Influencing change

20 September 2023

Industrial laundry is one of the most important infrastructures in modern societies, with a wealth of unique values and fantastic messages that we keep well hidden and fail to use. Steen Søgaard explains how we can open up to the wider world in part two of a three part series

Why bother finding answers to difficult questions such as, for example, why we continue to wash textiles in precious drinking water? It is convenient to appeal to the individual heavy-duty laundry (HDL) to save water, but it is not a solution to a problem created by the system under which the HDL exists. It is equivalent to giving every inhabitant of a country a gun and a couple of boxes of cartridges – men, women, children, rich, poor, all races and creeds – and telling them not to shoot anyone.

If systemic problems are to be solved, it requires initiative, simultaneity and persistence, either through legislation or through cooperation, and when legislation fails to take the initiative, we either have to hope that our children will fix it or we have to work together to solve the problems now. The greater the insight, influence, abilities and resources, the greater the responsibility. A doctor does not walk past a man bleeding in the street, but responds.

As an industry, operator or supplier, we have insight, influence, abilities and resources, and we are part of the reason why the man is bleeding, so we have a great deal of responsibility, too. Better go ahead and get credit and respect for it, than to stand by or be labelled as cold, disrespectful exploiters. We cannot, for all sorts of serious and urgent reasons, allow ourselves to be indifferent and walk past the problem.

Conditions of existence

It is a condition of existence for modern laundry operations that it is not particularly attractive to work there. You don’t build cathedrals in the laundries, you haul stones, despite the fact that our industry is about recycling, one of the hottest, current, relevant, low-practical and implementable systemic solutions that exists, and which is breaking news in other industries. One may wonder – have we come to a standstill, have we not been good enough to explain who we are and what we do? Or is our story only half good and that’s why we close the doors quietly? Are we good in terms of recycling; bad in terms of values, environmental impact, working conditions and human outlook?

We could tell the story as it is, about our recycling and important societal functions, focus on the best laundries’ inspiring solutions to some of the many cultural, social, religious, language and educational challenges that characterise our industry, that others of the multicultural society areas are still looking for solutions to – and work together to improve some of what makes our industry a not-only-good story.

Raise the bar

If we could do that, it would raise the bar quite a bit, and if we want to help solve some of the problems the world is facing,, it is necessary This, in turn, would give us – the industry – the opportunity to become part of the solution to some of the difficult climate and pollution problems, instead of contributing further to the problem. It would make us part of the solution, insted of adding to the pollution.

It takes courage, because it opens up a wide range of questions, not the easy ones about how a machine works, but the difficult ones about why it works the way it does – such as why do we wash in drinking water? Why? When large parts of the world depend on clean clothes and lack drinking water, at the same time?

If you ask some of the middle managers in our industry, they express complacency. It’s going well, the profit margins are big enough, the technologies are developing fantastically. At a meeting of a European industry association regarding the question of reducing the laundries’ environmental impact, one of the participants replied: “Why bother? We have a return on equity of 30%.” One of the industry’s own made an update on LinkedIn about a new feeder on an ironer line during the latest trade fair in Frankfurt: “The rate of improvements”, he wrote enthusiastically, “is exponential.”

Perhaps it is not so much the speed of the feeders, but a whole layer of new technologies that can protect the environment and future generations from the effects of the existing technologies. Given the penetration of HDLs to all strata of all societies in all countries, given the crucial role HDLs play to modern living standards, and given the relatively large footprint that HDLs leave on the planet, we have, as an industry, a unique opportunity.

Price is key

The guys from the industry meeting and the fair in Frankfurt are not caricatures. They are real people, expressing concrete, sincere attitudes. The industry’s ambition is to increase feeding speed and to make more money. This makes the price of washing a key parameter, as we also experience it, which puts pressure on the costs, which in HDLs mainly consist of wages, and then the pressure ends on the employees, our fellow human beings.

Therefore, the HDLs employ some of the least educated and most socially vulnerable people in our society. There are employers in the industry who force employees to become self-employed, so that the laundry gets rid of insurance, pensions, sick pay, notice of termination and everything else that expresses that we live in the 21st century. A kind of UberWash.

You don’t need to be able to speak the local language in an HDL, which is reflected in the diversity of ethnicities and languages among the HDLs’ employees. In one European HDL, 70% of the employees have other ethnic backgrounds and one of the European laundry groups employs 58 different nationalities. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring that they make it work. On the other hand, they don’t do it out of altruism, but because there are no other options, so it is a fairly obvious expression of a condition of existence in the industry. At one of the laundries in Berlin, every morning they drive 110 women and five men in from Poland in buses, and back again in the afternoon, because to them the low wages are perfectly fine. Only a few of the women speak German. The men drink their breakfast.

What if we tried?

A few years ago, one of the industry’s best and heaviest leaders set out to try to create the kind of collaboration that could move an entire industry in a greener direction. Strongly admirable, wildly exciting, deeply frustrating, hugely inspiring. It didn’t work out, but it turned out that we were able to create a catalogue of emerging technologies. The project concreted over some of the most difficult questions, but at the same time it uncovered some paradoxical and radical technological possibilities.

During the project itself, and in its wake, we found, among other things, that it is possible to:

  • Produce tunnel washers with enhanced mechanical action that can reduce chemical consumption by 50% and the washing time also by 50%, at the same time.
  • Reduce textile losses to a fraction by automatically sorting the soiled clothes and keeping track of the stocks, without need for RFIDs technology.
  • Make ironer lines that dynamically regulate the ironing speed, depending on the residual moisture in the textiles, in order to avoid running too slowly, too hot, melting the polyester and ruining the textiles.
  • Recycle excess energy, instead of discharging it into the environment.

Will it happen?

We also found that significant changes in technologies require significant changes in manufacturing processes, which make existing factories obsolete before they are depreciated. You can’t make cars in a bicycle factory, and you don’t write off an entire factory just because R&D has come up with a new model. This creates not only friction in the face of technological leaps, but walls.

Imagine what we would be able to achieve if the industry stood together, used our general assemblies to make decisions and find resources, brought our best people together across borders, disciplines and organisational boundaries, and tasked them, not to make more money, but to find solutions to some of the biggest of our HDLs’ environmental problems. And told the story. It would consolidate our role in modern societies, make industrial washing instrumental in rolling out hygiene standards and increasing living standards in developing and rebuilding countries, lower the climate footprint of societies and make us proud of the industry.

Naive? Well, it’s certainly not going to happen. Business operations are based on relatively simple and invariable principles: ownership, patents, EBITDA, share prices and bonuses, and none of that motivates companiues to do anything together for the common good or future generations. It would require us to start thinking round instead of square, create new frameworks, new ways of prioritising, working together, organising, financing, producing, rolling out.

Impossible? No, it is neither technologically, economically, legally nor practically impossible. The world has never had more resources, better technologies or greater knowledge at its disposal, or been more threatened by setbacks from nature. It’s probably just inconvenient, reduces profits.

In 1997, the late Steve Jobs of Apple fame said: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

If only there was a place on the globe where the need for new laundries was big enough for 200 production sites to drive development of a new concept of laundry building, supplies, and technologies, it could be an opportunity to try it out.

We’ll have a look at that in the next article (November).

Image Credit: Ibrahim Rifath
Image Credit: Raja Vijayaraman
Image Credit: Olivier Mesnage

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