand, we need a system to recycle products and textiles. What's your opinion on this? 

Yeah, I would agree: the system is developing in the right direction, but it's nowhere close to what we would hope it would be to actually make recyclability in textiles the norm. So it's also very difficult for the consumer to put the textiles into the right streams that can actually be recycled.

We do have these collection schemes, for example, in Switzerland, where you can basically donate your clothes. Most people believe that these clothes will be worn by someone else in the future, but the truth is actually a lot of gets downcycled and the problem is the people that selecting the different products and materials don't have the time and the resources to go through each and every single product and look what's in there. 

So we need to have an extended producer responsibility to make sure that products are correctly labelled, and those people choosing between the different raw materials and products can have an easier job in getting the right materials into the right streams to then allow full recyclability of the products.

There's still a long way to go, but it looks like we're on the right one. Don't get me wrong, it's very difficult and it's not an easy task. We have noticed that ourselves, we tried to take back all the products that we put out there: we put in incentives for the customers to send back our products because if we then send our these used products back to a recycling facility, we can label them exactly what's in there and tell them what kind of materials are used in there. And that will facilitate further processing.

How was your experience with these private take-back systems?

It's not so easy. We would love to have a system in place where it's not just relying on us and where we don't need to necessarily take everything back ourselves. So we already started collaborating with an organization here in Switzerland called "I:CO" that tries to exactly do this. They're here to collect all the different products that were used and then put them into the right recycle streams. 

So there are new developments coming up. And for us, the goal would be to not just do it ourselves, but have organizations like that in place that do that collection together, because let's be honest: most of our customers don't just have our products and our clothing in their closet, they have different kinds of brands, different kinds of products. And we cannot ask them that they returned each and every product to the single brand that they bought.          
For us, the goal would be to have organizations and systems in place that do the collective gathering of all the different products and materials.

Back to you and your company and your products, you spoke about traceability. Can you tell us more about it?

We wouldn't dare to say we're 100% traceable with all our products, but we're definitely trying to be as traceable as possible with everything that we do. We try to know each and every partner involved in the production of our products. Let's take our jacket, for example, we nominate each and every material that goes into our jacket.

So we know what buttons are used, what materials they're made of, and who's the producer of that button. We know and nominate the sewing threads that go into putting the whole jacket together, and from there we follow each and every step. So if we use fabric, for example, we know where the raw material is coming from.

For us, it's important to know and understand the whole supply and value chain. And it's also important to portray that to the customer to make sure that our customers understand that we actually go that extra mile and try to understand the whole value chain, but also give them the story behind each and every product. 

It's important for us that the customer knows what went into the production of this specific product, who was involved and how this whole industry basically works. So that's why transparency for us is very important, that's how we can better control and influence the supply chain by transparently or disclosing what's who we're working with and understanding who's involved.

That's why transparency for us is very important. And as you often hear “you can only control what you actually understand” and for us, that's how we can better control and influence the supply chain is by transparently or disclosing what's who we're working with and understanding who's involved.

Which is the optimal level of transparency for you? 

We haven't really found the right level of transparency yet.          
We started with being fully transparent about everything that we do about each material that is used, what it's made of, how it's being processed. And we realized that it's very overwhelming for the customer and just the reader or the visitor. 

We did a few surveys to better understand what level of information is useful and at what point does it get overwhelming to the reader.          
At the moment, we try to scale it back a bit and talk more about the materials in general and who we're working with and what countries and what the actual production partners are.

We try to do it on different levels: we are a bit more general and not as specified in the first phase, but if you're an interested reader and you want to understand better, like who we're working with and what, what actually goes into every product, the information is there, but it's not there from the very start. So you need to dig a bit deeper into our website and all our publications.

The right level of transparency we haven't really found because in some way you would expect or think just be 100% transparent about everything that you do, but it's not so easy to scale that down to a level where the people out there, that are not working in textile every day, actually understand what you're trying to say. 

