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Interview with Dr. Andreas Raps

Dr. Andreas Raps
Dr. Andreas Raps
Freudenberg Performance Materials Holding GmbH
Freudenberg Performance Materials Holding GmbH

Our products are high on performance
Freudenberg Performance Materials is a global leader in the manufacture of high-quality technical textiles and nonwovens, serving a diverse range of markets including automotive, healthcare, and construction. With 32 production sites across 14 countries and a workforce of over 5,000, the company excels in delivering innovative and sustainable textile solutions tailored to the specific needs of its international clientele. In an interview with Fibre2Fashion, CEO Dr. Andreas Raps talks about sustainable technologies, innovations, and more.

What are the current global trends in sustainable practices within the apparel and technical textiles industries, and how are they shaping the future of these sectors?

The share of garments containing recyclable or recycled materials is constantly increasing. To avoid greenwashing, sustainability certifications validate compliance with regulations; raw material and product traceability is becoming increasingly important and is partly enforced by legal requirements. 
Further emerging trends include circularity—with pre-consumer and post-consumer waste—and faster and more efficient development cycles through 3D technologies. The latter currently mainly contributes to shorter development lead times and avoids sending physical samples back and forth during the development process, and in the mid- to long-term future, this technology will pave the way for more decentralised production, which means less transport.

In what ways are consumers influencing the push for sustainability in the apparel and technical textiles industries, and how are companies responding to these demands?

Consumers are becoming more and more environmentally conscious and are demanding sustainable solutions from the fashion industry. They want apparel companies to be transparent and are eager to identify greenwashing. The fashion industry responds to this with a constant stream of new capsule collections and innovative product solutions to satisfy consumer needs and to be perceived as a single solutions provider. The level of self-commitment in the fashion industry is very high and the industry’s measures to develop and realise sustainable solutions are in most cases very advanced compared to existing legal requirements.
Regardless of how much consumers push for sustainable products, they are so far not willing to pay more for sustainable solutions. There has been a tremendous increase in the share of consumers demanding the lowest possible prices (and acting accordingly), especially during the current subdued economic conditions.

How can the textile industry balance the demand for high-performance and durable products with the need to reduce environmental impact and promote sustainability?

The demand for high-performance and more durable products is, in fact, good news in terms of sustainability because appreciation of garments increases, and they are worn for much longer. The balance that really needs to be managed is between high-performance and durable products on one side and the higher cost of these products on the other. The willingness of customers and consumers to pay more for sustainable products is still at a much too low level. Developing and producing such garments, however, involves higher costs, especially while overall production numbers are still much smaller than those for regular garments.

What role do renewable resources and recycled materials play in advancing sustainability in the production of apparel and technical textiles?

Currently, recycled materials as well as renewable raw materials are at the core of sustainable fashion development. Key words here are ‘full circularity’ and ‘closed-loop system’. To date, other sources of sustainability, such as biodegradable raw materials, energy- or water-saving materials etc, only play a minor role. Nevertheless, at Freudenberg Apparel, we developed our House of Sustainability with its seven pillars of sustainability for our products. This puts us in a position to provide sustainable solutions for more than 500 of our Apparel products.

What challenges and opportunities do emerging technologies present for enhancing sustainability in the manufacturing processes of apparel and technical textiles?

The most promising developments can currently be observed in projects aiming for full circularity in fashion. Some solutions with pre-consumer waste are advanced, while solutions with post-consumer waste are more complex due to the challenge that mixed materials pose for the recycling process.
To date, less than one per cent of all garments worldwide is recycled. The only viable solution for producing garments which are fully recyclable with no quality loss relates to garments made from 100 per cent polyamide. However, this leads to very high manufacturing costs and correspondingly high prices for the consumer.
Moreover, solutions for collecting used garments and feeding them into a recycling process are not yet available on an industrial scale. This means a long road lies ahead of us, but the direction is clear and the commitment within the industry to find solutions is very high.

