PART 2 – A CASE STUDY ON THE MANIPULATION OF LCAS
When numbers and data points are thrown at us, we tend to take them as the absolute truth. But, data can be taken out of context, as Nicholas and Luc brought up in our last article. So, this week, we are doing a deep dive on how LCA’s and their data can be manipulated for marketing schemes!
LUC, IN YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING FOR ECOCHAIN AND A RANGE OF CLIENTS IN THE APPAREL SECTOR, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY SHOULD DO TO IMPROVE HOW LCAS ARE CALCULATED?
In my opinion, the entire industry should uphold the same standards and methodology. It should also be implemented with primary data coming from the suppliers within the textile industry. From cotton growers and technical fiber manufacturers to knitters and weavers. All parties should work in the same way and take additional efforts to measure their contribution.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT THERE IS STILL A LOT OF FREEDOM FOR COMPANIES TO SHAPE LCA RESULTS IN THE WAY THEY PREFER?
Absolutely! There are many ways which well performed and perfectly valid LCAs can be manipulated by marketing teams to imply something not intended by those who created the study. It is also possible for brands or retailers to shift the blame of their impacts onto the consumer.
BLAMING THE CONSUMER DOESN’T SEEM LIKE THE RIGHT WAY FOR A BRAND TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. DO YOU HAVE AN EXAMPLE IN MIND?
The use phase of textile products is, correctly, identified as having the largest impact on greenhouse gas emissions or water consumption. However, this does not mean that an apparel brand should only stop at recommending their consumers should wash clothing less often. It is important to launder clothing less frequently, but brands also need to take ownership for their own production practises and reduce their overproduction habits. This issue can be made worse by oversimplified “sustainability scores” which are based on LCA datasets but have become so overgeneralized that many of the intricate and important factors which contribute to a robust LCA are overlooked and glossed over. Brands shouldn’t be marketing oversimplified LCA data to their consumers.
HOW ABOUT ISSUES THAT ARE NOT INCLUDED IN AN LCA SUCH AS THE IMPACT OF RECYCLED POLYESTER?
A brand wants to market a new sweater as a sustainable product. Likely, the easiest way to accomplish this is by including a percentage of recycled polyester (rPET) from plastic bottles in the yarn blend, with minimal price increase. Datasets used to create a material’s impact score will “cut off” the environmental burdens for the rPET at the point of collecting the recycled bottles. This means that none of the oil extraction, polymerization (which can include carcinogenic chemicals), transportation, melting, etc. that is involved in creating the original plastic bottle is attributed to the environmental burden of that fiber. This gives rPET textile fibers a very favorable “score” compared to natural fibers and obscures the fact that the PET fibers can persist indefinitely. I want to be clear that this is a legitimate and valid way of assigning a cut off boundary within LCA studies, but its generalization into a consumer facing point system does more harm than good.
HOW ABOUT MICROPLASTICS?
The issue of microplastics is extremely important and should be highlighted by more people in the movement for sustainability. Take the rPET sweater mentioned above. Washing that sweater will result in thousands of microfibers being sent to wastewater treatment plants where some of those fibers will enter our waterway (0.5 million tonnes of fibers are estimated to be released during washing). Those fibers will likely never fully degrade and have been found in hundreds of species of aquatic animals. There is – at this time – no toxicological value associated with the impact of microplastics. A toxicological value would allow an LCA software program to equate microfiber pollution to the Impact Category unit for Marine Ecotoxicity. This means that the potentially millions of microfibers released during the use phase of that sweater do not contribute at all to the overall marine toxicology score for the LCA of that product. It will take a concerted effort for textile and environmental scientists to characterise the expected microfiber release of different textile products over their use phase and combine this with the environmental harm caused by these fibers. This effort is vital if we are going to avoid the rampant greenwashing of plastic clothing. Luke Haverhals of Natural Fiber Welding posts some very interesting reporting on the Fossil Fuel industry and the ways in which LCA-based datasets can be used to obscure the impact of synthetic fibers.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT THE FOCUS IS TOO MUCH ON CARBON RATHER THAN ALSO OTHER IMPACT CATEGORIES?
Don't get me wrong. A carbon footprint is a great start. It allows you to check which specific parts of the supply chain or life cycle phases contribute to a certain amount of impact (e.g. with kg CO2-eq the effect on Global Warming Potential). We call this a hotspot analysis and brands should be using it to highlight the areas of their supply chains which are having the worst environmental impacts. However, carbon should not be the only indicator. Water scarcity, eutrophication, and toxicities are often overlooked but relevant indicators to into account when looking at textiles.
CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US MORE ABOUT HOW THERE ARE TRADE OFFS BETWEEN CATEGORIES?
Focusing on only one impact category can severely limit the conclusions of an LCA. I believe that climate change caused by carbon emissions is a huge and daunting problem for humanity. However, there is too much focus on carbon neutrality as the only goal of sustainable manufacturing. Some manufacturing choices will reduce the impact of multiple categories including Global Warming (like choosing energy sources which are not derived from coal burning). There may be manufacturing choices which can reduce Global Warming while dramatically increasing other Impact Categories. In this case, brands and regulators alike should think carefully about what trade offs are more important given the local demands of production.
Thank you to Nicholas Hammond and the White Oak Legacy Foundation, and Luc Hillege and Ecochain for the expert insight and motivation to continue measuring what we can and using that data to make improvements not greenwashing 🙃 If you are looking to deepen your understanding of the steps involved at each link of the supply chain, head to Supply Chain 101 , sign up for White Oak Legacy Foundation’s next Denim 101 course March 29 - 30th, and check out Ecochain’s work in the apparel sector!