by Matthias Neff
Chur, 8 February 2017. – Outdoor clothing made entirely in Switzerland, profitably, from local resources: Rotauf, a startup company in Chur, does sustainability in its own fashion.
The weather can’t decide if it should rain or snow, instead settling on a thick fog over Chur that shrouds the mountains in white fluff. The meteorological conditions are ghastly this February afternoon, making wearing a good, warm jacket mandatory. Lucky then that I’m on my way to the right place for such garments. However, Rotauf’s headquarter could hardly be more unassuming. A squat annex of glass and steel – inside many computers and on the desks the creative remains of the day. Complementing the picture of a startup in motion is a wooden table, a plant and a red couch. Above it hang rows of design- and other award certificates for Rotauf’s products.
CEO Oliver Gross arrives. Friendly and efficient, with the authoritative presence of someone in control and under constant slight pressure, he begins to answer to the interview questions.
The jackets are produced 100% in Switzerland. Why?
We do product development, meaning that we have a passion for finding solutions and some time ago, we got many inquiries: “How is it possible that a jacket from Vietnam costs 700 Swiss francs and why is it not made here in Switzerland?”– Thus It became our aim to prove that, yes, we can produce such jackets in Switzerland at the highest possible ecological level and at a fair price. It is possible, that’s what we’re going to do and make it work.
What is ecological about your jackets?
There is much you can improve about a jacket concerning ecology, whose cornerstones are threefold: social-, economical-, and environmental sustainability.
Firstly, social sustainability concerns how employees are treated. For example, the strict workers’ rights in Switzerland and their enforcement by the state mean that things are good for our employees. With a production facility – say in Vietnam –, we would need to pay for an expensive label to monitor compliance, without being totally sure of the label’s independence. Production in Switzerland also guarantees the absence of child labor.
Secondly, on the economical sustainability side, we reinvest in Swiss production by paying good wages. In addition, we also reinvest in the advancement of the business itself by developing new products.
Thirdly and finally there are questions about ecology. For example, PFC is known since 30 years to harm health – leading to a reduction of fertility in men, among other things. Yet it is used all the same by 95% of the outdoor industry for waterproofing jackets because it has superb properties, it is cheap and easy to use. We at Rotauf don’t use this chemical and work together with Greenpeace, which acts as an independent NGO, monitoring our effort to produce without such toxins.
Other organizations swear by certificates or labels and use those for their global supply chains. What is your opinion on these instruments?
It must be clear that a labelling organization which is financed by the businesses it is supposed to monitor can’t really be independent. But those labels are nevertheless a benefit for the environment.
How is the clothing product line developing ?
Very well indeed, we are growing rapidly and recently bought a new machine and hired several new employees.
What is specific to your outdoor clothing line?
The Swiss made character and the ecology of our products are crucial. We also aim not to be more expensive than the competition from Asia and we can achieve that only if we sell directly to the customers and do without any marketing: No sponsoring or ads in the paper etc.
What are the values and emotions the clothes should convey?
Swissness is the characteristic we aim for, meaning clothes that are unpretentious and timeless, good quality, and thought-through.
Who are your customers?
Generally our customers are people who do outdoor sports, place a high premium on sustainable products or enjoy their Swissness qualities. A jacket costs 400 to 700 Swiss francs, which is still way below Bogner that is asking for several thousands in comparison. Broadly speaking, it is the middle class that can afford our jackets, but we also have people who save money for a long time and students who buy old specimens; however, because of their usually low income students are not our primary target group.
With all the hard work you put in: What is it that satisfies you?
To me it is the idea and being instrumental in producing ecological outdoor clothing. I have long been working in this industry and know first-hand about the high amount of chemicals that is used in production. Until now there haven’t been any convincing and transparent solutions. And to change that was my motivation to get involved at Rotauf. Transparency is important and one should not be scared by it, otherwise there is never certainty and knowledge about what has to be changed. Furthermore, it is satisfying to see trades that look back on centuries of tradition, personified for example by our seamstresses, survive and thrive in this lively business.