Extensive water use and- pollution, worker exploitation, microplastic, CO2 emissions… The apparel industry has faced increasing criticism over the past years. Fashion is getting a bad name and customers demand “sustainable” products.
But making sustainable apparel products isn’t easy.
What criticism should you focus on? What kind of impact do your products actually have on the environment? How do you transparently improve & communicate your environmental efforts?
In this beginner’s guide, we show you how to start implementing sustainability in your product design. You’ll learn:
- What ‘doing sustainable’ for companies producing apparel & textile products means.
- How to use the scientific method Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to calculate & improve (lower) the environmental footprint of your products – in 6 steps.
What does ‘doing sustainable’ in apparel & textiles mean?
For companies, sustainability means going from mainly focusing on profit, to including care for people and the planet too (also called the triple bottom line = people, planet, profit).
P #1 = Here ‘people’ refers to your social sustainability: resolving criticism the industry faces on working conditions and exploitation.
P #2 = ‘Planet’, refers to your environmental sustainability – which is where Ecochain comes in. As social sustainability isn’t our expertise, this article only discusses the environmental sustainability of products.
From an environmental perspective, the apparel industry causes harm on a large* scale. Emitting 1.2 billion tons CO2-eq/year of greenhouse gases, releasing pollutants into the environment, dumping wastes, and depleting water in water-scarce regions. Environmental harm desperately needs to be tackled.
How can we do that – effectively?
* In 2015, Fashion contributed more to climate change than international flights and maritime shipping combined. More than half of this impact is caused by the production of polyester alone. It is estimated that 20% of industrial water pollution worldwide comes from textile treatment. (Ellen McArthur, 2017).
The practical solution: Life Cycle Assessments (LCA)
LCA is THE scientific method to measure the environmental impacts of products. It calculates the impact of every step in your product’s lifecycle: from its production to waste. The results: 15+ impact outcomes (carbon footprint, water use, land use, etc).
For example, some of the most important environmental impacts in apparel and textile are: Climate change, Water depletion, and Eutrophication (depletion of oxygen from water-bodies through excessive algae growth stimulated by pollution).
LCA analyses which material or process causes your biggest impact types. Showing you exactly where to focus your sustainability effort for maximum impact reduction. For example, it shows which textiles cause the biggest impact in your production – or the exact impact of consumers using your products (washing, drying. etc.).
Having 15+ environmental categories as footprint results, instead of solely your carbon footprint – allows you to reduce more types of impact. And prevents you from taking measures for e.g. climate change, whilst accidentally worsening other environmental impacts.
Step 1: Define your goal
– Analyse your motivation: You might want to conduct an LCA for several reasons:
- Prove environmental standards to customers, regulatory authorities, etc;
- Back up marketing claims or gain certification;
- Support strategic decisions to become a greener company;
- Design more sustainable products;
Your goal might also include a specific manner of communicating your results (see step 6).
– Choose an LCA method specific to textiles: There are different LCA methods. However, for apparel and textiles, we recommend you use the European PEF method in combination with the Ecoinvent database (the PEF database can’t be used yet). The PEF is an LCA standard that’s still being developed, but will most likely become mandatory for apparel & textiles in Europe in two years. That’s why preparation is crucial. By using the PEF method now already, the switch to PEF LCAs for apparel and textile companies will be minor.
– Choose what you want to measure: Based on your goal, you can choose to assess a:
- Product portfolio,
- Individual products.
– Assign responsibility: Make the goal a project and assign responsibility to someone who can invest the time as part of their work, e.g. a sustainability manager.
– Define your budget and timeframe.
Step 2: Check the rules & Define your scope
– Check country-specific norms & standards: Norms and standards for conducting and communicating an LCA can differ between countries. Think about the country where your results will be published, and research if any rules need to be followed. (Read more on LCA Standards and the legal situation, section 4 in the link)
– Choose an LCA Lifecycle Model: Based on these rules and your goal, decide on the scope (section 2 in link) of your assessment. The scope is about what phases in your product’s lifecycle you chose to include- and exclude in your measurements. There are 3 Product Lifecycle Models you can choose from (image 1).
- For example, the model ‘cradle-to-gate’ only assesses a product until it leaves the factory gates – before it is transported to the consumer. Whilst ‘cradle to grave’ analyses your footprint from production to waste. The wider your scope, the more insights you gain and the more improvement possibilities you can identify. But: the wider your scope, the more data you must collect.
