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Italian fabric makers turn dirty secret into marketing weapon

Wool producers in the city of Prato have long used scraps to produce fabric more cheaply. Once taboo, the practice may now attract an eco-friendly clientele, saving the industry from tough Chinese competition.

A basket overflowing with dirty laundry

The town of Prato has decided to air its dirty laundry

For decades, the small industrial city of Prato in Tuscany has produced some of the finest wool textiles in the world - all the while hiding a dirty secret.

But now, hard hit by low-cost textiles produced in China, Prato has dug the skeleton out of its closet and turned it into a powerful marketing weapon.

"The production of the reprocessed wool comes from scraps that come from the manufacturing of garments," Romeo Balli explained to Deutsche Welle.

Nowadays, with attention focused on eco-friendly manufacturing practices, this process is garnering attention for Balli's fabrics.

Saving scraps

A mother sheep with a lamb

Recycling wool scraps conserves resources

Balli's factory has carried the family name since it was founded by his grandfather in 1946. It was once part of a thriving textile industry in Prato that produced high quality wool fabric. Back then, as today, most of the textiles were made from left-over wool scraps.

According to Balli, this doesn't mean a drop in quality, but does make manufacturing less expensive. "We can find nice quality, divide it by color, quality, and it's much easier and cheaper," he said.

Not only is the process cheaper, it's also more environmentally friendly. Prato's Chamber of Commerce is now trying to capitalize on this fact to give its industry a boost.

According to Carlo Longo, who heads the Chamber of Commerce, it's ironic the recycled wool is now a selling point, given how for decades Prato industries hid the fact.

"Nobody was admitting that [we recycled scraps]. We were trying to do it, but hiding it," he said.

"Now it's become a reason to be proud, because we're not depleting the world's resources, so it's a good thing."

Old product, new brand

Longo is part of an initiative geared toward reducing the carbon footprint of textile production, which certifies companies that use regenerated or recycled raw materials.

Prato's Chamber of Commerce has dubbed the regenerated wool "Cardato," hoping consumers will seek out the eco-friendly product.

Sweaters on sale in a Beijing department store

Italian wool manufacturers face steep competition from China

"We have branded it and are launching it again," Longo said. "There's now a lot of attention to these kinds of products."

It's also economically advantageous. With cheaply produced wool fabrics being exported from China, Prato's five billion-euro ($6.6 billion) export industry has lost half its business in the last decade.

Textile producers like Romeo Balli say the reprocessed wool not only gives Prato an eco-friendly advantage, but also provides cheaper and more stable prices.

According to Balli, the difference in price between virgin and reprocessed wool can be between 30 and 40 percent.

Those savings could ensure the survival of Prato's textile industry, especially at a time when Balli believes Chinese producers are stockpiling virgin wool - causing prices to shoot up around the world.

Author: Megan Williams (dl)

Editor: Rob Turner

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