14 Oct A vote of confidence towards Portugal’s textile industry
Braz Costa, General Manager, CITEVE, emphasizes on how the industry’s commitment in terms of environmental consciousness has developed over the years
The Portuguese Textile and Clothing Industry is the only European industry to maintain industrial production in an integrated manner and with all active components. This gave Portugal the unique opportunity lay the foundations to supply itself as well as Europe with best in class PPE. Could you give us an overview of how the overall textile sector managed during the COVID-19 pandemic? What was the impact, implications and major initiatives taken to mitigate the effects?
Latin people have a characteristic of being very responsive when crises and difficulties are imposed on our industries. I think that was the situation before COVID-19 in our industry results from the reaction to the difficulties we have in Europe. Over the last decade the evolution of this sector in Portugal has been amazing. We grew more than 50 percent in turnover per employee and more than 50 percent in exports. All of the companies in this sector are family run businesses. Family run businesses have an ability to outlive and outperform other businesses. After the crisis of 2008, we started this evolution based on the determination to keep this sector in Portugal ran by family businesses and based on the capacity to innovate. The aim was to produce bespoke products with complex attributes in order to counter the low-cost manufacturing across the world.
In March orders stopped and companies worked for the last remaining orders till the end the month. The government implemented some lay-off measures to support companies but they preferred to adapt themselves to produce solutions for the healthcare sector. Companies contacted CITEVE saying that they want to collaborate, proposing to produce gowns, masks and gloves. The only problem was that a lot of these companies did not know what the specific requirements were to ensure these new products would be medically certified. Reacting to this, CITEVE started a program to support companies to know what they need to produce medical related PPE and clothing.
Until 2020, masks were not a topic in our research lines, but we decided to combine all the knowledge we had available at that moment. For instance, the filtration of masks traditionally is tested by bacterial filtration. We had no equipment for that, but we came up with a particular analysis. We developed the methods to analyse the capacity of particles retention by a mask using a completely different approach.
At first, the idea was to solve the mask challenge with common textile materials. By mid-April, we had a new challenge because the World Health Organization changed their mind and said that in the future everyone should wear a mask. In Portugal, the government decided to re-open schools, imposing the use of face masks as compulsory for students, teachers or other personnel. Single-use face masks are not the solution and are a problem for sustainability for the planet. The challenge was ‘what kind of material or combination structures can we make in order to secure a high level of filtration and, at same time, enough or better breathability?’. In April, we advised the Portuguese government to publish criteria to produce social masks. From mid-April till the end of July we received fifteen thousand samples to be evaluated. In less than two months, we had some companies producing the best social masks in the world.
Besides the recent interruption in global trade, exports remain the lifeblood of the Portuguese textile industry. With two of Portugal’s main export destinations being severely hit, could you highlight which markets are currently strategically important for Portuguese exports and which destinations hold promise for diversification and why?
Traditionally our main markets were in central Europe. Spain remains the main market for the Portuguese industry, followed by France, Germany and the UK. We also have a market in the US more oriented toward the high-quality home textile industry. Within the last decade we have made a conscious effort to reach new markets. On top of that, within the last five years, high-end brands from France and Italy have started to produce their clothing in Portugal. We have a strong culture of perfection and this is started to be noticed by the outside world. At the same we have the European mindset of respecting delays and specifications and we can contribute with our knowledge to improve the specifications of the design.
Sustainability has become a selling point and a competitive advantage for Portuguese exporting companies. With sustainability a key focus at the level of research, innovation and product development, a lot of this work is spearheaded at CITEVE. What could you share regarding your organisation’s technical capacity and network of R&D centres?
Sustainability has become an important issue and here in Portugal you see a lot of the large players in our industry dedicating a lot of time on this aspect. CITEVE has conducted several programmes to change the mindset of all of the stakeholders in our sector to see sustainability as an asset and a value added. We created a service for companies in the sector to help them to understand the sustainability content of their products and for them to know how to promote this value to their wider market.
In the 90s the textile region in Portugal was one of the most polluted in the country, with our rivers resembling the colours of the dye we used in our production processes and other examples. To combat this, we worked with the authorities and other technological centres to organise the production and use of water in a much more sustainable way. This challenge was reached in one decade. Around 2015, sustainability became mainstream and stopped being only a niche preoccupation for environmentalists and went into the commercial departments of all major brands. This situation was very interesting for CITEVE as internally we have research teams dedicated to materials, textile processes and eco-design.
We want people to know that, as a whole, Portugal is a place to buy increasingly sustainable products. We hold several patents in using elements of the natural world to not only colour our textiles, but to add other elements of functionality. This has not gone without notice, as we have been contacted by stakeholders of the textile industry in other countries to deliver workshops and seminars on our approach to sustainability.
The Portuguese government has decided to create a programme for recuperation and resilience, a programme to support the whole economy to recover from pandemic effects. a remarkable part of the budget for this programme is dedicated to the bio-economy. CITEVE is collaborating with the government to fine tune this programme to better support the textile and clothing sector. I am sure that the bet on science, technology and technology transfer will support the sector to maintain itself as one of the best in terms of sustainability and the circular economy.
What would you say are the main objectives for the CITEVE now in 2020 following the destabilisation due to the pandemic?
CITEVE is now thinking with two brains at the same time. In one brain we are preparing ourselves for uncertainty. We do not know exactly what will happen in the next few weeks influenced by the pandemic. The other brain is oriented to the future. One of the principals is to focus on the bio-economy and also to maintain our work at the highest standards. We are structuring our R&D centres and laboratories to dedicate their work to the direction of up-cycling, recycling and new material development. At the same time, a strong focus is also being placed on digitalisation. The Portuguese textile industry needs to be first movers with the adoption of any new technology in this sector. One of these technologies is automation and the ability to track the lifecycle of a specific garment, using coded tags that can be fed into big data analysis systems to have an even more refined view on the whole of the sector.
Could you provide us with a Final message to the readers of Newsweek?
I want to leave a message from Portugal but also on behalf of the global textile and clothing sector. It is true that the textile and clothing sector is a large contributor to pollution and environmental damage worldwide. However, being in permanent contact with our counterparts from all across the globe I can say that this sector is one of the most committed to change its ways. I am sure that we will continue to make this change. People in this industry is also tuned into the societal changes that surrounds them. We are making the difference.