The ethical effect – CSR in linen sourcing and its care

3 December 2018

LCN, in partnership with Tonrose, convened a round table to bring together commercial laundry suppliers, laundry operators and hospitality businesses, to debate the issue of the importance of ethical sourcing of linen for the end user

In July LCN invited a panel of hospitality laundry operators, suppliers and hoteliers to debate the subject of ethical sourcing of linen and its care. The LCN Live Event was sponsored by linen supplier Tonrose. The debate covered the complete supply chain from mill to enduser.

What became obvious very early in the discussions was that the will is there to be ethical and sustainable, and for many businesses complying with CSR requirement is necessary for their survival, but there is no framework for standards in place across the whole chain from field – mill – supplier – textile rental operator/laundry-hotel and ultimately end-user. The consensus was that all components of the supply chain should work together to set up a benchmark against which compliance can be measured.

Cost was a word that cropped up many times during the round table debate. For longer linen life before write-off, in an ideal world hospitality procurement should order larger batches of linen so it can rest and last longer. Larger batches sent to external laundries would also cut down on road miles, another potential cost cutter and environmental saving. 

Hoteliers from budget to high end were represented on the panel and it was interesting to hear about what they demand from their linen supplier. Some ran their own in-house laundry – all out-sourced some part of their textile care needs. All had CSR or ‘green’ policies. All agreed that those policies are driven by their guests’ expectations.

The panel

•Kathy Bowry – Laundry and Cleaning News, chair

•Phil Hodgson – Tonrose – sales director

•Whitney Hall– Crystal Laundry Services – development director

•Ian Maynard – Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane – purchasing manager

•Colin Oakley – Laundry Efficiency – managing director

• Dr Alexander Papiez– Ideal Manufacturing – development chemist

•Richard Redford – Girbau UK – technical manager

•Jeff Reese – The Savoy Hotel – procurement manager

•Demi Smoloktou– The Whitbread Group – head of responsible sourcing

•Rona Tait – TDS Commercial – managing director (apologies for absence due to illness).



The whys and wherefores
Phil Hodgson of Tonrose kicked off the proceedings by saying: “We started an ethical journey a few years ago and have made some really positive changes. We often consider the laundries but haven’t consulted the hotel groups they serve. How important is ethical sourcing to hospitality?”Jeff Reese replied: “For hospitality businesses, ethical sourcing started 10-15 years ago with food, initially moving across proteins – meats and fish (especially fish ie, more sustainable to be line or pole caught rather than nets). Today, traceability is standard. Now people are beginning to look at the provenance of wine, tablecloths and silver – ethical sourcing now extends throughout the business. As a hotel, The Savoy is trying to be ahead of the game. We are getting one or two questions asked by guests and we want the answers so we can advertise our commitment.”

According to Demi Smoloktou: “At Whitbread we are definitely looking more analytically across products. Retailers, especially, are competitive about who can be more sustainable and are under pressure to do something different which has driven change there. We too have been looking at how we can do things differently. We provide a service and we are not retailers, but we attended seminars and conferences for the retail sectors and decided to do something differently ourselves.

“When you put CSR risk assessment in place you have to ask yourself ‘what is the biggest spend’?, ‘who are our critical suppliers?’ and ‘what functions are served?’. When it comes to this assessment, laundry is at the top of the list. Whitbread is now auditing laundries. We were the first to do this because clearly our impact is big across country. The laundries asked why audit them? Our answer is that it is essential to make sustainable practices work. Other hotels and groups need to be involved, too, as we are all trying to do the right thing ethically and environmentally.

Phil Hodgson wondered whether concern is driven by the countries that cotton and other fabrics come from, and do guests care? Demi Smoloktou responded: “Consumers have an average understanding that linen is a commodity, but don’t automatically connect cotton with linen like they do with clothing (referring to recent scandals over well-known High Street brands sourcing from sweat shops in the third world). We do, however, get random queries from the public. We respond by explaining our CSR strategy and tell them that we are always looking to be better. As for sourcing, whether from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh – all have political problems – if we say we are importing from one of those countries then we are often told ‘you cannot import from there’.”

