For two years now, C&A has been making jeans in Europe again. This is proving to be no mean feat: in a German factory, the company is banking on automation and innovative production techniques to bring a sustainable and affordable collection to market.
No environmental footprint
C&A closed its last ‘old’ German factory in 2004 and subsequently moved its textile production largely to Bangladesh, the cheapest country in the world for the fashion industry. However, the fashion company is now retracing its steps: the FIT Factory in Mönchengladbach (standing for “Factory for Innovation in Textiles”) is a first test of bringing fashion production closer to home again, as part of the brand’s sustainability strategy. The site opened in autumn 2021 and RetailDetail was allowed to take a look behind its usually closed doors.
With a combination of European materials, renewable energy, sustainable production methods and shorter transport routes, C&A aims to make jeans here without an environmental footprint: “Forever denim”. The choice of jeans is not accidental: “The production of jeans is very polluting and you reach a wide target group. The classic ‘five-pocket model’ allows for flexible production”, general manager Hans-Uwe Gansfort explains.
C&A chose an old machine production site with a “vintage” feel, near the centre of Mönchengladbach. It now employs 85 people from fourteen different nationalities – highlighting the fact that FIT is also a social project that gives vulnerable groups opportunities in the labour market. A capacity of 2,000 trousers per day was the initial ambition, but due to various challenges, the factory currently achieves 1,200 trousers per day.
Producing denim in an ecological way is far from easy: C&A starts here with sustainable fabric from Italy, with 20 to 30 % recycled fibres and at least 70 % organic cotton. Every roll is different in terms of shrinkage behaviour and colour shade, meaning that C&A constantly has to adjust the patterns. Not only the fabric and the labels (both from Italy), but also the other components of the trousers come from Europe: pockets from Germany, buttons and rivets from Germany, zips from Poland, yarn from Hungary and Romania.
The company has to rely heavily on digitisation and automation to keep costs under control in this factory, as labour costs in Germany do not compare to those in Asia, and the brand does want to keep its sustainable jeans affordable. To achieve a natural-looking hue, for example, the trousers are lasered – a very different process from in Bangladesh, where each trouser leg is manually processed with sand paper.
Next door to the FIT Factory is the 140 Fahrenheit laundry, which washes and dries trousers in an ecological way – not exclusively for C&A, but also for other customers. This is done in special washing machines with ecological bleaching agents. The laundry came up with sustainable alternatives to classic “stone washing” and residual heat from the dryers is used to preheat the water of the washing machines. The company itself has developed a unique concept where waste water is treated and reused, says managing partner Felix Holtgrave. We are not allowed to photograph that installation, though: it is an industrial secret.
The products have been in shops across Europe since last year. For now, the sustainable trousers represent only 2 % of total jeans sales at C&A, Gansfort admits, but of course the ambition is to scale that up further.
The brand is therefore deliberately keeping the Forever Denim collection accessible: with a retail price of 59.99 euros, the trousers are only 20 euros more expensive than the “regular” jeans collection, and thus very affordable compared to the well-known jeans brands. With the project, C&A wants not only to raise consumer awareness, but also to take the entire fashion industry in tow towards a more sustainable fashion industry.