Welcoming a true hero and pioneer of sustainability in manufacturing, water and energy at WEX Global 2019

Don’t miss out on Albin’s Keynote presentation in March

We are delighted to welcome Albin Kaelin to WEX Global 2019, a true hero and pioneer of sustainability in manufacturing, water and energy and now CEO of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency in Switzerland.

Albin Kaelin is a name synonymous with Swiss innovation and the Cradle to Cradle® concept in sustainable development. From his time as president of a textile mill to his recent achievements as CEO of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), Kaelin has pioneered ecological and sustainable manufacturing.

Between 1981 and 2004, Kaelin was Managing Director at Rohner Textil AG near St Gallen in Switzerland, a manufacturer renowned for high-end upholstery design. Besides the usual productivity and waste emission problems facing textile mills at the time, Kaelin also had the added challenge of a factory sited in a historical, turn-of-the-20th-century building and a locality sensitive to the noise generated by his milling machines.

While many other European textile mills were destined for closure against rising competition in Asian countries, Rohner Textil AG continued to thrive with Kaelin at the helm. It was his environmental ideology and willingness to innovate that would set him apart from his competitors and take the business into the 21st century.

The company required new equipment to make gains in productivity, as well as meet the standards for newly-introduced environmental regulations on emissions. The management board saw an opportunity to take advantage of location-specific tax concessions; the allowance for depreciation of capital related to environmental investments enabled Rohner Textil AG to include such investments in its annual budgets. A way forward had been found, but the company still needed added investment to boost enthusiasm for its environmentally-aligned production aims.

Thanks to Kaelin’s leadership, the mill’s reputation had garnered the interest of office furniture giant Steelcase Corporation. Their textile division Designtex were in search of environmentally-responsible fabrics and it was through their then-vice president Susan Lyons, that Kaelin was introduced to green-designer William McDonough.

The meeting was a timely one. With the rising costs of water and wastewater treatment and electricity at the mill, Kaelin needed a solution that benefitted both the manufacturer and the environment. Additionally, strict environmental regulations had classified Rohner Textil AG’s offcuts as toxic waste, and Kaelin was facing expensive costs of exporting the waste material to Spain for disposal, or to nearby incinerators in Switzerland. It had always been his hope that such trimmings could be made safe enough to send to farms and local gardens to be used as mulch – a cradle to cradle concept.

The sentiment appealed to McDonough, who likewise desired a manufacturing process that did not diminish the quality of the materials involved. Though Designtex initially asked for fabric produced from cotton and recycled PET plastic bottles, McDonough highlighted the unsustainability of including plastic in the finished textile. Such material couldn’t be returned to the earth like Kaelin’s “mulch for the farmers”.

McDonough enlisted the help of his partner Professor Michael Braungart, who investigated the hazardous properties of constituent chemicals in fabrics, consulting one of the only industries who allowed him access to their books: Ciba-Geigy (now BASF). The plan was for Kaelin’s mill to use chemicals that were ecologically safe. Out of 8000 chemicals analysed, 16 were selected for their safety and appropriacy in the manufacturing process. Instead of producing something which contained raw materials that degraded with each cycle and recycle, Kaelin worked with McDonough and Braungart to produce the first internationally-recognised Cradle to Cradle® textile: Climatex®. The product would generate over a third of Rohner Textil AG’s revenue by 2002 and Kaelin got his wish for mulchable scraps – the offcuts could be rendered to a felt-like material and sent to nearby farms and gardens for composting.

Not only that, but when Swiss inspectors came to assess the waste emissions at Rohner Textil AG, their measurements recorded the waste water as being as clean as the water entering the mill! It had essentially been filtered by the manufacturing processes at the facility. True to McDonough’s maxim, Kaelin’s mill had become “not just less bad, but good”.

Through this successful collaboration, Kaelin developed innovative milling techniques that resulted in more flexible production, in turn improving the working environment at his facility by removing the need for storage for hazardous chemicals and waste, eliminating regulatory paperwork and reducing production overheads. These developments also helped conserve the circa-1911 building in which the mill was located and reduced factory noise output, making for a happier neighbourhood.

Kaelin’s involvement in Rohner Textil AG’s environmentally-conscious and innovative manufacturing earned the mill no less than 19 international design awards during the 1990s and his mill was also awarded a European Eco-tex certification for its ecologically-produced textiles.

In 2001, Kaelin was awarded the UBS Key Trophy for “Rhine Valley Entrepreneur of the Year” and in the same year, supported DesignTex’s decision to allow the entire textile industry to have the formula for their ground-breaking Cradle to Cradle® processes. Kaelin’s company wrote a letter to all members of the Association for Contract Textiles, inviting them to apply the Cradle to Cradle® concepts. The sentiment was all about “leadership, not ownership” and this ethos still holds sway today.

Between 2005 and 2009, Kaelin was appointed by Professor Braungart as the CEO of EPEA International Umweltforschung in Hamburg, and later the CEO of EPEA Nederland.

In 2009, Kaelin left his positions with EPEA Hamburg and Nederland and founded EPEA Switzerland GmbH. EPEA believes in achieving environmental sustainability through production in a closed loop cycle. By incorporating the 1992 Hannover Principles defined by McDonough and Braungart, the organisation encourages environment protection on a global scale, working with businesses and organisations to move towards a circular economy.

Kaelin and his team continue to work internationally to consult on and accredit Cradle to Cradle® certification, helping to define and develop cyclable products for a truly sustainable economy. Their goal is to educate and inspire companies using the Cradle to Cradle® principle, considering economic, ecological and social issues at all stages of a product’s life cycle, from design to manufacturing to waste management and ‘upcycling’.

With the European Union’s recent publication in Brussels of an action plan towards a circular economy among its member countries and beyond, EPEA’s role in disseminating the Cradle to Cradle® concept is more crucial than ever.

To meet Albin and discuss circular economy strategy in water and energy with global leaders, please book your place at WEX Global Summit today here