Ian Maynard weighed in, saying: “The Four Seasons has a department that solely looks after ethics integrity. I compare the issue with food miles. Can I get my linen closer than the Far East? Yes, but it will be more expensive; financially we are in the business of making money. It would be lovely to have it grown and made in Belgium [if it had the climate] but that isn’t going to happen.”

Whitney Hall added that the hospitality industry is so wasteful with linen. “Some sheets are perfect. I would have them on my bed but we have to get rid of them.”

Ian Maynard agreed: “If the edge has started to fray, it has to go. We, as an industry, need to worry about the disposal and end-of-life of linen. It is so easy to send to landfill and incineration; from an environmental point of view we need to worry about this – sheets, duvets and so on cost money so if we can find a way to recycle or repurpose that is better. Sadly, with the best will in the world we won’t get rid of sweat shops. They have been there for thousands of years. But we can control how we repurpose.”

Phil Hodgson explained: “We pick the best mills. There are only certain places to go to…. We want it done right and what comes with that is it means passing that cost up the chain to laundries and hotels. Ninety per cent of our business is with laundries. It is too expensive to use mills in the UK.”

Ian Maynard agreed, saying: “We could not in all conscience take economies away from third world countries, anyway.”

Phil Hodgson commented: “We do need a standard to benchmark against. Mills set standards themselves but some suppliers don’t want them to do that as they run on the ‘price’ model, not the ethics model. We try to do it via [membership of] the Textile Services Association (TSA) but there is no level playing field country by country.” Colin Oakley suggested that hoteliers and laundries should set their own standard.which could then act as a benchmark.


Are ethical, quality and cost-efficient needs compatible?

Richard Redford believes the technology is already out there that can help maintain or extend the life of linen but operators, and the workers, in many cases are unwilling to embrace it. “Dryers with moisture sensing to prevent over-drying are available but people don’t use them as designed.

“We all love fluffy towels but when they are put into a dryer and over dried you produce something resembling cardboard. Moisture sensing tumble dryers have been around for many years but their energy saving and quality benefits have not been maximised by the operators.”

Jeff Reese said: “Sixty per cent of guests in our hotel are Americans and they are the ones who are asking where the bed sheets are from. They are the drivers.

“We have a green ethical package you can buy for your stay so everything from towels to amenities are tracked back to origin. This is at a premium and that comes back to costs again.

“We have done it so we can say we did it first. Electric windows and Bluetooth used to be extras on cars and now they are standard.

“We just need people to follow. Somebody has to make the decision to make that investment [in setting a standard].”



How much are the special processes along the chain of supply and who bears them?

Whitney Hall said: “I like the idea of a body that helps increase yield and produces linen ethically but this is where the cost comes in. We will only invest as far as the hotels allow us. I like the idea of the whole chain getting involved to increase yield and to educate proficiently but there is cost to it. But how to promote this successfully as in the case of plastic straws and plastic bags? It will take a long time to integrate.”

The processing of the fabric at the mill can also have a knock-on effect on sustainability in the laundry wash process, said Phil Hodgson, who explained that the cracked-ice creasing effect on new linen is created by chemicals that are applied to minimise friction during the weaving process. “This is something we decided to address at Tonrose as multi-washing cycles for new stock is costing businesses time and money, as well as hurting the environment, and so One wash was born,” he said. It is a problem that Whitney Hall is well aware of. “We used to wash new stock once and now we have to wash eight times to get it out. It is a waste of water, chemicals and time. We spoke to our suppliers and this is a good example of things working back down the chain.”

Ian Maynard chipped in saying: “We are running a five-bar stock. Yes – it’s a cost but we are lucky at Four Seasons because of our ownership. Hoteliers really have to change to that system as you need to leave stock to rest or it won’t last. It is a cost that you have to educate the owners and finance managers in.”

Jeff Reese commented that ultimately, the guest will need to bear the cost. “We cannot swallow any more, all along the chain. We can put pressure back on laundries and in the end the mills take the biggest hit, but in reality, the guest does too.”

