Environmental impacts of each lifecycle stage

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This blog is intended to help you shop for more sustainable clothing, backed by data and research. My dream is for every brand and every item to be ethical and sustainable. Until then, we all need help finding the best clothes to buy – and verifying that it truly is the best.

TAKE-AWAYS

An evaluation of the stages of a garment's life shows that the greatest environmental impacts are in the production of the raw materials and cleaning.

Therefore, based on research and data, the three steps you can take to reduce your own impact and promote more sustainable clothing consumption are:

  • Buy used. Or buy new from brands that promote low-impact fibers and sustainable production practices, and produce high-quality, long-lasting clothes that can be washed in cold water
  • Clean your clothing less often, and clean them in cold water with shorter cycles, using biodegradable detergents, and line-dry
  • Wear your garments as much as you can, then resell them so others can extend their life further

These will be the subjects of future, data and research-backed blog posts.

Now that we understand the life of a garment, we can examine the biggest impacts in that lifecycle. This will help us determine what we need to consider when we shop for new or used clothing.

A useful tool for calculating the impacts of apparel is a Life-Cycle Assessment, or LCA. This process measures and calculates the inputs (e.g., energy, water, chemicals, materials), outputs (like carbon emissions, wastewater, waste), and impacts on human health and ecosystems for each stage in the product’s life.

First, the conclusion
Results from numerous lifecycle assessments show that the fiber and garment production, and the use/cleaning phases, have the highest contributions to the lifetime environmental impact of a garment. The shipping and reuse/disposal life stages tend to have a relatively low influence in the overall environmental impact.

Future articles will dive deeper into these two highest-impact lifecycle stages with suggestions for improving your footprint.

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Now, let's get into the details of the primary environmental impacts at each lifecycle stage -- product design, fiber production, garment production, shipping, use/cleaning, reuse/disposal -- to hone in on the most significant of them.

For this analysis, we are reviewing several publicly available clothing LCAs, including: Measuring Fashion, Review of Life Cycle Assessments of Clothing, Levi's The Life Cycle of a Jean, Environmental Assessment of Swedish fashion consumption, and The Life Cycle Inventory and Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber and Fabric. Each has its own methodology and focuses on different raw materials, products, and geographies. However, taken together, we can glean generalized insights to help inform our decisions.

1. Impacts of designing products

While the direct impacts of designing are minimal, fashion designers do have a significant influence on the all the stages in the garment's life.

They define the style, and select the fabrics, colors, and other garment properties. If the designer decides to use fabrics with poor environmental attributes, colors that require especially detrimental dyes, patterns that produce significant waste on the cutting room floor, or qualities that will not withstand many wears and washes, those decisions will reduce the value of all the environmental gains in the future stages.

2. Impacts of producing the raw materials

The production of raw materials for either natural or synthetic fibers is one of the most complex stages because of the variety of natural fibers, growing techniques and resource needs, etc. As a result, there is wide variance in the data for this stage. However, regardless of the variances, it is clear that this is one of the top two most impactful stages of a garment's life.

Climate change impacts at this stage include:

  • Energy consumption: Production of synthetic fibers (relative to natural fibers) and industrial washing consume the most energy at this stage. 
  • Fuel consumption:  Transportation of natural fibers can also have a large contribution, as they are shipped from the growers to the mills. 


Water impacts:
 Cotton cultivation can have the most significant water needs, since it often requires a large volume of irrigated water to grow. Synthetics require about half the water consumption, and other natural fibers are typically even less. Dyeing and finishing also have significant water needs.

Ecosystem impacts: Cotton can have the highest ecosystem impacts due to the pesticides and other chemicals used in cultivation. Other natural fibers and synthetic fibers have lower contributions at this stage; however, many chemicals are used for dyeing and finishing, and synthetic fibers require crude oil and other chemical inputs.

Wastewater impacts: The greatest impacts at this stage are from the toxic chemicals from dyeing, as well as synthetic fiber production.

Note that cotton is often cited as having significant water and chemical input needs; I recommend you review the cotton fiber LCA if you are interested in dissecting the details.

3. Impacts of producing the finished garment

Cut and sew factories take in the material and accessories, and produce the finished goods. Their impacts are less than the other lifecycle stages, and typically include:

  • Climate change impacts: Producing synthetic fibers and spinning natural fibers are energy intense processes.
  • Wastes: As much as 15 percent of the fabric is wasted on the cutting room floor.
  • Ozone depletion: Substances that contribute to ozone depletion are often volatile and might be used in certain processes like dyeing or laundry. 

4. Impacts of shipping

Shipping predominantly impacts climate change as it relates to fuel consumption.

Climate change impacts: All of the LCAs reviewed noted that this stage contributes only a small amount relative to the other stages. However, it is important to note that the mode of transportation makes a significant difference, as airfreight will contribute much more heavily to the climate change impact relative to land- and sea-based freight transportation. Airfreight is often used by fast fashion brands to rapidly move their products from the factory to retail stores.

Interestingly, the LCAs that explicitly included the transportation from a retail store to your home (via personal automobile), noted that step to have a more significant contribution to GHG emissions.

Waste: This stage also requires packaging. It is often the case that garments are individually wrapped in low-density polyethylene (LDPE), known as polybags, to protect them while shipping from the factory to a distribution center to a retail store. Cardboard and reusable pallets are also needed.

5. Impacts of using/cleaning clothes

Studies found that this life stage contributes about 60-80% of the energy and water consumed throughout a garment's full life:

  • Climate change impacts: Energy consumed to wash and tumble-dry garments.
  • Water impacts: Also from washing and tumble-drying garments. 
  • Wastewater: Synthetic fibers like polyester and acrylic have been found to shed micro-fibers into sewage during their laundry.

6. Impacts of reusing or disposing garments

The majority of apparel waste ends up in landfills or is incinerated. All LCAs agree that the disposal of garments has a low environmental impact relative to the other lifecycle stages.

However, it should be clear that extending the use of an item for as long as possible -- either by wearing it more times or reselling it to someone else who will wear it more -- reduces the need to produce new items using with virgin resources, and therefore reduces the full lifecycle impacts of that garment.

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Want to go deeper? The True Cost is a full-length documentary that follows the apparel supply chain to tell the story of the industry's workers, environmental impacts, and business models.

Where we should focus our efforts

Based on the research and data, the two stages with the greatest impacts are in the production of the raw materials (stage 2 above) and cleaning (stage 5). There are clear choices you can make to reduce those impacts; we will dive into practical steps you can take to minimize your impacts from these two stages in future posts.

As a preview, here are three steps you can take to reduce your own impact and promote more sustainable clothing consumption:

  • Buy used. Or buy new from brands that promote low-impact fibers and sustainable production practices, and produce high-quality, long-lasting clothes that can be washed in cold water
  • Clean your clothing less often, and clean them in cold water with shorter cycles, using biodegradable detergents, and line-dry
  • Use your garments for as long as you can, then resell them so others can extend their life further


Together, we can make a fashion industry that works for all of us. 

- Adam

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