Coffee is slowly turning into one of our most talked-about topics. First, we had the long article about brewing a good cup of coffee in the great outdoors, then we delved into the topic of the revolutionary shoe innovation to solve the irritating problem of coffee-to-go stains on your trainers. And now, fabric made from coffee grounds has arrived on the scene.
You’re probably thinking the idea came from California or Scandinavia, as is so often the case with functional clothing. Well, sorry to disappoint! This time round, the nerdy outdoor innovation came from the Far East – from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to be precise.
The idea behind the material made of coffee grounds
So, why is this new textile wonder made of coffee grounds and not banana peels or tea bags? Because Jason Chen, CEO of the company Singtex, and his wife Mei-hui had their stroke of genius in a coffee bar. They watched curiously as an older lady asked the barista to give her the coffee grounds. In response to the couple’s inquisitive look, the barista explained that coffee grounds are good for removing odours from the refrigerator. In other words, the odour-reducing properties of coffee grounds were already known.
Chen’s wife then made the joking suggestion that he should use coffee grounds in his textiles to get rid of the smell of sweat after his frequent marathon training sessions. According to legend, Jason thought for a moment, turned to his wife, and said loudly: “GOOD IDEA!” So it was Mei-hui’s idea and Jason’s implementation that were born here.
The idea came at just the right time and was patented before Chen even knew how he was going to get the coffee into the textiles. Singtex had already invented multiple new processes and fibres, but these were usually quickly copied by competitors on the Chinese mainland and offered at a lower price. For this reason, they were on the brink of bankruptcy and didn’t want to repeat the same mistake.
How it came to be and how it was developed
Chen put together a group of partners and began researching how coffee grounds could be incorporated into threads. Implementing the seemingly simple idea took four years of research and hard work. In 2009, it was finally time to present their invention to the world under the brand name S.Café.
They quickly gained success, and demand for S.Café rapidly increased. In Taipei, a whole network of partnerships with Starbucks and local cafes took shape, allowing the used coffee grounds to be collected systematically. At this point, a large number of vehicles were roaming the streets, collecting around half a ton of coffee grounds each day throughout Taipei. The other material used in the garments – polyester – is also obtained from a sustainable system of primarily local waste: recycled PET bottles.
Shortly after the launch in 2009, Singtex had developed undergarments, sheets, shoes, and a growing assortment of additional products made from S.Café. They also developed other variations on the material itself, known as P4Dry and Mylithe. These were made with new configurations of polymers and coffee grounds in order to offer other specific features. Mylithe uses an “air-structure” technique to give the fabric a cotton-like feel – without losing the original S.Café properties.
And since Jason Chen is an innovative and hard-working CEO, they naturally developed new applications and areas of business. The growing popularity of S.Café is driven by constantly expanding international collaborations with an ever-growing number of leading textile companies like Timberland, American Eagle, The North Face and Puma. But all this growth shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment, even in the future, which is why Singtex continues to strive for certifications, such as bluesign, Oekotex and Cradle to Cradle that guarantee their compliance with high standards.
The first step in the manufacturing process takes place at roasting facilities and coffee bars. The beans not only need to be roasted at temperatures between 160 and 220°C but also need to be pulverised and brewed so that they can be formed into fabric along with the polymers from the old PET bottles.
During the roasting process, the coffee beans swell, which means that their interiors become larger. When the coffee is brewed, the hot water removes material from the resulting hollow spaces. After the grounds are “prepared” in this way, they can be used to obtain the extract, which is incorporated into the plastic filaments in a low-temperature, high-pressure process. Afterwards, it is formed into a thread that combines the properties of the source materials.
Only about 2% useable coffee extract remains after the extraction process, but all in all that isn’t such a bad yield. According to Chen, the remains from a cup of coffee are sufficient for around two to three t-shirts (only available in German).
The material’s properties
It’s mostly the properties of the coffee grounds that really come to the fore in the final product. The micro-pores in the coffee absorb odours, reflect UV radiation and dry twice as quickly as cotton. S.Café fabric continuously moves moisture away from the skin and distributes it on the outer surface of the material, where it can quickly evaporate. The evaporation helps to reduce the skin’s temperature by 1 to 2°C compared to traditional fabrics – which is enough to make a noticeable difference.
Together, all these properties create a more comfortable, more natural-feeling fabric compared to traditional synthetic fibres.
Because the coffee components are found in the interior of the S.Café fibres, there is no need to be concerned about a decrease in functionality. It is capable of withstanding normal machine washes without any issues and lasts just as long as the properties in other functional textiles.
All this makes S.Café interesting for both outdoor apparel and sportswear and several other applications, including everyday household items.
Of course, Singtex has woven a philosophy of sustainability around its flagship product. But this isn’t an artificial PR product; it’s a natural expression of their way of doing business. The cycle of sustainability is clearly recognisable: the otherwise unsustainable effects of coffee culture are (in part) transferred to a sustainable system. The waste products resulting from people around the world leading urban lifestyles and drinking increasingly more coffee are used to create a useful product. And it turns out that, in this system, a great many more hidden products and technologies are waiting to be uncovered.
The fact that clothes made from S.Café can be composted when they have reached the end of their useable lifespan fits into this exquisitely simple concept perfectly. If the rest were then used in the production of coffee, a full lifecycle would be complete.
The catchy marketing slogan for S.Café is: „Drink it, wear it“. It’s memorable and a great way to summarise the entire company’s philosophy. Their enthusiasm for coffee drinking is understandable in this context as well. After all, without all the hard-working coffee drinkers, the coffee grounds would end up being an expensive material as opposed to recycled waste.
But we probably shouldn’t take the encouragement to drink (even more) coffee all too literally. “Meritocracies” are already driven by more than enough coffee, and Singtex has no cause for concern about running out of grounds to use. Besides, caffeine tends to make our personal performance go down rather than up in the long-term. So, consider taking a nap a little more often, instead of downing the next double espresso. Of course, that’s easier said than done – we’re all short on time and just taking a rest is an almost subversive act. But I’m starting to ramble and get off-topic. Although… I AM still talking about coffee, right?