WolKat has been recycling textiles – now about 25 000 tonnes per year – for four generations. The Dutch business, based in Tilburg, has pioneered a dry recycling process that leaves only 5% as ‘actual waste’. Kimberly van der Wal (32) is helping her father Philip Boumans take on new challenges.
‘My great-grandmother Toos (pictured left photo below) started the company in a very chaotic time in 1948, right on the heels of the Second World War. She was a tough lady who would cycle across town day after day to collect old rags and unwanted clothes. You can imagine how resources were scarce so anything she could find she put to good use,’ Kimberley van der Wal says. ‘My father -Philip Boumans- took over about 40 years ago, having been involved since he was just 18. He taught me everything I know. I’d like to think, though, that nowadays he can learn a thing or two from me,’ she grins.
At first, WolKat mostly collected and traded textiles. In around 1990 Boumans realised recycled fibre could find a higher purpose than simply as a by-product to mix with virgin fibres. ‘My father developed a dedicated recycling process, which has been patented, to create high-quality products from post-consumer textiles. It was his idea to establish a spinning and weaving facility. After that, we even expanded our recycling activities with a new plant in Tangier, Morocco, in 1997.
Van der Wal says it is a great advantage having all the equipment and staff under one roof. ‘All steps of the process are managed in-house; we don’t rely on other industry players.’ This attitude is what allowed WolKat to grow into one of the leading textile recyclers in the country, partnering with many municipalities, fashion brands, stores and even mattress recyclers.
‘There is always room for improvement,’ she says with a wide smile. ‘I joined the company in 2013 to handle communications, marketing and to investigate meaningful R&D prospects.’ As for the last, Van der Wal tells us she has put most of her energy into realising her ‘sweater-to-sweater’ mission; to recycle clothing back into clothing. ‘This probably sounds easier than it is. It means the textiles have to be safe and comfortable to wear on the skin, to be of a consistent quality and colour, etc. It’s definitely possible but requires us to perfect our process – as we have done for the last four years. I expect our recycled clothing will be in stores by the end of the year.’
She says her family is known for being driven, optimistic and ‘a little bit rebellious’. ‘If you want to keep innovating, you have to be able to go against the tide. It’s not an easy industry. You have to be bold and let nothing hold you back. Don’t be satisfied too easily. That’s what I love about the relationship between me and my father; we believe in each other and push each other to come up with new ideas, to stay curious.’
The ‘cool’ factor
She adds: ‘I notice that some people still refer to our input and output as “waste”. To me, that is a dirty word. If you fully understand the circular loop, you would never use that term.’ Van der Wal recalls her 12-year old niece complimenting the family’s business recently, telling her aunt that ‘recycling is cool’. ‘It’s lovely to hear young kids these days appreciate what we’re doing. It fits our company culture; I think the average age of WolKat employees is probably around 35. So, we’ve been around the block a couple of decades but we’re young at heart.’
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