Step 3: Collect the data
This stage is all about rolling up your sleeves.
– Start data inventory: Start by mapping out which data you need and who holds it. Your goal is to create an inventory of the number of materials, energy, and direct emissions that are used or caused for your product (see image 2). While there are databases that help you fill the gaps, the more original, specific data you can gather from your supply chain the more accurate your results will be.
- Learn more about data collection in LCA here.
– Activate supplier engagement: Therefore, make sure to bring your most important suppliers on board (causing your impact hotspots); ask them for the data you need for your calculations. And ask them to monitor this data from now on, so it’s up-to-date and at hand for future analyses.
- If suppliers can’t deliver the data you need right away, make sure to set up a data collection project with them with a clear value proposition, steps, and timeline.
- Learn more about how to collect supply chain data in fashion – in our podcast.
– Involve a Data Specialist: Involve a/your internal data specialist to store all your environmental data securely and accessible. This puts data in place necessary for future LCA calculations.
Step 4: Calculate your impacts
– Classify your inventory data into categories: In this step, we connect our inventory data from step 2 to corresponding emissions.
- These process and material-specific emissions (impact references) can be found in impact databases such as EcoInvent, Gabi, or openLCA (free database). Based on the LCA method (PEF) you’ve chosen, these emissions are then connected to impact categories.
- Keep in mind: doing these calculations manually is a difficult and very time-consuming process.
– Make your life easier – Use LCA software: Ecochain makes LCA accessible to businesses. Turning sustainability into a smooth and efficient ongoing process, without having to hire expensive consultants to do it for you.
- Our Mobius tool goes in-depth into a single product, focusing on sustainable product design.
- Our Helix tool assesses the footprint of your whole portfolio and manufacturing site.
Step 5: Improve your products (and never stop)
– Analyse your impact hotspots: The LCA shows you exactly where your product’s environmental impact comes from. It gives you your so-called ‘impact hotspots’ (biggest chunks of impact) down to all processes, materials, and transportation used in your product’s entire lifecycle.
– Implement Ecodesign: Your environmental data results show you exactly where your product’s design can be approved – across its full lifecycle. A sustainable design approach called Ecodesign.
- With Mobius, you can model design changes after you’ve calculated your environmental footprint and compare and test different materials, designs, and products at any time. Turning sustainability into an ongoing process.
- Inspire: Don’t forget to share the measures you’re most proud of: inspire your industry! Until then, get inspiration from the measures that apparel companies Saitex and MUD-Jeans took based on their LCAs!
Step 6: Show off – transparently!
– Use your environmental data in communications: Companies commonly have four reasons to communicate their sustainability efforts to customers:
- Reporting: For example, an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a shorter form of reporting your LCA results. Even though EPDs are not common in the apparel industry, some tenders or upstream customers might ask you for this. Notice that standards may differ based on the country-specific verifiers (step 2)!
- Marketing: An effective way is to compare your product to an average version of it. E.g. with regard to water- and climate impacts. Be careful to be transparent about the data sources of the values you use for comparison.
- Being mentioned in consumer guides
- Sporting Eco-labels: Ecolabels in fashion are complex: Theoretically they’re an asset, as consumers can quickly recognize if a product meets their values. Practically, there are many labels, all using different standards and methods, which is confusing for consumers. To solve this issue, the EU currently develops the Product Environmental Footprint method (PEF). The PEF creates an LCA standard for many different product categories. This makes products within the same category comparable. It’s still open in which form this will lead to product labels and whether they will become mandatory. We will keep this guide updated on all relevant PEF updates.
– ALWAYS be transparent: For all communication, transparency is the key to trust and preventing greenwashing. So, always clearly communicate the data you used in your LCA and the scope of your LCA.
– Never ‘just’ make comparisons: If you want to compare your product to another or ‘average’ product – always state:
- How you made your comparison;
- Which data you used to make the comparison (especially of the product you are comparing to).
Make an LCA yourself! In our easy footprint tool Mobius.
You now know the 6 steps to get started with LCA in apparel & textiles.
Practice conducting your first LCA with the 14-day free Mobius trial. And use the T-shirt demo to get started!
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- Investopedia (2022): What Is the Triple Bottom Line (TBL)?
- Gbolarumi et al. (2021): Sustainability Assessment in The Textile and Apparel Industry: A Review of Recent Studies
- Christa Weikerstorfer (Master-thesis, 2021): Eco-labels in the fashion industry
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation (report to download, 2017): A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)