Navigating The Confusing And Delicate World of LCAs & Carbon Neutrality | Part 1
PART 1 – LCA INTRODUCTION, GUIDELINES, BENEFITS, LIMITATIONS, CARBON OFFSETTING AND CERTIFICATIONS
Hello reader! First of all, we would like to thank you for clicking on this post. You clearly are committed to gaining a better understanding about the environmental issues of fashion, and the world of impact calculations, carbon neutrality, and life cycle assessments (LCAs). You might be new to the topic, but don’t be afraid of the technical terms! We believe that everyone should be able to understand what is written in sustainability reports with a critical eye. If you have any questions please shoot. If you are an expert in the topic, we invite you to share your opinion with us: what are the limitations, opportunities and issues with LCAs? We started by asking these questions to an expert that we know we can trust. After Ani’s enrolment in White Oak Legacy Foundation’s Denim 101 course (you can read all about it here), we were introduced to W.O.L.F. 's technical consultant. Without further ado we present to you Nicholas Hammond, and the interview we carried out with him. Nicholas graduated from Auburn University where he studied Polymer and Fiber Engineering, after which he went on to focus his studies on sustainability at the North Carolina State University Wilson College of Textiles earning a Masters of Science in textiles. To ensure we are bringing you a wide range of perspectives, we also decided to get some insight from Luc Hillege, who helps businesses by calculating and improving the environmental performance of their products, processes, and materials through the Ecochain software. The aim of his projects are to reveal the hotspots in supply chains and aim for the biggest positive impact.
NICHOLAS, CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY?
I have always been fascinated by the beauty of how a fabric is formed and why it looks a particular way. Since the start of my journey I researched the environmental impacts of it: my thesis focused on impact assessment of apparel using Life Cycle Assessment tools and methodologies.
LUC, WE KNOW THAT YOU ARE AN ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERT WORKING AT ECOCHAIN, BUT CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR GOAL?
My personal goal is to make a sustainable impact with the insights generated by Ecochain's software.
We have mentioned LCAs in Supply Chain 101 and other articles, and owe a lot of our learnings to the company Ecochain, which publishes great articles for beginners. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, LCAs are amazing tools to calculate the impact at all stages of an item, and make decisions on production, material sourcing, supply chains, etc. (remember, what you measure is what you can manage). The outcome of an LCA is the value of each life cycle stage and impact categories (Carbon, fresh water usage, toxicity etc.). LCAs rely on a large set of data available in databases that allows you to turn things like kg of materials, or kWh of energy, or cubic metres of water into a unit of impact.
HOW ARE THESE VALUES USED?
Impact Categories are broken down into Midpoint indicators (such as Global Warming, Marine Ecotoxicity, Fossil Resource Scarcity, and Water Consumption) and Endpoint Indicators (Damage to Human Health, Damage to Ecosystems, Damage to Resource Availability).
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT AN LCA IS IN A SENTENCE?
Life Cycle Assessments seek to quantify the potential environmental impacts of a good or service from the extraction/ production of raw materials (often referred to as the Cradle) to the end of life and disposal (often referred to as the Grave).
The existence of LCAs as a way of thinking about environmental impact is fairly recent for multiple reasons. Quantifying impact categories is not so straightforward, and you need to have a lot of data about your product.
IS THERE ANY REGULATION OR STANDARD BEHIND LCAS?
The term Life Cycle Assessment is wrapped up in a particular set of standardized methodologies (ISO 14040, 14044) which must be followed for the credibility of the discipline to be maintained. There are LCIA systems used to calculate Impact Categories and the choice of LCIA should be clearly stated in the reporting of an LCA. Some LCIA systems include Swiss Ecoscarcity 07, Impact 2002+, USEtox, TRACI (popular for energy studies in the United States), and ReCiPe (used by several LCA studies on textile and apparel products). The methodology also requires third party critical review and revisions before an LCA should be published.
WHEN DO YOU THINK THAT LCAS REALLY BECAME A STANDARD IN THE INDUSTRY?
The first LCA is most often attributed to Coca-Cola in 1969 to justify the adoption of plastic bottles to contain their products. The use of LCAs in textile and apparel seems to have begun in the early 2000’s with brands and NGOs using the methodology after 2010.
The primary benefit is the fact that the process of performing an LCA and the reporting is standardised. This allows for peers to check each other’s work and for conclusions to be changed or improved based on access to better data or technological improvements. LCAs are extremely powerful to inform decisions. When making a comparison between two yarn dyeing systems, for example, we are not limited to simply which system used the most water or energy. Based on Impact Categories, we can dive deeply into the various trade-offs which will inevitably be made in choosing one system over another.