Ian Maynard chipped in saying: “We are running a five-bar stock. Yes – it’s a cost but we are lucky at Four Seasons because of our ownership. Hoteliers really have to change to that system as you need to leave stock to rest or it won’t last. It is a cost that you have to educate the owners and finance managers in. Invest in stock and you won’t use it so fast..”

Colin Oakley told the panel that Laundry Efficiency is innovating the wash process with ozone technology. “Getting linen to last – we can get ethical standards in hotels quickly and we can find a more sustainable system and can produce a better product. Ozone will wash in cold water, so there is no thermal shock, which extends life. You can do away with bleach and harsh chemicals.”


How big a role will ethical sourcing play in a hospitality laundry prepared to pay more?

Richard Redford: “Look at plastics and how the world woke up when they saw trapped fish, birds and turtles. For hotels and their laundry practices the ethical side doesn’t impact as much (I haven’t seen complaints on Trivago or similar sites about ethical issues in the hotel industry). Adopting an ethical approach to laundering makes a difference – for instance with one hotel group Girbau took 45 minute drying time down considerably by referencing chemical and textile data sheets and creating matching programmes.”

Demi Smoloktou: “We rely heavily on laundries and our CSR strategy incorporates environmental sustainability. We need to make this mainstream together for the wider industry.”

Dr Alexander Papiez: “The problem we see at the moment is the costs associated with ‘going green’. For example, we can purchase raw materials which have certain certifications to permit the formulation of ‘eco labelled’ products, but these always push the price of finished goods higher. The volumes on ethical products are small, which drives prices up. To bring these costs down we need to stop thinking of sustainability as a value added concept and move to a position where sustainability is the a standard requirement to sell chemicals.

“It is not until something goes wrong that people put anything right. Things going wrong in the chemical industry – for example, 6ft high foam on rivers – woke every one up. If the chemical industry can clean up its act this way, the laundry industry can do so too.

“Ethical audits are a possible solution. Do you look into the chemistry that goes on in laundries? Typically we find that sustainability is a driver for sales in the retail market, but less so in the I&I (industrial & insitutional) market. I feel that professional launderers would need to be given an incentive (e.g. pressure from ethical audits) to justify choosing sustainable chemistry over the cheapest chemistry.”

Demi Smoloktou: “Whitbread audits the environmental practices of its laundries. We ask them to reduce carbon footprint, chemical use and adopt environmentally friendly practices but we don’t want to police suppliers. We want to work in collaboration with them and continuously improve. We are looking to move towards projects and innovation, not just audits. We need will and investment from both sides.”

Colin Oakley told the panel that Ideal and Laundry Efficiency are going to take product to laundries to show how ethical it is and how much cheaper. “We are going to start to issue certificates to laundries which are totally running on ozone, as this will ensure that they are the greenest possible laundry in the UK.We also are going to start doing free auditing of any laundry who wants to know how to get as green as possible and make savings to their bottom line.”

Richard Redford advised that 100% cotton requires washing at a higher temperature soaks up more water, uses more resources than it needs to and takes longer to dry.

Dr Alexander Papiez remarked that there are always problems with temperatures. “Life cycle analyses should be conducted on all types of textile to determine the true environmental cost. Linens from a synthetic source which need less washing might ultimately be more sustainable than an organic linen that needs lots of washing.”  Whitney Hall: suggested trying bamboo fibre, perhaps. Ian Maynard said there are no problems washing polyester table linen in all colours to which Philip Hodgson agreed saying that Polyester use can cut down 20 per cent of drying times.

Jeff Reese said: “When we look at the cost of purchasing the linen you can’t just take the cost of acquiring the linen, you have to look at Whole Life Costing. By this I mean, how much is the linen, how long is it going to last? How many washes are you going to do, how should you wash it (temperature, amount of chemical), what re the disposal costs etc? we would be looking at working with suppliers (laundry, chemical, linen) to get their expertise. I am not an expert in this, they are, we should be engaging with our suppliers better using them not just for their goods, but also their knowledge.”

