The wool industry completes world’s first textile fibre cradle-to-grave Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) study taken to a peer-reviewed publication. The study found that how often clothes are worn is the most influential factor in determining environmental impacts from clothing.
The LCA of a wool garment
To date, there have been limited life cycle assessment (LCA) studies on the environmental impacts of the full supply chain including the use phase of garments, with the majority of LCA studies focusing on a segment of the supply chain. This study aimed to address this knowledge gap via a cradle-to-grave LCA of a woollen garment.
What the study found was that the number of times a garment is worn is the most influential factor in determining garment impacts. This indicates consumers who are aware of wool’s attributes have the largest power to influence the sustainability of their wool garments by maximising the active garment lifespan and therefore reducing overall impacts.
Why garment lifespan is important
The study estimated the total number of to be 109. However, if the garment was disposed of after only one season, or 15 uses, this would result in a 5.8- to 6.8-fold increase in environmental impacts and resource use.
Increasing the total number of wears to 400 reduced environmental impacts by 49 to 68%, indicating substantial improvements are possible if a garment’s lifetime is extended.
What do textile lifecycle assessment tools do?
Lifecycle assessment tools measure the impact of textile on the environment over all life stages, from raw material production through processing, manufacture, distribution, use, recycling and ultimately disposal.
LCA is a young science that is still evolving and environmental ratings agencies such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) do not yet account for all life stages in their environmental rating index, known as the HIGG material sustainability index (MSI).
“Several significant environmental impacts and processes are excluded from the MSI including the use phase, recyclability, biodegradability, renewability of resource used, microfibres, abiotic resource depletion (minerals) and abiotic bioaccumulation,” said Dr Steve Wiedemann of Integrity AG & Environment."
Until addressed, these omissions limit the scientific robustness of the MSI and could lead to less sustainable fibre choices, which may compromise the SAC’s goal of promoting a sustainable apparel industry.
Why we can’t afford to get this wrong
Research conducted by environmental specialists Dr Steve Wiedemann and Dr Kalinda Watson of Integrity AG & Environment involved a comprehensive analysis of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Material Sustainability Index (MSI) which reveals a number of shortcomings in the tool.
The MSI is increasingly being adopted by industry but this LCA tool only currently accounts for the front-end of the supply chain, up to the retail outlet. Without including key environmental impact stages such as the use phase and garment end-of-life in the MSI, comparisons between fibre types are not meaningful. If not addressed, these inconsistencies could guide well-intentioned consumers towards less sustainable fibre choices.
“We need robust, accurate and reliable methods to generate meaningful ratings that can be trusted by all parts of the supply chain, including consumers.”
This is what the research found
- The MSI does not include a full lifecycle of products. Without including key environmental impact stages such as the use phase and garment end-of-life in the MSI, comparisons between fibre types are not meaningful.
- The MSI neglects measurement of important impacts such as microplastic pollution. The detrimental impacts of microplastic pollution are being uncovered at an alarming rate and this surely must be considered in the MSI which can be done through an accounting system.
- The quality of the underlying data is poor and in many instances not scientifically peer-reviewed or representative of the industry as a whole.
- The MSI lacks transparency in its use of proxy data and methodology. Weighting scores are given to environmental impacts such as energy, water and greenhouse gas that have not been tested by the scientific peer-reviewed process.
- The MSI does not yet consider all aspects of the environmental impact of the products tested such as renewability, recycling, biodegradability, land management, carbon cycling and biodiversity.
If the MSI is to be a comprehensive environmental measurement tool these aspects must be included.
You can read the full report here:
Effect of methodological choice on the estimated impacts of wool production and the significance for LCA-based rating systems
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The EU is taking the lead on LCA methodologies and its Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) program considers potential environmental impacts across a range of products, including Apparel and Footwear.
The Woolmark Company has been, and continues to be, an active contributor to the environmental assessment processes undertaken by organisations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The wool industry funds much-needed research to help develop a robust and scientifically defendable methodology for environmental assessment of the textile industry.
The wool industry has a seat at the table at key technical forums in the EU to drive responsible change in the fashion industry so the environmental footprint of garments can be correctly assessed. Such assessments are vital for identifying the environmental hotspots where our efforts need to be focused to further reduce the footprint of wool clothing.
Learn more about wool's environmental footprint.