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Medanta Is Creating A Greener Future: Sustainable Cotton And A Biodegradable Fabric Under Development

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Photo: BCI/Khaula Jamil

Sustainable cotton is part of Medanta’s inspiration to create a more sustainable textile industry. Medanta has joined the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and is continuously seeking and developing more ecological materials, focusing on more environmentally friendly innovations.

At its worst, cotton farming is a tough game in Pakistan. The conditions are often poor: heat and drought prevail, and a great deal of toxic pesticides are used to protect the harvest.

In Pakistan, around 1.5 million farmers make a living from cotton. To ensure even a modest living, the farmers work in the fields from dawn to dusk. Nevertheless, cotton – or white gold – is a source of wealth mainly for the political elite.

The situation is changing, however, and a group of determined Pakistani women farmers are leading the way. They are part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) standard system for international cotton production. The system was established in 2005 to increase the sustainability of farming and production and improve the farmers’ livelihood.

Sustainable clothes are produced from cotton grown by Almas Parveen, who has become the figurehead for the Pakistani cotton community. Photo: BCI/Khaula Jamil.

One of the role models of the new generation of farmers is 27-year-old Almas Parveen, who runs a nine-hectare sustainable cotton farm in Punjab in Pakistan. She inherited the farm from her father. The farm complies with the Better Cotton standards: the BCI provides farmers with training on lighter cultivation methods that reduce the use of chemicals and fertilisers, as well as saving water.

The BCI also advises the locals on respecting biodiversity and improving working conditions. Parveen says on the BCI website that the more she learned about sustainable farming, the more she wanted to share what she had learned with other farmers. Being a young woman who is determined to make her dreams come true is not easy in a patriarchal country, and Parveen encountered a great deal of opposition at first.

However, because of her persistent work and productive cotton fields, people started paying attention to her. Cotton is a pillar of many small rural communities. The farmers began to realise that they could improve their financial performance and well-being by committing to the BCI programme.

Sustainable cotton improves the world

The Better Cotton Initiative is the world’s largest sustainability programme, with its standards being used in 24 countries. Some of Parveen’s more ecological cotton may actually end up in Finland – and perhaps even in fabrics made by Medanta for work clothes.

Medanta, a manufacturer of high-quality and antibacterial work clothes, joined the BCI in 2019. Medanta is the world’s first manufacturer of lightweight work clothes to join the BCI programme – and the third Finnish member company after Marimekko and S Group.

“Farmers like Parveen are wonderful examples of how the BCI sustainability programme can make global cotton production better for producers, the environment and the future of the industry as a whole,” say Medanta’s owners Anu Kivelä, CEO, and Taina Steiner, Director of Design and Production.

The BCI’s goal for 2020 is that 30% of the world’s cotton will come from its farmers and that 5 million farmers will participate in the programme.

“There is no good business without sustainability,” say Kivelä and Steiner.

All raw materials are traceable

Established in 2008, Medanta is primarily known as a producer of innovative work clothes for the healthcare and catering sectors. The company has 19 employees, and its net sales are growing rapidly.

Because of this growth, Anu Kivelä and Taina Steiner wanted to create an ambitious sustainability programme for the company, although sustainability has been part of its DNA from the beginning.

“Sustainable development is one of our core values. It’s important to us that our operations and supply chains are transparent. The cotton used in our clothes is sustainable BCI cotton, and we are able to track accurately what proportion of the polyester in our fabrics is recycled and what proportion is new, for example,” Kivelä explains.

“You must not make promises that you cannot keep. You must be able to look at yourself in the mirror and go to sleep with a good conscience. I would even go so far as to say that successful business is not possible without sustainability,” says Steiner.

“As a member of the BCI, we can have an impact on the entire cotton market. By using cotton from farmers committed to the programme, we can support not only their families, but also the journey towards a more pollution-free world.” Photo: BCI

Sustainable clothes last for years

Medanta’s sustainability begins at the designer’s desk: the functionality and durability of clothes is being improved continuously while also minimising fabric waste.

“Our choice of raw materials is based on sustainability thinking. Clothes must withstand industrial washing in high temperatures and retain their colour. High quality enables textiles to be used longer and burdens the environment less,” Kivelä explains.

The fashion industry has been subject to a heated debate on sustainability recently. With major brands launching up to 12 collections per year, it’s clear that a large number of clothes are left unsold. People are also used to everything being available on the shelves right away.

“We have even had to explain to our customers that we design our fabrics from scratch, beginning with the raw materials – which takes a while. We only manufacture clothes in accordance with need. Our clothes easily retain their high quality for up to four years, even in hard use,” says Steiner.

“We use sustainable farming and production methods, and our logistics are also sustainable: all our materials manufactured in Asia are transported to Europe by train, which is currently the most ecological freight option.”

Kivelä points out that the most significant environmental impacts of clothes arise from washing and maintenance. More than 70 million kilos of textile waste is generated in Finland each year. However, work clothes burden the environment considerably less than fashion products.

“The carbon footprint of industrial washing is significantly smaller than that of washing clothes at home. Industrial washing saves water, energy and detergent considerably compared with a home washing machine. Our antimicrobial fabrics don’t need washing after every incident. Instead, splashes can be wiped off a shirt in the kitchen, for example. Our fabrics dry quickly and without wrinkling, with no need to use a tumble dryer or an iron.”

A biodegradable fabric and smart clothes under development

Medanta’s fabrics come from factories in China and Europe that produce all the energy they need. The factories have their own wastewater treatment plants, and they recycle used water. They also have environmentally friendly recycling processes for all chemicals, such as dye.

Taina Steiner and Anu Kivelä have visited the factories numerous times, and Matteo Vallarsa, an Italian textile engineer, has helped them find the highest-quality fabric manufacturers and the newest technologies. Vallarsa has worked for Medanta since 2017.

Steiner describes Vallarsa as a pioneer of the textile industry and a walking databank who is continuously looking for the most sustainable innovations and production methods in the field.  Vallarsa also cooperates with Hugo Boss, Armani, Diesel and Benetton, among other brands.

“For example, we decided to join the BCI programme after a discussion with Matteo. We were thinking about our options together, beginning with whether we should stop using cotton, and we compared various raw materials. We were impressed with the transparency and coverage of the BCI: when we pay for partnership, we know how the money is used,” says Kivelä.

Textile engineer Matteo Vallarsa and Medanta’s Taina Steiner and Anu Kivelä visited Suunto’s factory in Vantaa. Their tour was hosted by Kimmo Pernu, Design Manager at Suunto. “Together, we are developing a next-generation smart sensor integration into work clothes.”

Medanta is continuously developing and looking for new textiles made of recycled materials. In 2019, the company launched the environmentally friendly Eco Denim fabric. The fabric is made from plastics collected from the sea and nature and sustainable BCI cotton.

“All the production plants we use have OEKO-TEX certification and ISO quality and environmental certification, and they comply with the guidelines of the International Labour Organization on occupational health and safety, labour and working conditions. We are also participating in several development projects to find a sustainable solution for recycling,” say Kivelä and Steiner.

Materials under research and product development include a biodegradable fibre resulting from the processing of plastic granulates and resin.

“We hope that this invention can be commercialised as soon as possible. It would be great if it became possible, over the next few years, to bury work clothes in the ground at the end of their life cycle. With the current resources, this is as green as the textile industry can become. For us, this is not just a dream. It’s also a realistic goal.”