Phil Hodgson: “We can get so far with innovation, cut down drying time, for example, but there is another problem. We need to build relationships with chemicals manufacturers and machine manufacturers. Whitney Hall suggested this is made contractual and Ian Maynard said that is OK if you rent it but not if you own the linen. Whitney Hall responded: “I will help you out. if it becomes a standard …it’s all about managing expectations. Maybe not contractual,  maybe it’s a training thing. We need to coordinate to try new products.”

Ian Maynard commented that he is lucky to be able to trial at Park Lane Hotel [part of the group] , where he is in control because “there is always a housekeeper who doesn’t want to do new things because they ‘know best’.”

Demi: Smoloktou said: “We use laundries throughout the UK but we need others to join the journey of sustainability. We cannot be on our own trying to change current practice. We need everybody on board as well.” She added Whitbread doesn’t mind sharing its strategy…” Jeff Reese responded: “ Perhaps we should tell people about laundries that are ethically audited by Whitbread. and get the message out.”

Demi Smoloktou said: “Working together will help laundries improve. Our audit includes chemical management, waste, water usage, H&S, HR practices, payroll and labour management. “

Jeff Reese asserted:  “Pay an extra £10 for a sheet and it lasts an extra four years.”Ian Maynard said: “If it cost another £2 that would be worth having.” To which Philip Hodgson added: “Yes, you would get an extra 30-40 cycles for another couple of quid.”

Jeff Reese reiterated:  “[We need to take into account] whole life cost and, addressing laundry panellists, “you know these things and please will you let us know?”

Whitney Hall spoke about RFID, saying: “Forty per cent of [our linen has] RFID tags and new customers [are having it] and they love it. [We have customers with] owned linen and they want RFID.” Phil Hodgson said: “RFID will actually give us proper figures. We can all come up with different figures.”

Looking ahead

The panel showed there is a real will to work together to set ethical standards for the hospitality laundry sector. It was clear that the laundry operators and hospitality businesses at the event can, and are keen to, learn from one another and that would be a huge benefit going forward if that could be extended to all concerned in both industries. It is down to us to communicate and work together across the lines.

The Tonrose LCN Live Event round table panel will reconvene at a date to be announced to further the debate.



An ethical journey continues

As a leading supplier of high quality linens to the hospitality and leisure industries, Tonrose has always recognised its role in responsible sourcing and ethical production.

Ethics are something we have always felt passionate about, and in 2016 we started a journey to push this even further up the agenda.

We’ve made great strides, including becoming a member of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), supporting education in the local milling communities, having a zero tolerance to child labour, and creating safer working conditions.

We’re also continually looking at new developments and how our products can be improved to increase efficiencies and minimise environmental impact, such as our popular One washTM technology which eliminates the need for multi wash cycles when introducing new linen into stock. But our mission is by no means over. And we can’t do it alone. To facilitate real change, we need to work with the rest of the supply chain to join up their efforts with ours. We decided to partner with the LCN to create a platform to open the ethical debate as collaboration is the key to having a wider scale impact.

We were delighted to find such a positive and lively debate, with shared values looking at how we can each make improvements. What became clear was that there are three main areas requiring focus: sustainable sourcing and ethical production; responsible linen care, minimising environmental impact; and end of life.

Tonrose sales director Phil Hodgson took part in the round table. He said: “It was a really interesting debate and fantastic to see such a willingness for change. What became clear was that there is a need for a national agreement or standard to align our strategies.

“We were the first trade textile supplier to join the BCI, which helps the flow of ‘better cotton’, educating farmers how to get the best yields in a sustainable way, while minimising their environmental impact. Others are starting to follow suit and it is our hope that this will become the standard. But without the supply chain working together, each making their own improvements, these actions cannot reach their full potential.

“We fully understand the need to balance commercial sensibilities with ‘blue sky’ thinking. But it’s crucial that we recognise our collective responsibility and work together to make significant improvements in the way we supply, care and dispose of linen.”



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