Petroleum is the world’s most valuable traded commodity. So, what is the second-most-valuable one?
The answer is coffee. One cup of coffee in the morning can give you the energy you need for a whole day. Even in Taiwan, where traditionally the dominant type of drink has been tea, people have caught onto the trend of coffee-sipping, and the population of coffee drinkers in Taiwan is now more than 5.4 million.
There seems to be an irresistible magic hidden in this aromatic drink. However, many people probably do not know that after coffee beans are ground and made into coffee, only 0.2% is consumed by humans, while the other 98.8% is discarded as waste. In Taiwan, about 30 tonnes of coffee grounds are generated on average each day.
These coffee dregs, rich in nutrients, are normally tossed out along with rubbish. Luckily, there is a Taiwanese company which can turn a mixture of coffee grounds and recycled plastic bottles into fabrics that can be woven into quick-drying, UV- resistant and odour-controlling functional clothing.
After a quick count, Chen Kuo-chin, Singtex’s chairman of the board, pointed out that making a jacket only needs three cups of coffee and twelve plastic bottles.
This world-leading technology has been described by international media as enabling us to “wear coffee beans”, and represents how Western food culture has been transformed into an Eastern clothing culture, even becoming a classic example of a global circular economy.
Making good use of coffee grounds, finding a way to avoid waste
Chen Kuo-chin, born into a family in the quilt industry, saw his grandfather’s and father’s generations fluffing cotton and making quilts. “We textile makers are here to provide warmth to the people” was a saying passed down from generation to generation.
When Chen Kuo-chin founded Singtex in 1989, he not only inherited the quilt-making business that his grandfather and father had managed, but also extended the business to bedding manufacturing and OEM production for other textile companies. Not long after he started the company, he was faced with market shrinkage when it came to cotton products, as well as the predicament of the gross margin being too low in the textile industry. Chen Kuo-chin’s brother, whose expertise was in chemistry, recommended the waterproof, breathable features of Gore-Tex material to him and suggested he consider producing it.
Later, in 1994, Singtex changed its raw materials from traditional fabrics to chemical fibres to develop functional fabrics. At the same time, it started to produce clothing for internationally- renowned outdoor product brands, such as Timberland, The North Face, Nike, Adidas, Patagonia, etc.
A successful transformation has helped Singtex branch into new territory. One day, Chen Kuo- chin and his wife were relaxing in a café enjoying their coffee when they saw a woman asking café workers if she could have some coffee grounds, saying they were to be used as deodorant. Overhearing this conversation, Chen Kuo-chin’s wife immediately said to him, “you should check whether these coffee grounds can be used on you smelly men to get rid of your stink!”
His wife’s words had an effect something like waking him from a long dream. From 2005, he spent four years and invested over NT $20 million testing the material property of coffee grounds and trying to overcome all kinds of problems, such as unwanted adhesions, filament breaking and low yarn withdrawal rates. Finally, his team successfully invented a fabric by mixing recycled plastic bottles and coffee grounds, and came up with their first batch of clothing using it. He excitedly shared the clothes with his relatives and friends. In the first few months, everyone was excited and surprised, saying “they smell like coffee!”
But who could expect that after six months, no-one would dare exclaim at its pleasant smell anymore. It turned out that after long-term contact with skin, the smell of coffee would combine with grime from the human body, creating a repulsive odour. After this discovery, no one dared wear the clothing any longer.
As soon as Chen Kuo-chin found out about the odour of the clothes, he decided to extract the oil, starch and protein from the coffee grounds in order to completely remove the smell of coffee. At the same time, he purchased various types of washing machines and repeatedly washed the clothes to ensure that quality was maintained even after many washes. He finally created “S.Café”, the “S” meaning “simple”, and symbolising a return to a minimalist life.
These new coffee grounds could make clothing with deodorising, breathable, quick-drying, thermal insulating, cooling, UV resistant, and other functions, and these did not affect dyeing. Furthermore, the manufacturing process did not require the use of solvents, as well as eliminated the traditional high-temperature carbonising process, reducing carbon emissions by 80% compared to general activated carbon clothing.
In addition to creating coffee grounds clothing, Singtex also started utilising supercritical fluid equipment for the extraction of excess coffee oil, which can be used to make cleaning supplies and PU waterproof material, thereby achieving the ideal of making the most out of each material. This technology later won gold awards at three of the world’s major invention competitions, INPEX in the United States, iENA in Germany, and the Geneva International Exhibition of Inventions in Switzerland. Singtex has also successfully obtained the world’s only patent certification for this technology.
After the French company Eider took the lead in using S.Café to make its products, other sports brands followed, with luxury fashion brands Prada and Hugo Boss not far behind. In order to promote environmental protection, Singtex marks the source and any special features of the clothing on its labels, even directly embroidering this information onto the clothes in the hope of “selling” the circular economy to a vast consumer market via the distribution power of large international brands.
After opening up sales channels, Singtex discussed long-term cooperation with Starbucks and other major coffee shop and convenience store chains one by one to organise regular collection of coffee grounds, in order to find a new way of using waste.
After accumulating 27 years of manufacturing and R&D capability, Singtex has succeeded at emerging from its position of mere OEM through innovative technology and international marketing, becoming a rare internationally renowned manufacturer to specialise in semi-finished products, and proving that the circular economy is now a major tool for industrial transformation.