The European Textile Services Association (ETSA) Congress 2024, was a particularly special event as ETSA celebrated its 30th anniversary and at the same time served up a feast of presentations designed to explore the sector's essential role in shaping a sustainable, green, and digitised economy for the EU and beyond. Delegates gained insights into the EU Green Deal and the Climate Pact, and how they influence the industry, as well as offering an unrivalled opportunity to network with industry leaders, innovators and peers. They also heard of ETSA’s considerable achievements in raising the profile of the industry in the past two years since the last congress was held in Rome.

WIRED FOR SOUND: Elena Lai, secretary general of ETSA, gets ready to welcome delgates to ETSA's 30th anniversary congress in Prague

Elena Lai, secretary general at the European Textile Services Association welcomed delegates followed by opening remarks by ETSA chair Dr Thomas Neyers (Alsco) and the Czech TSA, APAC (Asociace prádelen a cistíren), president Jana Puškácová (ELIS).

Lai said it was her happy duty “to put together a dynamic programme” and thanked everyone for their contribution to the society’s work – national associations “even the North America’s TRSA whose CEO Joe Ricci is here” and suppliers. She also thanked past ETSA chairman Andreas Holzer who held the post from 2020 to 2023 and paid tribute to her predecessor Robert Long, the inaugural secretary general, whose legacy, she says, is ETSA.  

“This congress is more than a meeting—it's a milestone in the textile services industry, marking the intersection of tradition and innovation,” said Lai. ETSA has made its mark in Brussels in its role as Climate Ambassador Textile Care and by its lobbying and working in partnership with its national association members to influence legislation as well as working with stakeholders.

“The textile services industry was not well known in the Brussels bubble but that is changing. We are here, we are making a difference,” said Lai. She explained that there are 16 pieces of important EU legislation coming up including the Eco Design Dossier, PFAS Dossier and the EU Waste Framework Directive, “all hot in the debate at European level. The renewal of ETSA for the Climate Change Ambassadorship, which ETSA has held since 2021, is “because we have an inherently circular business model to share with other sectors. Advocacy on sustainability and circularity and best practice by our members is something we can share”, she said.

A massive boost to raising the profile of the textile care industry in Brussels, which ETSA has been lobbying hard for since its inception, has been its elevation to the top of the sustainability agenda. The circular economy is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal and Europe’s agenda for sustainable growth. Circularity is also one of the six environmental goals of the European Union included in the EU taxonomy and textile care services is more than merely rising to this challenge, pushing ever onwards as it is to increase its embrace of digitalisation, sustainable working and green-ness to reduce its reliance of valuable fossil fuels and reducing water use, thereby making the sector a valuable resource of knowledge and best practice for other industries. It seems Brussels now realises the power and potential influence of the sector.

Former ETSA chairman Andreas Holzer in 2022 explained succinctly the role of textile services, saying: “For decades, textile services have been a product-as-a-service business model, which is key and fundamental to circularity. Longevity of products, localism in the supply chain, repair services and reuse options, as well as resource optimization, are indeed part of the textile service’s DNA. Today, many other sectors are looking at textile services with interest and respect.”* No wonder Brussels is now looking to the sector as an example for others to follow. The wonder to those in the know is, what took them so long?

All this is right up Lai’s street, as she has explained previously. She joined ETSA three years ago relatively fresh to the sector and it was “love at first sight”, and a chance to dive into smart textiles and digital and green transition. “It was important then and even more important now. We work in synergy with all markets. Smart textiles in healthcare, and in the PPE segment is crucial and we play a crucial role in all sectors, including military.”

Lai reckons it is imperative to think out of the box especially as innovators and to take the long vision on everything that relates to smart textile and digitalisation. “We are not old-fashioned nor are we dinosaurs and we are always looking ahead.”

• More reports from ETSA congress will follow on keynote speeches, presentation and panel debates.