Why LCA should be part of your sustainability strategy.
Understanding chemical characteristics in fashion
The shirt you are currently wearing or that enticing bag you're considering for purchase began as something entirely different. The intricate series of steps that transform primary resources like cotton or oil into the fashion items of your dreams constitute the production pathway of these products.
It is widely recognized that the environmental impact of garments varies depending on their production pathways. Typically, we focus on factors such as the energy required for specific processes, water usage, and the quantity of raw materials transformed.
However, today, we aim to shine a spotlight on the crucial role that chemical products play in the textile and fashion-related industries, which extend to leather, jewelry, and more.
Understanding chemical properties
Irrespective of what we aim to create, the production process necessitates the use of a wide array of chemical products. These substances can be broadly categorized into three major groups:
- Base chemicals
- Textile auxiliaries
Each of these chemical families possesses its unique properties and significance within the production process. It is essential to track and analyze them to comprehend their environmental impact and their contribution to the overall footprint of a garment.
Base chemicals are typically the easiest to address, as they consist of common molecules with well-documented characteristics and manufacturing processes, supported by a wealth of available data.
Due to their widespread applications, base chemicals often have optimized production pathways with reduced emissions and minimal waste. Nevertheless, their extensive usage results in a substantial share of the overall emissions.
When we turn our attention to textile auxiliaries, the complexity of the situation becomes apparent. These auxiliaries are usually multi-component products that can contain a broad array of chemicals.
They are designed for specific applications, and as a result, they come in thousands of variations in terms of composition and properties.
Sustainable Brand Platform’s mission to enhance the reliability of sustainability data involves meticulously studying and mapping the formulation of these auxiliaries using all available sources.
This approach aims to recreate the composition of each individual product with as little approximation as possible, ensuring that we stay as close as we can to the actual substances used.
Dyes present a whole new set of challenges. They consist of large molecules and are shrouded in secrecy due to trade secrets. Their production processes are lengthy, complex and often involve multiple countries, making it challenging to track their manufacturing.
Sustainable Brand Platform’s molecule modeling approach enables us to calculate emissions for these complex molecules by reconstructing their production pathways, thus preserving information and traceability throughout the calculation process.
The Role of Chemicals in Fashion
As we delve deeper into the intricacies of industrial processes, the imperative of providing an accurate and comprehensive portrayal of chemical products becomes increasingly evident.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of dyeing processes, where chemicals can wield a significant influence, constituting up to 50% of the environmental impact in the Climate Change category and reaching 95% in other categories like Acidification and Human Toxicity (E.F. 3.1).
Overcoming common practices
Regrettably, it is disheartening to observe that, more often than not, this substantial contribution is relegated to broad and generalized parameters. Specifically, the dataset "chemical organic" is frequently employed as a catch-all, attempting to encapsulate the collective impact of an extensive array of chemicals utilized in these processes.
When using these parameters, the reliability of all calculations drops significantly. This dataset, primarily focused on solvent production, is not representative of the complex world of chemicals used in the textile industry. Compared to a dye, key environmental impact categories such as Climate Change, Marine Eutrophication, Human Toxicity, and Resources Use show differences of more than 10 times. This creates a completely altered portrait of the actual environmental situation.
It is evident that when estimating a process such as dyeing, which relies heavily on the contribution of chemicals, the choice between using a specific dataset tailored to the process and relying on a more general dataset to expedite calculations and fill information gaps can lead to significantly different results. We observed variances ranging from 20% to 150% across all categories when comparing our custom-made dataset to the generic one.
Our exploration of the intricate world of chemicals in textile production and fashion has shed light on the critical role they play in shaping the environmental impact of the products we wear and cherish.
While regulations like REACH and organizations such as ZDHC or other certifying entities are advancing towards a less toxic industry, accurately measuring the impact of chemicals remains a challenge. At Sustainable Brand Platform, we've prioritized this as a core mission. Going beyond compliance, we are actively working to enhance the precision of measuring chemical impacts.
The fashion industry continues to evolve day by day so it is imperative that we shift our focus beyond the more commonly discussed factors like energy, water, and raw materials, and take into account the chemicals that form the very foundation of the textile and fashion-related industries.
As we continue to navigate the path toward a more sustainable and environmentally responsible fashion industry, it is evident that comprehensive analysis and understanding of the chemicals involved is not just a complementary effort but an essential one.
By addressing the environmental impact of chemicals in textile production, we can make significant strides towards a more sustainable and responsible fashion future, where the garments we wear and adore are not only fashionable but also environmentally conscious.
This, in turn, paves the way for a brighter and more sustainable future for the fashion industry and the planet as a whole.
Ready to start? Improve your chemical footprint and be part of a green fashion transition.