A decade ago, the Portuguese textile sector was in crisis and increasingly under threat from low-cost producers such as China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. Drastic steps were needed in order to re-invent and add new dynamism to the historic industry. Textiles are undoubtedly a strategic sector for the Portuguese economy, representing 10% of total industrial exports and more than 15% of employment in the manufacturing industry. It is largely based out of Porto and surrounding industrial areas. To this day, it is controlled largely by a number of family-held businesses whose experience in the sector often goes back more than 100 years.
Fast forward to today, and Portugal has a booming textile and fashion culture that leverages the country’s industrial expertise. One of the most important entities that spearheaded the revitalization of the textile industry is the Portuguese Technological Center for the Textile and Clothing Industries (CITEVE). By the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, Portuguese textile manufacturers realized they could no longer rely on the domestic market for growth since the country’s real GDP was shrinking rapidly. Textile companies were under tremendous pressure due to stagnating or non-existent local demand.
The solution was to find new export markets, from nearby European countries to the GCC, as far east as Japan and China, and westward to Latin America. But in order to make headway in these new and often challenging markets, Portuguese textile producers had to implement particularly efficient production processes by maximizing value addition and innovation. The General Manager of CITEVE, Eng. António Braz Costa, recognizes Portugal’s need to leverage the country’s strong scientific and technological ecosystem to help boost the overall competitiveness of the sector.
Portugal, thus, set out to compete in the global textile industry on the basis of scientific innovation. Renowned academic institutions such as University of Minho set up R&D laboratories and worked together with Portugal’s leading textile companies to undertake a process of continual innovation utilizing the latest technological advances in materials and nanotechnology. This led to success at a number of companies such as A. Sampaio and Sons and the Latino Group, which now produce next-generation fibers to make tactical uniforms for police forces and the military. A growing number of Portuguese companies have exhibited their products at homeland security fairs such as Milipol in Paris and ISPO in Munich, the leading trade fair for sports professionals, and won awards for uniquely innovative products.
These high-added-value textiles utilize a wide variety of properties including ballistic protection, cut- and fire-resistant fibers, and anti-microbial functions, as well as the incorporation of the latest electronic sensors that can provide soldiers life-saving, real-time information on the battlefield, or work clothing that can protect workers operating in potentially hostile environments such as offshore oil and gas rigs. Much of the success of Portuguese textile companies producing tactical items for the military or police forces around the world was previously gained by developing fibers for performance sports such as mountaineering and skiing.
Another defining characteristic of Portugal’s modern textile industry is a firm commitment to environmental sustainability. Portugal already has particularly stringent environmental regulations, but the new generation of Portuguese textile companies has set out to further reduce CO2 emissions, industrial waste, and effluent water. Sustainability is deeply ingrained in these companies’ business models, and many work with recycled polyester, cotton, and organic materials such as cork. Some even go as far as utilizing plastic recovered from the bottom of the ocean by fishermen. Companies such as TINTEX Textiles even have dedicated sustainability managers to ensure the full traceability of materials throughout the supply chain and produce fabrics with the lowest possible environmental impact.
The revamping of the textile industry elevates the sophistication of the sector and gives Portugal growing reach to new export markets.