Case Study

Basics First: C&A's Safe, Certified and Compostable T-shirt

Introducing the world’s first line of T-shirts Cradle to Cradle Certified™ at the Gold level from C&A. 

For C&A, a T-shirt is more than just a garment; it can also be a call to action. In June 2017, the Belgium- and Germany-headquartered retailer released the world’s first line of T-shirts to be Cradle to Cradle Certified™ at the Gold level, demonstrating a “positive ecological and social level never before seen for a fashion garment,” the company said. Available in two styles for women and 17 different colors, the shirts were designed with the aim of furthering the circular economy, where products are designed to be reused or recycled rather than tossed in a landfill.

To accomplish this feat, C&A collaborated with C&A Foundation, the environmental consulting firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), and Fashion for Good to develop the shirts based on the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s principles of human and environmental health, material reutilization, renewable energy use, carbon management, water stewardship and social justice.

The retailer wanted to prove that it was possible to create an accessibly priced yet rigorously sustainable garment, said Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer at C&A Global. As the largest volume buyer of organic cotton globally, C&A saw the move as the “logical next step in our leadership position on sustainable materials.”

What the industry really needs is for other brands to consider that Cradle to Cradle certification is really one of the most well-thought-through, holistic, third-party, peer-reviewed standards for the circular economy. 

Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer at C&A Global

By promoting cyclability, the shirts illustrate the “possibility by which we can transform what is currently a take-make-waste industry to one that is regenerative and closed loop,” said Jay Bolus, president of certification services at MBDC, which helped align the production of the garments to Cradle to Cradle standards.

With that in mind, the T-shirts use only materials that are considered safe for cycling as biological nutrients. They can even be composted at home at the end of their useful lives, bypassing the municipal environments that most compostables require. Tossed onto a compost pile, a single T-shirt can return to healthy soil in about 12 weeks, Hogue said.

“Composting is a very common municipal practice in Europe, but we are advocating something different,” he said. “If you’re not able to donate the T-shirt, and your only option is waste disposal, you have one additional option, which is to put it into your home composting bin.”

Few items of clothing are as simple as the T-shirt, but divvy it up into its constituents and the picture grows more complex. Sourcing the base material—100 percent Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)–certified organic cotton—was only the first step. “We had to find a color palette of dyes that were at least Gold level Certified for material health,” Hogue said. “Most of the T-shirts that you find in the market are sewn together with polyester or nylon thread, so we had to find a really strong, high-quality certified organic cotton thread to stitch the garment together.”

Even small details like the care label you find on most garments had to be considered. Most of those are derived from polyester, which is petroleum-based. “So we had to do some development and testing on the use of a 100 percent shell-fabric-based label that could be printed on,” Hogue said.

To manufacture the shirts, C&A turned to two established suppliers: Pratibha Syntex, a Fair Trade–certified facility in Central India, and Cotton Blossom, a green-powered factory in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Both factories, Hogue noted, have long-standing commitment to workers’ rights and environmentally sustainable manufacturing.

Howie Fendley, director of projects and a senior chemist at MBDC, worked with the factories to remove any dyes with potentially toxic characteristics, such as halogenated organic molecules and skin sensitizers.

“Dye molecules that had a carbon and chlorine bond were things that we wanted to avoid in the event that the shirts ever were incinerated,” Fendley said. “If they ever got into the wrong stream and ended up getting burned, we didn't want a source of chlorine.”

For Fendley, the Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold level T-shirts were groundbreaking, not just in terms of their regenerative properties, but their economy, as well. “Any time you get to Cradle to Cradle Gold in any product, it's an achievement, but it’s sometimes a little bit easier for a product that you sell at a premium,” he said. “In this case the Certified Gold T-shirts are cost-equivalent to non–Cradle to Cradle ones, which I think is a really fantastic and amazing achievement.”

Essentially anyone can take our recipe and do the same exact thing we've done; we've given them all the answers achieving, down to all the materials by product name and where to get them—everything

Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer at C&A Global

Project-wise, C&A is in it for the long haul, Hogue said, hinting at expanded collections in the future. “We’re committed to Cradle to Cradle Certified™ products for the long term,” he said. “We humbly started with T-shirts because it's the most iconic fashion item that you can think of. It’s also one of the simpler fashion items, and it allowed us to learn and move toward more complex products or products constructed with multiple components.   

Would everything in C&A’s product line be eventually certified? The shirts are a start, said Hogue. Expanding the range of Cradle to Cradle–certified materials would certainly accelerate the process, as would greater collaboration within the fashion industry.

“What the industry really needs is for other brands to consider that Cradle to Cradle certification is really one of the most well-thought-through, holistic, third-party, peer-reviewed standards for the circular economy,” he added.

And C&A, at least, is doing its part to usher a circular future. It has made public the T-shirt project’s bill of materials, supplier list and best practices in the “Good Fashion Guide” at the Fashion for Good website.

“Essentially anyone can take our recipe and do the same exact thing we've done; we've given them all the answers achieving, down to all the materials by product name and where to get them—everything,” Hogue said. “This demonstrates our commitment to see Cradle to Cradle move further in the apparel industry.”

Cradle to Cradle Certification

The Cradle to Cradle Certification process guides designers and manufacturers through a continual improvement process that looks at a product through five quality categories—material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness. A product receives an achievement level in each category—Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum—with the lowest achievement level representing the product’s overall mark.

Optimization Results for the C&A T Shirt

Material Health
Challenge: Some dyes had to be eliminated because they had potentially toxic characteristics
Optimization: All dyes and process chemicals were assessed on 22 human and ecological health criteria. Skin sensitizers and halogenated organic molecules were eliminated from the bill of materials, resulting in Cradle to Cradle Platinum level Certification™ for material health.
Material Reutilization
Challenge: T-shirts typically use polyester- and nylon-based threads and care labels, which will not degrade into biological nutrients.
Optimization: C&A sourced one nutrient stream made entirely of durable certified organic-cotton fabric, threads and biocompatible care levels. C&A let customers know they can either take unwanted shirts to textile collection points or send them to the Fashion for Good Centre for use in chemical recycling pilots.
Water Stewardship
Challenge: Both manufacturers use low-impact dyes and chemicals. It also has a zero-discharge system that recycles 100 percent of its water.
Optimization: No changes were necessary.
Renewable Energy
Challenge: Both manufacturers have invested in a slew of energy-efficient strategies, including solar and wind.
Optimization: The facilities purchased additional renewable-energy credits and carbon offsets to meet target criteria.
Social Fairness
Challenge: Both manufacturers make workers’ rights a priority, supplying on-site medical services, temporary housing when needed, and financial training for women.
Optimization: No changes were necessary.