LCA in Fashion: Clothing impact backed by data

June 6, 2023

Why Life Cycle Assessment is the best scientific tool for fashion sustainability

With a plethora of sustainability regulations coming into force, numerous greenwashing lawsuits, and pressing demands from conscious customers and ‘green investors’, there is no way around it: fashion companies will have to reinvent themselves for the greener good. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle. 

About 80% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to a company's supply chain, and then we’re not even talking about the negative impact of a business on air and water quality, soil health, and biodiversity. The bottom line for businesses is to show concern, take responsibility and tackle some of these issues. 

Moreover, implementing sustainable actions has the potential to save significant amounts of money and reduce a company's dependence on resources. In short: LCA is a necessity, but one with a business case. 

The Basics of LCA

In a nutshell, LCA is about collecting and mapping environmental performance data, extracting relevant insights about the company’s footprint, and using that information to produce more sustainably. 

LCA processes vary depending on the service provider, but they should be designed to be simple and intuitive at their core. Sustainable Brand Platform’s approach starts with gathering a company’s product and process-level data – primary (own data and from suppliers) and secondary (data sets).

Preferably, an LCA covers all impact areas from fiber to factory and from dying to the dump. However, setting boundaries is often inevitable. Since supply chains are complicated, so are detailed LCAs. 

Impact categories reach from carbon to water footprint, and from ecotoxicity to ozone depletion. It takes serious investments to collect these numbers, so the scope may have to be narrowed down. 

LCA impact categories

Companies need to ask themselves: how much do we want to know about what process? What will we not be assessing? Which unit of measurement (equivalents) will we use? 

For example, a defined scope could be to calculate carbon emissions (CO₂-equivalent) and the aquatic ecotoxicity potential (1,4-DB-equivalent in kg) of a pair of jeans from the factory to shop. That means leaving out the environmental damage from chemicals as well as the water used by the washing machine of the consumer. 

The collected data goes into a calculation engine that provides a multimeric impact analysis, with information about each impact metric included in the LCA model. Usually, the results cover tier 3 to tier 1, since data from fiber producers (tier 4) is hard to get. 

Finally, the system generates actionable KPIs for each impact metric and each production process involved in the production of the product analyzed. These results help companies to understand the hotspots in their product's supply chain in the blink of an eye, from which they can build effective strategies to improve their footprint.

Why Fashion and LCA are a perfect match

The first studies referring to LCAs were already circulating in the 1970s, but fashion is still very new to the game. Its potential should be taken seriously. Here’s why:

1. LCA provides a whole picture 

The focal impact area in fashion LCA seems to be Global Warming Potential (GWP). Apparel and shoes are responsible for about 8%  of the world’s carbon emissions, but there are many other footprint drivers to tackle, such as hazardous effluents from wet processing, the stage from which 30% of the garment sector’s climate impact arises. Only 11% of big brands communicate openly about their wastewater test results.

“A single product requires a large number of transformation processes that use water, chemicals, and energy. Therefore, a fashion product has an impact that goes well beyond the emission of Greenhouse gases”. - Enzo Savelli, head of Science & founder of Sustainable Brand Platform

The SBP algorithm measures over 20 impact categories, including ozone formation, ionizing radiation, and marine eutrophication. Together, they give a complete overview of a garment’s footprint and where it needs improvement, from growing raw materials to picking the packaging. 

2. Whole organization can work better on LCA results 

These insights add value for several organizational departments. Let’s say a fashion company performed an LCA for their bestseller cotton shirt line. The LCA shows that most of the CO-equivalents originate from the electricity used for spinning, dyeing, and other energy-intensive processes within the factory. Moreover, the results show that the adhesives in one of the darker fabrics contain very high quantities of VOCs. 

This would incentivize product developers to figure out ways to become more energy efficient and find alternative chemical solutions that reduce VOC-intensity without changing the appearance or feel of the fabric. 

Supply chain managers could rethink procurement and scout suppliers that use renewable sources to generate their electricity. 

Executives are informed about some great risks the company is facing: if fossil fuels become scarce and expensive or if  VOC-releases result in visible health effects, their most profitable product is at risk. 

Finally, marketing can use the results of the LCA to communicate transparently and reliably about the company’s progress toward its sustainable targets, by letting the LCA results do the talking.

Product iD Card powered by Sustainable Brand Platform

3. LCA creates compliance with fashion legislation

Multiple new EU legislations are set to prevent greenwashing claims from entering the market. For example, amendments to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD) will prohibit traders from making ‘generic, vague environmental claims’ about a product. By disclosing evidence from an LCA, these accusations can be prevented.  

It became clear in 2022 that this managerial need applies specifically to the fashion business: Several international fashion companies were accused of greenwashing – a spendy endeavor. If any of them would have used LCA to gather credible data that justified their sustainable claims about the recycled content in their ‘sustainable’ collection, that could have saved them from reputational damage. 

“Like for any other industry, LCA is the best scientific framework that we currently have to provide a quantification of the environmental (and social) impact of processes and products.” - Savelli

The fashion industry has a data problem, relying on public, unverified, or outdated data about environmental impact way too often. The sustainable and financial potential of LCA’s encourages fashion brands to move away from these sources and gather high-quality secondary data. 

Or even better: firsthand, primary data, that is raw process- and site-specific data from suppliers and distributors. By using these insights as input for the calculations of LCA software, brands can be sure to have the best understanding of their impact hotspots. 

Be wise and prioritize

Sustainability is ‘people work’, but a little help from the big machines doesn’t harm. In fact, business intelligence has evolved so quickly over the last decade that organizations should rely on making data-driven decisions based on AI and machine learning.

Powered by savvy algorithms, LCA tools help to make better business decisions. Even more, they know – better than humans, how to prioritize the most important impact areas. In that sense, LCA is simply good risk management.

Imagine you are a supply chain manager of a denim brand. Competitors seem to be focusing mainly on reducing water use, but your LCA dashboard tells you that the terrestrial ecotoxicity of the brand’s bestseller jeans is skyrocketing. 

Knowing that your data is reliably processed, you could start communicating the news and plans to make things right – in real time. Now that would make a real difference.

Prioritizing the right impact areas is a hard task if you only have outdated Excel files with vaguely structured sustainability data at your disposal. LCA can unburden fashion brands by revealing those sustainability hotspots that matter the most.

Ready to Start? Book a consultation with our LCA experts here.

Anna Roos van Wijngaarden
Anna is a fashion & business journalist based in Amsterdam and Berlin. She has written for Fashion United, Vogue, Ecocult, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, WeAr Global and Luxiders aiming to shine a light on the changemakers and entrepreneurs of the industry.

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