To measure the total environmental footprint, which goes beyond the carbon footprint, the preferred methodology is LCA. It allows manufacturers to provide information regarding the environmental performance of their products, which can be a wide range of topics particularly in the textile industry.
AND THE LIMITATIONS?
One significant limitation is the specificity of any one LCA. An LCA performed on a t-shirt can only really represent that particular t-shirt and should not be generalised to represent t-shirts as a whole. Failure to understand this can contribute to “erratic copying” of environmental impact data. Another limitation is the price barrier of vast datasets required to perform LCAs, driven by the high labour costs for trained professionals creating the datasets. Finally, the scientific field of LCA is dominated by trained Environmental Scientists, without the input of a trained textile scientist or engineer. This has led to inconsistencies in the technical language used to describe textile products.
When calculating LCAs there are a lot of choices, such as the definitions of boundaries, the exact operations to include, the exclusions of secondary operations and the choice of specific data points to use. For example, a factory might have 10% of its water consumption used for cleaning the machinery. When calculating the impact of a pair of jeans, the LCA will probably only look at the amount of water required in the wash recipe itself. The cleaning of machinery is not directly connected to each item. The person doing the LCA will have to explain why this has been included or excluded, but the result might be quite different.
This is where we have a lot more questions. We understand that LCAs are amazing tools for calculations to encourage improvement, but have limitations in terms of cost, expertise, areas that it covers and manipulation by those who calculate it. The issue is also that LCAs are the base for carbon neutrality claims and huge marketing campaigns.
Verifying an LCA means going through the methodology used, checking that all the data and averages used represent reality accurately, and approving the assumptions made. However, the entity verifying LCAs is often unable to go to each farm, mill, chemical processing plant, and factory. Database information isn’t always representative of the reality of production. So, how can we trust all the claims that we are presented with on websites, tags and products? Nonetheless, we support brands wanting to become more sustainable, and we understand that they have to start somewhere!
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT CARBON NEUTRALITY CAN BE FULLY VERIFIED?
Carbon neutral products can meet the requirements set by certification organisations and still miss the mark when it comes to reducing the impact of that product within its supply chain. The trend of datafication seems to go in the direction of possibly maintaining a real time carbon accounting of textile products manufactured. One could imagine a blockchain enabled management of every fiber used to create a given t-shirt including every kWh of energy used in the production stages and all associated transportation. We may get to that point and a company can be able to say that X amount of carbon offsets were purchased to verify carbon neutrality for said t-shirt.
Carbon neutrality for a piece of garment will probably not be possible. Most rules that are related to making a product LCA, actually do not allow carbon offsetting to be accounted to a T-shirt. Therefore, for carbon neutrality to be achieved, a coherent framework with set rules and verification procedures needs to be put in place and regulated.
WHAT WOULD BE A BETTER SOLUTION?
In my view, circularity and sustainability can never be expressed in percentages. Thus, a T-shirt can never become 100% circular or 100% sustainable. An Olympic athlete will never achieve 100% of its goal. The record of the previous year can always be done better or faster. This same is true for reducing your footprint. You can always improve and lower the impact of your product somewhere up or down-stream in the supply chain.
A focus on offsetting carbon as a globalised economic system fails to recognize the role of local agricultural practises in our natural fiber supply chains. Practises under the regenerative agriculture umbrella can be harnessed to sequester carbon and heal topsoil through the supply chain. We can’t ignore the necessary restraints of less overproduction and more localised supply chains.
HOW DO YOU SEE LCAS AND OFFSETTING COMBINING? SHOULD THEY BE KEPT SEPARATE?
The methodology and framework of LCA supports the efforts of carbon accounting which makes offsets possible. However, I would be disappointed to see the two mixed together in advertisement and messaging about a product and its perceived but generalised sustainability.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO DO IN CARBON OFFSETTING?
Focus on your own supply chains and make as much of it as you can carbon negative. Don’t buy into a global enterprise which specialises in removing guilt for the highest bidder. We should accept the restraints of the local systems in which we find ourselves and produce beautiful goods within those systems.
If readers want to take a deep dive into the world of LCAs there is an excellent open access textbook on the subject.
We would like to give a special thank you to Nicholas for his time and wisdom. Oh, also, he is seeking full time employment opportunities in the textile and apparel sector ;) Until time friends, always be curious and stay diligent! 🤓