Standardised rules for manufacturers of sustainable PPE
Standardised rules for manufacturers of sustainable PPE
Interview with Henk Vanhoutte, secretary general, and Lucia Medori, chair, sustainability working group, European Safety Federation (ESF)
Achieving sustainability is the goal of many companies. To achieve this, however, certain requirements must be met. On the one hand, they should guarantee that consumers can rely on the manufacturer's safety specifications. On the other hand, the requirements placed on PPE should be the same for all manufacturers and be achievable. The European Safety Federation is working to implement this goal within the EU.
What is the purpose of your working group?
Lucia Medori: In the working group on sustainability by the European Safety Federation (ESF), we're trying to have a better understanding of sustainability standards and requirements for the sector of PPE. The working group helps to spot the challenges but also opportunities of new European legislation around sustainability. It also helps to understand where the industry and the national associations are going in terms of improving the sustainability of PPE. With this superordinated European legislation, we can avoid 27 European member states all legislating differently.
Henk Vanhoutte: The great thing about the Federation is that we can inform members about the possible impact of future legislation for their business and that we can advise them in terms of including sustainability aspects and product standards to their business. For us it's important to understand which standards are applicable for them and how we can include different important aspects in the standards without being too restrictive. The last thing that standards want to do is to hinder innovation. It's always about finding the balance between the standards and keeping the product's performance high.
Which sustainability aspects can be applied in the PPE sector?
Medori: At our work on sustainability at ESF, we are looking at some sustainability aspects more than others. We as an industry are looking at how circularity principles and sustainability aspects in the products can still allow PPE to remain safe for people using it. The employees' safety remains to be number one priority for the industry. Some aspects are not very suitable to PPE, for example, when it comes to reusability or recycling of contaminated PPE – that is not possible. It really depends for which use the PPE is made.
Vanhoutte: There is no black and white or one-fits-all answer on that question. PPE is a big range of very different products: it's ear plugs, but also firefighter garments and everything in between. This means we don't just have to take the product itself into account, but also its use when talking about sustainability. So, depending on the product, some aspects might be more important than others. And that makes it, of course, very difficult.
The protection offered by the products is the priority number one – if it's impossible to guarantee the protection level because you're using recycled contents, then don't use recycled content. It's as simple as that.
Not every material works for every occasion. Can you give an example of how sustainability can be implemented when designing PPE?
Vanhoutte: It depends on the type of protection you're looking for. For instance, if you're talking about high visibility clothing, then the color is the determining factor. With that in mind, you can look at if you can reach that with recycled contents in the product. Surely, that is feasible. But on the other hand, if you're talking about flame retardant clothing, it's more difficult to obtain this property with recycled contents. Recycled contents will always be limited. Still, there are certain fields of application where they can be used.
Medori: But when thinking of sustainability, we can also take the packaging into account. It does have a very important impact on the environmental footprint of the final product. Trying to make the packaging more circular will definitely help to meet some sustainability aspects.
Our working group members have already started their progress with their individual plans and strategy on sustainability, specifically on the product circularity and reduction of the environmental impact, but also on tackling greenwashing. For example, BASF from UK issued a code of conduct regarding green claims. It's setting common rules for its suppliers. Some other members are already working on improving packaging, circularity and social responsibility aspects. They also reported the use of renewable electricity in their plants.
You've talked about the impact on the industry. What are the challenges for the industry if specific guidelines do come?
Vanhoutte: The legislators have to see that rules for conventional clothing cannot automatically apply for PPE as well. When people think about textiles, they think about garments – just as in conventional clothing. But textiles in PPE are more than that: it's also a good part of gloves, a good part of footwear, of harnesses or even helmets – there's almost no PPE that does not contain some sort of textiles. As PPE and conventional clothing work completely differently, we have to make sure that the general rules, like 30 or 40 percent of the content of textile products has to be made of recycled material, do not apply to PPE automatically. Right now, the biggest challenge for the industry is to make sure that the legislation takes the particularities of PPE into account.
That said, it doesn't mean that there are no possibilities for sustainability to be implemented. Companies are making a lot of effort to do so. Sustainability is not only a matter of the PPE itself, but also packaging, transport and so on. Companies are looking more into their supply chains and elements such as the energy consumption of the production. All those elements are taken into account and are being worked on.
Medori: I totally agree. We know legislators are looking out mostly to make textiles more circular for obvious reasons, because the fast fashion industry has a massive impact on society and the environment. But it's important to differentiate between the textile and other kinds of textile PPE.
The main challenge for the industry is to navigate the new Green Deal initiative requirements whilst accepting PPE as a standalone category. PPE and conventional clothing cannot meet the same protection requirements.