COVID-19 generated diversification exercises
The Market - MU Sustainable Innovation

According to Euratex, the European Textile and Clothing Association, the effects of COVID 19 on the fashion system will be severe. 80% of the companies surveyed by the Association were cutting staff in March, more than half expected sales and production to drop by over 50% percent, while 1 in 4 companies was evaluating the ability to close businesses. Producing and selling fashion in a quarantined world is a tricky business.


Can the exploration of new markets and production diversification be an opportunity for salvation and revitalization of these severely hit companies? The hundreds of Italian businesses that started or plan to begin producing face masks and protective clothing for health personnel think so. The gesture of generosity is dictated by the desire to help but is also an industrial diversification exercise aimed at acquiring skills for an uncertain future.


Companies with experience in the technical textiles market have the managed to reach compliance with the reference norms and standards such as UNI EN ISO 14683: 2019, UNI EN ISO 10993 and ISO 13485 QUALITY management system or Good Manufacturing Practices-GMP for surgical masks, and N95 NIOSH - EN 149: 2001 + A1: 2009, ISO 13485 QUALITY management system or Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) for FFP2 filter masks. 


The Istituto Superiore di Sanità and Italian Regional administrations have issued derogatory rules from the ordinary and complex certification and validation of materials processes. Some laboratories (for example, the Politecnico di Milano) received the authorization to issue preliminary validation documents that allow companies to start the production, whose final approval is left to a later stage. A process that has proven to be slow and inadequate to meet the high demands for materials, especially in healthcare facilities.


Most textile companies can, on the other hand, design and supply face masks for civilian use, that citizens can wear outside their house, whose availability will be critical in the management of the so-called 'phase 2' when economic activities and circulation will restart. 


Nonetheless, at the end of April, the feeling of a missed opportunity is tangible. The pandemic has shown that health emergencies need integrated supply chains (manufactures, testing and research laboratories, logistics) that can satisfy the needs for products that guarantee protection, hygiene, and comfort of hospitals and many activities that imply interpersonal contacts. Instead, we see delays, information gaps, and bureaucracy. A situation that materializes on the one hand as unfulfilled demand for PPE and, on the other, in poorly supported companies' initiatives.


There is even more than that. Further to the material supply chain issue -  producers of nonwovens, fabrics, and finishing, there is the business of sanitation of professional and hospital materials, that is at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus. 


Last but not least, we need to address the issue of disposable single use masks and protective clothing waste management. Massive consumption of disposable single use masks and PPE (Protective Personal Equipment) will inflate the generation of waste and raise issues in the collection, storage, and management of post-consumption waste. A question the sector is paying attention to, not without concern. Can the manufacturing industry partly take charge of it? Yes, if in the PPE eco-design principles are adopted, and reusable/multi-use items are preferred whenever it is suited, helping to reduce the volumes of disposable products.