"It is possible to make money in an ecologically compatible way"

Globally sought-after manufacturer of organic textiles: Gebrüder Elmer & Zweifel cotton weavers from Bempflingen
Bempflingen, 25.06.2013 | 

Elmer & Zweifel GmbH & Co. KG from Bempflingen in the Stuttgart Region produces bed linen, bath towels and babycare textiles made from 100 percent organically manufactured fair-trade cotton. The textiles are marketed under the Cotonea brand and meet the world’s strictest ecological guidelines from the International Association of the Natural Textile Industry (IVN). This makes the family-run company one of the world’s few manufacturers allowed to use this eco-label in its advertising. From the cultivation to the spinning, weaving, refining and order picking, all of the production processes are environmentally friendly and socially compatible. The textiles have a long life, and contractual partnerships are in place with organic cotton projects in Kyrgyzstan and Uganda that guarantee uncompromising materials standards.

Organic-quality cotton is a scarce resource. Just 0.9 percent of the world’s cotton harvest stems from organic production. The percentage of fair trade organic cotton is even lower. The very strict eco-label IVN Best from the International Association of the Natural Textile Industry is granted to just 0.01 percent of all cotton textiles - 2,000 metric tons per year. It is used to label textiles made from natural fibres that are produced in line with the highest standards in an environmentally friendly and socially compatible way - from their cultivation to the spinning, weaving, refining and order picking stages.

Elmer & Zweifel GmbH & Co. KG from Bempflingen in the Stuttgart Region is one of the few manufacturers in the world that can use this seal of quality to advertise its textiles. It is expressly recommended by the Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen (Federation of German Consumer Organisations), Bundesverband der Verbraucherinitiative e. V. (federation of German consumer initiatives), by Greenpeace and by the German government’s Council for Sustainable Development. The cultivation of organic cotton by Elmer & Zweifel for its bed linen and baby textiles, towels, bathrobes, pillows, quilts, blouses and shirts dispenses entirely with chemical-synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, harmful or poisonous substances and genetically modified seeds.

"The cotton that we use for our Cotonea brand is absolutely safe and is also particularly suitable for allergy sufferers", explains Roland Stelzer, managing partner of the family-owned company founded in 1855. In addition to ecological production, environmental compatibility and social responsibility are the principles that guide the actions of the company. "We attach great importance to health awareness and to the certainty that no person or animal or nature itself is exploited in the production of our textiles", says Roland Stelzer. "That is why we know the journey that our cotton takes from the field to the local agricultural projects and right through to the order picking".

Expansion in the bitterly poor region of Württemberg

It wasn’t always like that. Elmer & Zweifel processed the first cotton from controlled organic production in 1995. Like many other textile companies, for a long time Elmer & Zweifel carried a full range. In addition to the textiles, the company produced woven products for medical and technical purposes. The Bempflingen-based company acquired the extensive knowledge required for this purpose over the course of almost two centuries.

The brothers Friedrich and Heinrich Elmer, who had emigrated from the Swiss canton of Glarus to Württemberg in the mid-19th century and founded a new location in Bempflingen for their textile factory with a spinning mill and a weaving mill, had an excellent understanding of industrially manufactured textiles. They also knew that they would find enough workers and plenty of water for the textile industry in the bitterly poor region of Württemberg, where there was great economic necessity after the Continental System was lifted in 1814. And industrious investors were extremely welcome there. From the very beginning, cotton was processed into a wide variety of fabrics.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the opening up of the eastern European markets and the threat from low-wage competitors, Elmer & Zweifel had to change radically in order to save the business. "When I became the sixth generation of my family to take over the business in 1990, I was aware that I would have to adjust to the new framework conditions", says Roland Stelzer of the difficult new beginnings. "I had the idea of investing in organically produced cotton from then on, but to do that I unfortunately had to reduce the headcount somewhat and look for new partners for the raw materials."

Ecological, humane, fair

Unlike all other production stages, which always take place in the company itself or at partner companies, the first organic cotton did not come from a project that Elmer & Zweifel was involved in. That did not change until 2004 when the Cotonea brand was launched and the contractual partnerships were established with organic cotton projects in Kyrgyzstan and Uganda. "Organic cotton is grown to a particularly high standard there, and we also check the entire production chain thoroughly," says Roland Stelzer. "This means that we get cotton that we can be sure meets the regulations for pure organic cotton." The boss will not consider cotton-producing countries such as India or Turkey as suppliers: "I do not believe that my requirements for organically grown cotton are anywhere near being met in those regions."

In order to prevent the risk of the ground becoming leached out, agriculture based on monoculture is avoided in Kyrgyzstan and Uganda when growing the Cotonea organic cotton. Because organic cotton is harvested by hand, the quality is higher than with machine-based harvesting. The purchase guarantee enhances the financial security and the self-confidence of the local farmers - an average of ten family members live off of the income of one cotton farmer. "We also encourage our farmers to operate seed development, because only cotton that is adjusted to the soil and the climatic conditions of the respective cultivation region makes it possible to obtain a good yield from the harvest. At the same time genetic diversity is preserved", explains Johannes Brenner, head of sales at Elmer & Zweifel. "There is still not enough discussion on the consequences of the use of genetically modified seeds without any diversity".

The long journey from the seed to the bed linen

Elmer & Zweifel processes almost 1,000 metric tons of organic cotton per year for Cotonea textiles. Only one third of a harvest consists of useable fibres - the rest is seeds and capsules used as oil or animal feed. The cotton fibres are spun into yarns in the spinning mill. In the Cotonea weaving mill near Nachód in the Czech Republic, they are processed into gauzes, light calicos, fine satins, fine-threaded poplins or heavy flannel and molleton fabrics. They are refined exclusively in Germany or in Switzerland, where it is guaranteed that the strict IVN Best guidelines are followed. Order picking then takes place in the Czech Republic again, in the company’s own factories and at suppliers that work almost exclusively for Cotonea. "The close contact and the high degree of flexibility of the sewing works make it possible to produce even small batches in a short space of time", according to Johannes Brenner.

The headquarters in Bempflingen, which employs 30 people and controls the entire production process, is also responsible for dispatching the bed linen, hand towels, babycare textiles, T-shirts, polo shirts, shirts and blouses, which are organic, fair trade and safe for health. They are marketed via the traditional retail trade such as specialist bed stores, interior decorators, small and medium-sized furniture traders and specialist dealers of natural products.

The customers come mainly from Europe, but more and more consumers in the US, Russia and Japan are also buying Cotonea textiles, which have recently also become available through the company’s own online shop. "Our products are not more expensive than comparable products, but they are of a much higher quality and have a longer life", says Roland Stelzer. "We want this philosophy to safeguard the continued existence of the company. It is simply not true at all that sustainability, which we achieved through professional practise rather than through an ideology, and economic efficiency cannot go hand in hand."