How does Freudenberg Performance Materials integrate sustainability principles into the development and manufacturing processes of technical textiles and nonwovens?

For many decades, Freudenberg Performance Materials has been striving to integrate sustainable principles in the manufacturing process and the development of sustainable products.
Today, our House of Sustainability will further foster the integration of sustainable aspects and principles into development and manufacturing processes since it covers the whole internal value chain, and our leaders are committed to reducing our footprint and increasing the handprint of our products.

Can you elaborate on the specific sustainable technologies or practices Freudenberg employs in the production of high-performance nonwovens and technical textiles?

We challenge each technology centre to reach new levels of efficiency by internal benchmarking of our diverse technologies such as Lutradur, Colback, and Evolon. Our spunbond technology has thus reached new levels e.g. regarding web laying. Internal programmes, roadmaps as well as Operational Excellence (OE) projects challenge each production site and foster knowledge exchange. Lighthouse projects are identified and systematically rolled out.
Our internal ‘Be energy efficient’ initiative, or ‘Bee’ for short, lays the foundation for higher energy efficiency through all our main and auxiliary processes within our Business Group and throughout the Freudenberg Group. It has been uncovering energy-saving potential at our production sites since 2020. It focuses on the reuse of heat and cooling by combining heat and cooling sources and sinks, as well as the intensive assessment of the energy flow and its efficient use.

In what ways does Freudenberg Performance Materials ensure that its supply chain partners adhere to your sustainability and social responsibility standards?

It is extremely important to us that our partners also comply with all applicable ethical and environmental standards.
Our Code of Conduct for Suppliers, of course, also covers sustainability and social responsibility. Furthermore, we use Integrity Next and EcoVadis to assess our suppliers regarding related risks and adherence to ESG and sustainable values. In addition, Freudenberg Performance Materials more and more exchanges with suppliers at face-to-face meetings to align on ambitions and targets. With our partners and suppliers, we are increasingly defining and demanding standards with greater specificity and emphasis.

How does Freudenberg Performance Materials contribute to environmental protection and waste management within the technical textiles and nonwoven fabrics industry?

Targets and programmes depicted in roadmaps on diverse footprint topics, such as waste, water and raw material efficiency are in place at corporate, and site level. They are also underway on divisional level. Additionally, Health Safety & Environment as well as OE assessments are used to monitor the status at site level.
Let me give two examples: Through consistent water management in all processes, including circular use, our site in India has excellent water and wastewater efficiency (3 and 0.6 m³/ton 1st grade) for an Apparel site. Our site in Taiwan collects the engineered waste from the processing of our products at customer sites in Southeast Asia and recycles this waste for subsequent reuse in the same products. We are pushing in all market segments to identify similar opportunities in other markets.

How does Freudenberg Performance Materials measure and evaluate the environmental impact of its products throughout their lifecycle, from raw materials to end-of-life?

We ensure compliance with legal requirements such as ESG taxonomy and the EU CSRD and thus assessing Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. In addition, growing market requests trigger the calculation and provision of product carbon footprint and Life Cycle Assessment or Environmental Product Declaration data for our products. We are working on a digital solution for the calculation of those product data in 2024/25 starting with cradle-to-gate data, which is the current industry standard. In the course of the introduction of a digital product passport within the EU, the cradle-to-cradle data will gain more focus in the mid-term. 

As the CEO, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in achieving sustainability within the textile industry, particularly in technical textiles and nonwovens?

This is indeed a complex issue. First of all, it involves our commitment to comply with an increasing number of regulatory requirements, such as ESG, CSDDD, CSRD, ESPR, CBAM, taxonomy and many more. We also need to anticipate of what sustainable products the diverse markets will require in the next 15 to 20 years, along with the continuous upgrade and further development of the relevant technologies for manufacturing the products needed by a future circular and sustainable society. The same is true for our customers and suppliers. This means: We all need to team up within the entire supply and value chain to create synergies and ensure that the industry moves forward together.

Freudenberg Performance Materials places a strong emphasis on social responsibility. How does this commitment manifest in your operations and corporate culture?

