Cafe dregs secret to popular apparel
Ralph Jennings in Taipei
While Taiwanese manufacturers have for years steadily shifted their operations to the mainland, at least one is swimming against the tide, using a raw material usually associated with cafes.
A Taiwanese fabric maker that struggled for years making traditional, low-cost materials has percolated a profit through the unusual, higher-cost practice of adding coffee grounds to materials so they eat odours and dry easily.
Singtex Industrial, a 23-year-old manufacturer based in New Taipei City, has used waste coffee grounds since 2009 to make fabrics for shoes, jackets, pants and handbags that are later sold by known brands.
The company rolled out two million yards of fabric last year using 500kg of grounds per day for 20 per cent of its total production.
Two local coffee store chains, which the company declined to name, donate the grounds.
Singtex chief executive Jason Chen and vice-president Amy Lai, Chen's wife, got the idea over a caffeinated brew in 2006.
They had noticed that dried coffee grounds were being used to cut odours in ashtrays, refrigerators and shoe cabinets.
'Chen was drinking coffee in a famous coffee shop when his wife realised that the grounds could be used as an odour eater but that they were being thrown out as trash,' said Singtex brand manager Chiang Bo-wei.
'Because of that idea and discovery, he spent the next four years on research.'
After researching how to blend grounds into fabrics, Singtex's single Taiwan factory began using the waste as 1.5 per cent of its overall fabric composition, with polyester as the main material. A low-heat, high-pressure technology is used to mix ingredients.
In the early 1990s, the company joined other Taiwanese textile contractors by moving operations to the mainland to save money on labour. It found that the workers were not skilled enough to make quality fabrics. All its operations are in Taiwan today.
In 1994, the company decided to scrap the low-cost formula and make more expensive textiles with an environmental element.
That year, Singtex came out with a proprietary film to make waterproof, windproof and breathing garments using an eco-friendly, non-solvent procedure.
Singtex today brings in annual revenues of about NT$1.2 billion (HK$316 million), 20 per cent of which comes from fabrics with coffee grounds, a source seldom tested by other manufacturers.
The unlisted firm of 220 employees does not disclose profits, Chiang said, to avoid stirring jealousy among rival manufacturers.
Its Taiwanese competitors are declining, from 4,151 firms in 1997 to 3,105 in 2010, with the workforce halved over the same period as low-cost textile manufacturing moved to cheaper labour centres elsewhere in Asia.
Production value fell 22 per cent between 1997 and 2010 to NT$482.3 billion, Taiwan Textile Federation statistics show.
About 100 brands, many of them world-famous clothiers, have bought the coffee ground-enhanced fabrics, which are labeled S.Cafe on clothing tags in stores. Among the buyers are Baleno, Wacoal and Timberland.
Baleno has sold coats and socks made from S.Cafe fabrics at its Taiwan outlets for two years. The clothier doubled the number of those garments for sale this year to 46,000 because 'customers welcome them', said David Huang in Baleno's Taipei marketing department.
Wacoal reports selling about 70 per cent of the 180,000 S.Cafe-branded undergarments that it has offered consumers in Taiwan since the second half of last year. The Japanese clothier is also selling coffee ground-enhanced clothes in mainland China.
And at Timberland stores in Taiwan, about 2,000 coffee ground-infused coats, shoes and handbags have been sold since they reached shelves a year ago. Their ingredient labels pique curiosity, and the novel ingredient makes little impact on price tags, the American clothier says.
'When customers hear that their clothes are made from coffee grounds, they will find it quite interesting that the coffee they drink every day can be turned into something like shoes,' said Sasa Kung, marketing manager with Timberland in Taipei. 'That will increase their willingness to buy.'
Singtex develops a new kind of coffee ground-enhanced fabric every six months, for a total of nine to date - and more brewing, Chen said in a statement.
'The coffee fabrics ... point to an all-new trend in the Taiwan textiles industry,' he said. 'Our goal is to unceasingly pursue innovation.'
Share of 220-employee Singtex's HK$316 million in annual revenues contributed by fabrics made with coffee grounds