The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion


Can We Trust Environmental Footprints for Fashion Products?

The recent obsession with metrics within the fashion industry is hard to miss. 

The (fake!) news that fashion is the “second most polluting industry in the world” spread as fast as a spring flu, raising a few eyebrows along the way. Consumers frequently receive alarming news about the enormous amounts of water used to produce one pair of jeans and kilograms of CO2 associated with the production of cotton t-shirts. Often, that information is shared by a brand eager for you to buy their eco-friendly product instead.

There are several organizations that claim to help brands measure and share the environmental impact of their goods with shoppers, like Higg, GreenStory, Ecochain, and Bcome

Behind their user-friendly interface, however, hide a lot of questions as to A. How they get to those tidy little numbers, B. Whether they’re accurate, and C. If they’re doing more harm than good.

The Recipe for a (Half-Baked) LCA 

Each of the companies offering carbon measurement as a service has a different approach to chasing down emissions of textile goods. But most refer to what’s called an “LCA”, or Life Cycle Assessment. 

An LCA is a method that studies the environmental impact throughout a product’s life cycle. It commonly includes categories such as water use, global warming measured in CO2e (greenhouse gas emissions equal in potency to CO2), eutrophication (water pollution by phosphates and nitrates from the use of pesticides, fertilizers, detergents and other chemicals) and abiotic depletion (the use of non-renewable fossil fuels). 

But regardless of the variation an LCA takes, it remains a framework: a complex formula where every variable needs to be filled with data. 

The problem is where that data comes from.

For instance, Bcome, Greenstory and EcoChain mention that they calculate LCAs using data in compliance with the ISO LCA  14040 and the 14044 guidelines, but only EcoChain publicly lists its data sources, which assume an average carbon footprint per type of material. Higg Material Sustainability Index relies on largely proprietary data that represents global averages for materials as well. But recently, the Norwegian Consumer Authority declared the HIGG Index carbon footprint evaluation of textile goods “likely to be false and untruthful” and therefore illegal for use in communicating sustainability to consumers in Norway. 

The problem with the data behind LCA is in the way it is recorded. The apparel industry’s supply chain is immensely complicated and involves multiple farms and facilities all over the world. Even if there is a way to measure the energy and water consumption at the weaving, dyeing and processing stages, the environmental impact of growing and harvesting natural raw materials remains largely assumed—and inaccurate.

The major part of the environmental impact of apparel happens when the raw material is extracted, grown, harvested, and processed before it’s turned into thread or fabric, dyed, or sewn. In the example of cotton, unless brands work directly with the growers, there’s not enough investment or curiosity to calculate the true impact. According to the Managing Director of The Sourcery, Crispin Argento, brands do not normally know where the fiber even comes from, much less how it was irrigated, harvested, fertilized, and managed for pests. 

Occasionally, the raw material can be traced down to a group of farmers, but that group can include between 10  to 20 thousand farms. And each farm would have a different environmental profile. One farm produces rain-fed cotton, and another has an irrigation system. But their cotton would be bulked together and mixed at the ginner. The raw material is then further mixed at the spinning stage, a process permitted by certification bodies such as BCI and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA)

The problem is that any estimate is based on a suppedly representative environment. In reality, the spectrum of what happens in the supply chain is incredibly wide. Nature is volatile and unruly. Year by year the land requires different resources and approaches to produce the same crop.  And if we do not take into consideration the changeable environments of agriculture, we also take away all the incentives for improvement. What’s the motivation for a cotton grower (for instance) to invest in better land management, if beforehand it is already assumed how much CO2 the crop will generate?

There are some positive examples when brands go ahead and invest in tracing their supply chain to the farmer. The French sneaker company Veja shares pretty descriptive information on where the brand sources its materials in Brazil and Peru (including a list of Brazilian suppliers) and how much it pays per kilogram of a product. Veja claims that it took two members of the sourcing team almost a year to gather all the data and details for its 2019/20 emissions report. That was even possible because Veja works directly with rubber and organic cotton producers.

The European Commission has been working on wrangling this mess into a streamlined format, called the PEF, or the Product Environmental Footprint methodology. The idea behind the initiative is to regulate vague and unsupported environmental claims that create a juicy opportunity for greenwashing. But the data that the EU is looking at, once again, only estimates the average environmental footprint per material.

Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, the Co-Founder and Director of 2Bpolicy, the organization developing the PEF method for the EU commission, admits that it’s impossible at this stage to create a methodology granular and affordable enough for small and medium brands. While he agrees that estimating emissions per material has its limits, he believes this is the only way to move forwards to agree on one common method to evaluate carbon footprint of textile goods within EU today.

