How the Use Phase contributes to Clothing Impacts

March 19, 2024

How can higher-quality clothes have an overall higher environmental impact than lower-quality garments? 🔍

Today we shed light on how clothing quality impacts their environmental impact and what role the Use Phase plays in it - visually explained on a cotton t-shirt 👕

The Life cycle of products is divided into 3 principal phases:

  1. Production
  2. Use
  3. End-of-life

This is particularly true for consumer goods products, like apparel, for which the life cycle has increasingly a relatively short duration.

The Use Phase includes washing, drying, and ironing for most apparel products. The impact depends mostly on the frequency of product utilization and ideally on the care label indications, such as washing and ironing temperature.

Therefore to quantify the impact, we multiply the emission factors of the washing, drying, and ironing options by the number of times the product is ideally used.

In contrast to other everyday items like plastic cups or glass bottles, where the Use Phase may have negligible effects on the overall product impact, clothing can add a significant contribution to the total impact and shouldn't be neglected by a Product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study to have a full picture over the impact distribution.

Product Lifecycle

Use Phase Impacts of a Cotton T-Shirt

For example, a 200g cotton t-shirt manufactured in Italy would have a Production impact of 5.25kg CO2 eq. and a Use Phase impact of 1.38kg CO2 eq. which amounts to about 20% of the total impact if calculated according to the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) for apparel and footwear.

It is also true, though, that while the Production impact fully depends on the brand design choices, the Use Phase is subject to external factors over which the brand has no control including washing methods, temperature preferences, and the option to tumble dry or iron.

Despite the presence of care labels mandatory by law and providing instructions for product maintenance, the Use Phase is significantly impacted by individual consumer choices and washing practices. This makes predicting the Use Phase impact quite a challenge.

If we go back to the cotton t-shirt example, the Use Phase impact increases to 1.49kg CO2 eq. if it is only washed by hand instead of a washing machine and decreases to 0.88kg CO2 eq. if it is air-dried and not ironed.

Contributions of Material Quality to the Use Phase Impact

The product's quality and material significantly influence the Use Phase, with higher quality extending product life, therefore increasing use and washing times. Quality can be assessed through performance and physical durability tests relative to the failure modes of each product type.

The PEFCR then assigns a score, through a weighting system, to be multiplied by the standard lifetime of the product type. Higher quality corresponds to a higher score, therefore increasing the number of wears of the product.

Higher-quality clothes consequently increase the total impact making it seem like the worst choice. However, when assessing overall environmental impact and comparing it with lower quality products, the higher quality product has a lower impact per wear, which is calculated by dividing total impact, including production and disposal, by the number of uses.

For example, if we compare the basic t-shirt in the previous example with a high-quality one, and with the highest score according to the PEFCR, the use times increase from 30 to 65 wears and the impact increases to 2.98kg CO2 eq. while the impact per use decreases from 0.23kg CO2 eq. to 0.13kg CO2 eq.

Furthermore, the type of apparel itself influences usage patterns, where for example a jacket is typically worn more times before being washed compared to a t-shirt. Doubling, for instance, the use time of the cotton t-shirt would double the use phase total impact but decrease the impact per use to 0.14kg CO2 eq - almost as much as improving the material quality.

The Boundaries of Standards

Various standards, such as EPD and PEFCR, have emerged or are in development to standardize LCA studies also within the fashion sector. The adoption of these standards offers several advantages, primarily providing users with modeling assumptions and facilitating product comparisons across companies.

For instance, PEFCR provides information related to the Use Phase, specifying the frequency of use and recommended washing, drying, and ironing practices, along with optimal temperature settings based on product type and materials used.

These regulations have, like other standards, common limitations such as generality in technology, geography, energy mixes, and national practices, which can result in discrepancies between models and reality.

Beyond these limitations, the standards for apparel and footwear still don't include long-debated issues about the Use Phase given by the limited studies available and the lack of brand control over it since this forces the standard to use generalized information instead of product specifics.

Microplastic and Secondhand Debate

An extensively debated topic that was recently agreed to be included by the PEF framework is the emission of microplastics and other microfibers during clothing wear and laundering in the environment.

Research that has been done on them, like the one from Corella-Puertas et. al (2023), helped to get a better understanding of the environmental impact of microplastics in apparel and footwear products, improving also the accuracy of the study results.

Another topic that is being widely discussed is the extension of life cycles through secondhand and repairing, which today is a fast-growing trend in the industry.

However, standards like PEF assume second-hand doesn't extend the product's life but merely divides the Use Phase among consumers, disregarding potential variations in usage times.

In conclusion, recognizing the high impact of the Use Phase on apparel products, a higher focus on it should be given in studies. Brands should prioritize creating products that encourage prolonged consumer use, therefore diminishing the impact per use and reducing the need for further production.

Through such efforts, the fashion industry can help contribute to sustainable practices during the entire life cycle of their products.

Ready to measure and reduce the environmental impact of your products through scientific, legislation-confirm frameworks? Book a demo here! 👈


  • Elena Corella-Puertas, Carla Hajjar, Jérôme Lavoie, Anne-Marie Boulay, MarILCA characterization factors for microplastic impacts in life cycle assessment: Physical effects on biota from emissions to aquatic environments, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 418, 2023, 138197, ISSN 0959-6526,
  • Draft Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR). Apparel and footwear by the European Environmental Bureau

Michela Sciarrone
This article was written by Michela Sciarrone, Sustainability Analyst and LCA Specialist at Sustainable Brand Platform. With a strong focus on PEF, she helps fashion brands and manufacturers measure and reduce their environmental impact through data collection, data modeling, and emission factors updates.

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