“We want our legacy to last another 100 years”

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Isabel Domingues coordinates Riopele's Sustainability Department, a company to which she is umbilically linked as her grandfather and father also served in the company's management team. She assumes that “the next decade will be one of accelerated changes”, demanding “much more from companies” in areas such as climate change and social inequalities. As for Riopele, which will soon be 100 years old, it wants to preserve “the legacy” and, therefore, has set several goals until the centenary, one of which is particularly ambitious: to be operationally carbon neutral by 2027.

Do you still remember your first day at Riopele? How was that day?

Of course I do. It's now been almost 26 years, on 3rd March 1997. I was a little nervous but at the same time very happy at getting to know this great company that I’d heard about practically since I was born. I hoped to live up to expectations but, above all, I really wanted my father and grandfather, who were also former Riopele employees, to feel proud of my work.

Which department did you join?

At the time, Riopele was in the process of certifying the quality of its various production areas, and I joined the Quality Department. However, in less than one month, I went to work for the Maintenance Department in the Metrology area as I was able to bring in some knowledge from my academic background, and measurement systems were an important component to the certification process. Over 25 years ago, it was not common to have a woman in Maintenance, and I was the first to join this area inside Riopele. I think it was a very enriching experience.

What was your main motivation for taking on the leadership of Riopele's Sustainability Department?

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of taking on various leadership roles within Riopele, which has enabled me to grow as a person and to get to know the textile process better, all of its strengths and difficulties. When the Board of Directors invited me to join the Sustainability Department four years ago, it was at a time when I felt in need of a new challenge and in a period when the sustainability issue was beginning to be highlighted. My main motivation was to incorporate the holistic vision of sustainability into the company and to make Riopele stand out, not only for its innovative and quality products, but also for all of its work to preserve the environment and respect for people and their communities.

What are the main goals and objectives of Riopele's "Sustainability Roadmap 2027"?

In 2027, Riopele will be 100 years old. We want our legacy to last for another 100 years and we are aware that the next decade will see accelerated change demanding much more from us and from companies, especially due to climate change, and social inequalities. Therefore, and aligned with the 2030 agenda of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and with the textiles strategy defined within the European Green Deal, Riopele has set some targets for 2027. In terms of products, our goal is for 80% of our commercialised articles to incorporate a sustainability component and we have adopted a tool for measuring LCA. We are seeking the very best solutions to enhance the circularity of our textile waste. Regarding people, we will continue to invest in their development and training and work on health and well-being and the balance between personal and professional lives.

What about decarbonisation?

In terms of CO2 emissions, Riopele calculated its Carbon Footprint for 2021, according to the GHG Protocol, in scope 1, 2 and 3, which represent 9%, 16% and 75% of total emissions respectively. Riopele expects to reduce its scope 1 and 2 emissions to zero by 2027, being operationally carbon neutral, and to work with its supply chain to reduce 20% of scope 3.

In your opinion, what are the most important sustainability certifications with reference to the textile industry?

That’s a good question. There are many benchmarks in the textile industry, some that apply to products, others to the company, and although they are voluntary processes, who ends up determining the company's certifications are the brands and customers, when they adopt them as mandatory requirements. I believe this reflects an issue on which the sector should strive to adopt a common language. A company is not more or less sustainable according to the number of certifications obtained but rather by the responsible and transparent manner applied in carrying out its activities.

From Riopele's perspective, which certification would you highlight?

I would highlight STeP by Oeko Tex certification, which Riopele obtained, on a voluntary basis, in 2019 as a standard that measures the sustainable performance of a textile company, taking into account environmental, safety and social responsibility aspects, within strict requirements and attributing a final classification. This then allows for benchmarking between companies and, simultaneously, challenges organisations to evolve in order to achieve the best performance standards.

Riopele is considered a model company in terms of water conservation and energy efficiency. What are the most significant investments the company has made?

Riopele is aware of the impact of its activities and the value of minimising the consumption of natural resources such as water. For such reason, and long before there was much talk about sustainability and the looming problems of water scarcity, Riopele began its production effluent recovery process over two decades ago. Currently we already recover 53% of the production effluent and we hope to raise this level by 2027. However, there has long been a constant concern over reducing water consumption with company investments over the last four years including replacing all the machines in the yarn dyeing area and others for the dyeing of pieces by equipment with lower bath ratios, what has contributed significantly. Furthermore, the investment in the online management of water capture allows us to reduce some waste as well as using the rainwater collected from a covered area of about 8,000 m2.

And what about the reduction in energy consumption?

In terms of energy efficiency, Riopele has always sought to be at the forefront, investing in more efficient equipment, both for production and for support facilities, with consumption by the latter accounting for around 30% of the total. However, in line with the sustainability roadmap, and regarding the usage of thermal energy from renewable sources, Riopele has invested in a biomass boiler, which will enter operations in the first quarter of 2023, contributing to the reduction of CO2 emissions in Scope 1 by around 5%, following investment of over €4 million. In addition, the installation of another solar photovoltaic plant is planned for one of our production units, providing 21% of its EE.

What measures has the company implemented to ensure that human rights and ethical production are integral components of the business strategy?

At Riopele, people are one of the company's strategic pillars. Internally, we abide by the principles described in our code of ethics and conduct, which is disseminated to all employees, including the youngest, during the induction process. In terms of the supply chain, suppliers must also demonstrate that they act in accordance with our principles, either by accepting our code or through certification in the area of social responsibility. In addition, we have an Ethics and Conduct Committee, which ensures that any irregularities that may be reported are dealt with. In addition to all this, the company annually and within the scope of the Organisational Climate questionnaire surveys its employees on ethics and conduct related issues. Notwithstanding all this, we are also subject to social audits by our clients, which demonstrate our compliance with international standards and specific requirements.

Is it possible for companies to reconcile sustainable fashion and eco-awareness while remaining profitable?

Yes, companies that strategically incorporate the concept of sustainability aim to ensure a balance between the three pillars of People, Planet and Profit. Currently, some companies are already doing so but within two or three years most companies will be obliged to report their ESG indicators (non-financial reporting) and should they not be able to demonstrate how sustainability is integral to their strategy, they may see their financing and even their commercial relationships with clients compromised.

How can consumers protect themselves from greenwashing practices and ensure that fashion companies are truly committed to sustainable practices?

There really must be more awareness-raising and training for consumers. However, greenwashing practices will also have to be combated by legislation and monitoring. In my opinion, the digital passport will be a very interesting tool for consumers to make conscious and informed choices. It is not yet known how this will be placed on articles but it will eventually be possible to establish the traceability of products, everything from where and how the fibre is produced and all of its environmental impact.