At Freudenberg, responsibility for society covers five areas: Sustainability; Health, Safety and Environmental Protection; Corporate Citizenship; Compliance; and Human Rights and Labour. All 5 areas are firmly anchored in Freudenberg’s Values and Principles and closely interlinked.
When it comes specifically to social responsibly, our e² programme is a flagship programme for CSR at Freudenberg. The programme’s goal is to provide people with access to education and employment and to foster environmental protection. It supports a whole raft of social projects—from small local initiatives to complex international programmes. All campaigns are tailored to local requirements, and the involvement of Freudenberg employees is a matter of course—often in their free time.

Could you share examples of how Freudenberg’s sustainable innovations in textiles have directly benefited industries like automotive, construction, or healthcare?

In the automotive industry, recyclable and lightweight solutions are particularly important. Nonwovens are excellently suited for solutions in these areas, and at the same time offer high performance. Our unique multi-layer material for moulded underbody panels and wheel liners enables weight savings of 15 to 40 per cent compared to conventional products. 
When it comes to acoustic requirements in e-mobility, our automotive acoustic pads offer weight savings of more than 20 per cent compared to conventional products. 
As regards automotive seating, our composite nonwoven is made from 100 per cent PET material with no PU foam. It is fully recyclable and has a minimum of 25 per cent recycled content. In addition, we re-use nonwoven waste. A further benefit for customers is that this material prevents leather creasing and enhances the dimensional stability of seat covers. 
Our headliner facing materials are another good example of our sustainable highlights in the automotive industry. These materials are not only used for headliners, but also for trunk liners and seat backs. Compared to composite knitted or foam fabrics, they offer significant weight reduction potential. The materials are 100 per cent recyclable, 100 per cent single origin and have up to 80 per cent recycled content. 
In addition, we see an increasing trend to circularity in the automotive industry. Our mono polymer solutions are well suited to contribute. This is why we are working on programmes to take back pre-consumer waste in the automotive supply chain and to close the loop by feeding it back to our products.
For building applications, one of our highlights is a solution that supports the installation and durability of vegetated green roofs. Our Enka biocarrier is used to pre-grow sedum for such roofs. The biocarrier is made from 100 per cent renewable PLA (polylactic acid). Filled with soil, it provides a strong foothold to root systems, enabling the growth of very lightweight sedum blankets that can be rolled out to provide instant green roofs. Green roofs help counter urban heat, improve stormwater management, and regulate indoor temperatures. 
In the healthcare sector, our M 1714 wound pad component is an example of a sustainable solution that simultaneously delivers on performance. The dressing consists of bio-based fibres and exhibits a smooth wound contact layer. M 1714 has been evaluated for industrial compostability and conforms to ISO 13432. This enables certification of product biodegradability.

Looking ahead, what are Freudenberg Performance Materials’ long-term goals for sustainability in the technical textiles sector, and how do you plan to achieve them?

We plan to halve our carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 or sooner. Furthermore, we are currently defining ambitions and targets for resource efficiency, and subsequently for the circular economy and the sustainable transformation of FPM’s portfolio. 
To achieve carbon neutrality, we have strengthened our approach by moving from a project-driven to strategy-driven sustainability plan with 4 steps to CO2 neutrality: reduction, electrification, green electricity, and carbon gap closure. Every site has a corresponding footprint roadmap that is constantly reviewed, extended, and adapted.

Finally, how does Freudenberg Performance Materials engage with customers, industry partners, and the wider community to promote sustainability and environmental awareness in the apparel and technical textiles markets?

We are convinced that we can only master the transition to a circular and environmentally friendly industry by partnering along the complete value chain, leveraging synergies, and jointly moving forward. We have therefore started a process with several suppliers as well as customers to align ambitions and action fields. We will foster further meetings with suppliers and customers on our sustainability ambitions and potential cooperation fields.
Published on: 03/06/2024

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

This interview was first published in the Jun 2024 edition of the print magazine

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