Friday, December 9, 2022

Medical Scrubs Have a Microplastic Problem. These Designers Left Oscar de la Renta to Fix It.

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Founded by two former Oscar de la Renta executives, Welles is out to bring sustainability, comfort, and style to medical scrubs and uniforms. But that’s just the beginning.

Rachel Rothenberg-Saenz and Alexandra Baylis met in 2017 while working in Oscar de la Renta’s design department. Based in New York, the designers were both moved by the frontline workers battling the coronavirus pandemic. It sparked the idea for Garment District for Gowns, a nonprofit collective of sewers producing isolation gowns for frontline workers.

New York asked the designers to use their talents further, spurring them to launch a for-profit business aimed at tackling critical issues with medical scrubs—frequent washing makes them one of the leading producers of microplastic pollution, and there’s an unmet demand for an overlooked “function” imposed by frequent washing that is unique in the healthcare space.

That shift led to the formation of Welles, the company Baylis and Rothenberg-Saenz co-founded to tackle the microplastic problem in medical scrubs while also producing more comfortable uniforms.

According to Baylis, within the U.S. healthcare industry, 85 percent of the workforce is required to provide their own uniforms, “generating 110 million pounds of waste a year from scrubs alone.”

She says the volume of clothing Americans throw away each year has doubled in the last 20 years, from seven million to 14 million tons. “In our eyes, it’s not just about the waste in landfills—we also need to take into consideration the amount of microplastic pollutants. Frequent washing demands from work requirements make scrubs one of the highest-ranking microplastic polluters during its life cycle and end-of-life disposal.”

Welles' has developed a novel plastic fiber that biodegrades at the end of its life cycle
Welles’ has developed a novel plastic fiber that biodegrades at the end of its life cycle | Courtesy

The two began developing a novel fabric called Terral-X that uses ocean-bound plastic and a breakthrough technology called CiCLO that allows the plastic fiber to biodegrade at the end of its lifecycle.

“Having been in the industry for so long, we have a deep understanding of the impact of our clothing, we continue to spend so much time on research and development continuously improving our own materials and processes, and have already started the R&D to work towards closed-loop solutions, partnering with some groundbreaking companies in the USA,” Rothenberg-Saenz says.

We caught up with the co-founders via email to learn more about their story, how Welles is changing health care, and what the future holds.

This article is edited for length and clarity.

Ethos: The work you did during the pandemic must have been pretty intense. How has that re-framed the fashion industry’s impact for you? 

RRS: Long before the launch of Welles, Alex and I met while heading design departments at fashion house Oscar de la Renta. At the start of the pandemic, Alex and I, like so many others, found ourselves holed up in our NYC apartments.

Faced with images of healthcare workers turning to garbage bags as protection, we were spurred into action and started our nonprofit, Garment District for Gowns.

What started as an initiative to provide work opportunities for then-jobless sewers by manufacturing and donating PPE across the country snowballed, at the direction of New York State’s EDC into a new business venture with one mission—establish a robust supply chain for PPE here in New York, to avoid this situation happening again. We went on to make close to one million gowns for various State and city governments, mobilizing a workforce of 1200 people here in New York City.

Welles' scrubs are more comfortable, customers say
Welles’ scrubs are more comfortable, customers say | Courtesy

Whilst we were inspired by the selfless dedication of the healthcare workforce and honored to help in any way we could, we were deeply conflicted about how much unavoidable and essential waste was generated during the pandemic. We decided to work on solutions, starting with scrubs, and Welles came to be.

Ethos: Can you talk more about the CiCLO fabric—it’s made from plastic but also biodegrades? How does that work?

AB: CiCLO is a safe and effective, nature-based solution to mitigate synthetic microfiber pollution. When added, fibers remain ultra durable and high performance, yet in stark contrast to the main negative quality of standard polyester, it won’t remain in our environment forever through inevitable washing processes and at the ultimate end of its life-cycle.

We spent two years developing a material that originates from ocean-bound plastic which is then recycled and infused with a breakthrough biotechnology called CiCLO, creating a new performance fiber that will biodegrade at the end of it’s lifecycle.

CiCLO technology is permanently embedded into the fiber at the extrusion process, preventing it from being washed off and only activating at the end of a garment’s life cycle, then acting as a nutrient source for microbes that naturally exist in the environment. We have combined this with “Ecovero,” a renewable plant-based fiber that makes our proprietary fabric super soft.

Welles developed fiber and tech to make its uniforms biodegrade
Welles developed fiber and tech to make its uniforms biodegrade | Courtesy

In addition to Terral-X, our packaging comes from a 100 percent bio-based plastic alternative derived from corn starch. It’s reusable and will fully compost within 24 weeks. This is the best solution right now; we are excited to be diligently working on creating something even better.

The environmental and social impact of our products is at the forefront of every decision we make in both design and as a business. Pursuing the highest standards of materials with the lowest impact is no easy feat (it took us two years to engineer Terral-X!) We studied this fabric down to the fiber, including the dyes and finishes we use.

Many people are not aware that a lot of performance clothing has finishes that contain PFAS (forever chemicals that don’t degrade) or formaldehyde which are both completely toxic to our bodies and the environment.

We use only Blue-Sign-approved non-toxic finishes, which are PFAS and formaldehyde-free to make Terral-X. We are also trialing a biodegradable alternative to Spandex that is coming to the market in 2023 and will replace all of our current Spandex next year. Spandex or elastane is essential to give the fabric the much-needed stretch.

Ethos: Can you talk about ‘purpose wear’ and why that’s an important distinction for the brand?

RRS: We coined the term “purpose wear” as a new category we’re introducing—made for those who hold themselves, others, and the brands they engage with to a higher standard.

Our goals go beyond selling product; we’re here to reset industry criteria, with a brand that’s built with purpose and fueled by intention.

Welles' founders see opportunities beyond medical scrubs for their novel material
Welles’ founders see opportunities beyond medical scrubs for their novel material | Courtesy

While our primary focus is absolutely on the medical field, and we are focused on creating the next several generations of medical scrubs, we truly believe in our product and believe it can go even further.

For example, we wear our joggers on a daily basis with a pair of heels; we have people in other industries wearing our polo shirts, jackets, and cargo pants out and about. The pieces are so versatile, we thought why can’t they exist outside of the medical field? So this is where we plan to take it, we are really enjoying blurring the lines between uniform and fashion.

We feel ‘purpose wear’ captures that perfectly—it speaks to sustainability and function—to an audience that is passionate about what they do, how they do it, and the impact they have on their communities and planet. Plus, comfort, fit, and design to boot!

Ethos: What kind of feedback have you received from medical workers wearing the garments?

RRS: There is usually an audible sound the moment medical workers put our garments on. They have never had an option this comfortable before. Feedback has been that we have an amazing fit, and incredible material and they feel like they can perform throughout the day better. 

Welles uniforms are made without toxic chemicals that can irritate skin
Welles’ uniforms are made without toxic chemicals that can irritate skin | Courtesy

Without naming names, we have also been hearing about an uptick in healthcare workers not being able to wear competitor brands as they have started developing rashes. We believe it has to do with the “forever chemicals” being used on those competitor garments to make it “wrinkle-free, stain-free, etc.”

We are excited for more medical workers to see and experience our garments—so far it has been an immediate “aha” moment. 

Ethos: Are you tackling other uniforms?

AB: Yes, there are so many service-based industries that haven’t been touched by innovation in a meaningful way. We are only getting started.

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