Do you think that companies need to increase their transparency with customers? 

I would hope that someday every company will be more transparent about who they're working with and what they're doing because if we are more transparent, we will have fewer and fewer issues of unsustainable production practices, people being underpaid or having to work too many hours a week and all these different things.

From sustainability issues from a social, but also environmental perspective, getting this transparency will help a lot in improving the actual situation, but if we can not make it more transparent, it will be extremely difficult to also hold companies and involved parties accountable for what they're doing.

Are your customers interested in sustainability or in your final product? Because they're beautiful and they're high quality. What really brings your customer to your website and to your company?

Being a Swiss company that starts off again in textiles, we have quite a history in textiles in Switzerland, but it has been going away into different other countries and we're trying to build it up again, that expertise.

Being more sustainable and more transparent about what we do helps a lot but we realized the customer is not there yet is the whole topic about circular economy. We tried to communicate how we're developing circular products and how we approach the circular economy, and very quickly we saw that either people don't really understand or they don't yet care about it too much. It's rather just the sustainability aspect in general that works, for us obviously, there's tons of companies out there that produce nice-looking clothing and instead we focus on rather the basic designs. It's not something that shouts out, it's very basic and very sleek. So the sustainability aspect and the story behind the product is a huge advantage or a differentiator that we have.         
People or our customers tend to like that very much and say it's not just about sustainability, but actually giving the product, the story and telling that story.

Do you have any idea on how collectively also we can work to make sustainability more and more important in the market and for customers? Because as you said, many don't really know so much about the topic also because it's very complex. 

I'm a strong believer in if we increased transparency and traceability for the products that would definitely help. Also, the big players need to do this because one aspect that plays hand in hand is that if we're more transparent and more traceable and talk about the product, more like talk about the story of creating a product, it increases the perceived value of that product for the customers.

When customers have a bigger value perceived of the product that will definitely help in improving that sustainability aspect and driving the sustainability efforts more because, in the end, the most sustainable thing we can do is not buy new products each and every day but try to keep those as locked for as long as possible that we have and consume more considerate.         
I think increasing that perceived value is one extremely important aspect of it.

Do you have any challenges that you're still trying to solve?

There's a lot of challenges and that makes our lives and our work interesting. That's what drives us daily to face these challenges and try to come up with new solutions for us. 

The big thing that we are addressing is the recyclability because we believe if we can actually create fully circular products, meaning going from a used t-shirt back to a new t-shirt, that is one of the biggest challenges we currently have or where we currently are working with. 

If we can solve that one, there will be huge opportunities in the amount of new raw materials coming into the textile industry.         
And if we can create the circular systems there, then I'm very confident that the textile industry can have a quite bright future inside the circular economy.

How scalable are the researches that you did? 

I think it's absolutely scalable.          
There's textile expertise all over the world and there are different raw materials all over the world that can be leveraged.

Taking the Swiss wool as an example: I don't think we need to produce Swiss wool or jackets made out of Swiss Wolf for the US market, but I'm pretty sure they have raw materials there as well that can be leveraged and that might not be used as much anymore and that can be used for textiles or other products. 

When you talk about traceability and transparency, the developments in the new technologies definitely help in creating that transparency.         
I don't think there are any excuses for any producers out there to say "it's too complex and we're too big" and if you're too big and it's too complex, you're doing something wrong: it's your responsibility to find out where that stuff is coming from and adopt this approach in order to be more transparent and to be more considerate in what you are, what materials you're using and how you put the products together. 

Is absolutely scalable, but it needs to be scalable otherwise we're going to face pretty big problems quite soon if we were not able to change the way we produce and use these kinds of products.

About the author

Dario Grünenfelder

Co-Founder and Head of Brand of Muntagnard, a fashion startup advancing sustainable innovations for the circular economy. 

Background in sustainability consulting and operations. Experienced in environmental economics, sustainable textiles, life cycle analysis, energy & climate change, renewable energies, etc.