“We are in a time of climate emergency. We all agree that the world is too complex to rely on estimates. But then the issue is when and how do we set a start to measure environmental impact at all? If we cannot agree on one common method, even if it has a series of problems, we cannot improve it. The first carriage invented, I’m confident it didn’t have perfectly round wheels, it was not comfortable and, of course, it wasn’t perfect but it was a starting point. ” 

Could Digital Trust Platforms  Provide Better Data?

In response to the public’s mistrust and confusion, blockchain is slowly growing its fanbase among the watchdogs of the apparel industry. Blockchain’s key proposition is that once recorded, no one can go in and meddle with or change the data. This could be key for ensuring the “Egyptian” cotton is actually from Egypt, or the recycled polyester is actually made from used bottles. It could also be key in recording impact data at each step and making sure it makes it all the way up to retailers intact.   

PaperTale has been the pioneer in introducing blockchain technology to the apparel supply chain. Since information recorded via blockchain cannot be altered, it brings tighter control over data transmitted to the consumer.

“LCA or PEF methodologies are not sufficient to calculate the true impact of products,” says Bilal Bhatti, the CEO of PaperTale, “They rely on the secondary data obtained in an ideal scenario with simplistic products in mind. They also require no proof of the sanctity of input data. Blockchain can ensure that the data is tamper-proof and establish the chain of custody of materials, processes, and the stakeholders involved in a supply chain. As a result, we can bring a product-level impact which is a much better approach than a standard LCA approach.”

PaperTale collaborates today with a few manufacturers—OUTSO, Selyn Textiles and Crescent Bahuman Limited, and has had a joint project with a Swedish brand, Gina Tricot. During the production of the five-item capsule, sensors were used to record all energy output for both the production and the facility in which the factory is based. But, it is worth mentioning that there is no record of a similar approach applied to the raw material in the process. 

Without a doubt, blockchain remains just a technology, which requires data. And data requires a human to input it. It will only work if we trust the human that inputs that information in the first place. 

Comparing Apples and Pears….or Cotton to Plastic

It is often mentioned that an LCA is not designed to tell us which material is more sustainable—it’s only meant to share some data on some aspects of a material and its impact.

“With PEF we do not intend to claim one material to be more sustainable than another, but reflect on its carbon footprint. It will not tell you what is better or worse for the environment,” says Baptiste. Still, synthetic polymers—with their simple production involved extraction, refining, polymerization and spinning—are easier to measure and tend to receive lower impact scores than natural fibers, which involve many months or years of variable farming impacts, on top of processing and spinning.

It’s commonly accepted that cotton, for example, requires massive amounts of land, damages ecosystems, consumes immense amounts of water, and has human rights issues associated with each step of the production cycle. Polyester, according to Higg, does not require as much water or energy to produce. 

But, it only takes a few months for a pure cotton shirt to decompose, while it’s somewhere around 500 years for polyester fibers to decompose. Imagine, since the day polyester was commercialized in 1941, not a single synthetic garment has dissolved into soil. Moreover, synthetic fibers are known to be one of the primary sources of microplastic pollution. Scientists still debate over the gravity of health and the environmental impact it has on humans, flora and fauna. Meanwhile, microplastics have been identified in a wide spectrum of living organisms, ranging from plankton, fish and large mammals in marine environments to land animals and humans. And since the long-term consequences are yet to be identified, the important question is: How do we measure—in numbers—the damage caused by petroleum-based, non-biodegradable materials? 

The Verdict on LCAs

So, to the question of whether LCA provides an accurate picture of the environmental impact of a garment, the answer is: absolutely not. 

During our conversation, Baptiste recalled a survey of the public asking what the environmental footprint of a shoe is. One of the answers received was “I did not know a shoe had a footprint”

Sadly, the public still relates carbon footprint solely to energy consumption—planes and heavy industry. While consumers don’t seem to be aware that their consumer choices have consequences for the climate, in 2020, textile consumption in Europe had on average the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change from a global life cycle perspective. It was the consumption area with the third highest impact on water and land use, and the fifth highest in terms of raw material use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have to think about how to inform the public, with all the precautions, about the consequences of their consumer choices,” he says. 

Perhaps the most realistic way to look at these metrics is the way we look at the nutritious value of food. We are starting to understand that it is not the overall number of calories or the amount of fat that determines the impact of our favorite snack on our wellbeing. On paper, 50 grams of walnuts contains more calories than 50 grams of salted potato chips. It does not mean, however, that potato chips are healthier. 

So, much like many people have left behind calorie counting and low-fat diets in favor of wholesome, real food, perhaps we should leave behind liter-counting and “carbon-negative” fashion for a more simple and wholesome strategy: Buy fewer, but higher quality clothing… and secondhand when you can. After all, it’s much easier to remember a twist on the Michael Pollan adage: Buy quality clothing, not too much, mostly plant-based.

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