Environmental Impact Assessments Could Undermine Sustainable Fashion—Experts Explain Why.

Fashion’s environmental impacts are often calculated (and communicated) through Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). LCAs assess the impact of goods or services, typically from cradle (raw materials) to gate (when they are shipped to consumers); And they are commonly used to determine ‘how sustainable’ something is. This makes LCAs critical decision-making tools as the industry stares down a target of 45% emissions reductions by 2030 (amongst other environmental targets).

Life Cycle Assessment is typically conducted using primary and/or secondary data according to International Standards Organisation guidelines (specifically, ISO 14040:2006). It is often arduous, expensive and highly subjective, providing high levels of specificity, but low levels of comparability with other materials, products or processes. However, in practice, that’s precisely what LCAs are regularly used for, leading to ‘apple and oranges’ comparisons and flawed sustainability decision making. One example of this is the rampant misunderstanding of the impacts of conventional versus organic cotton.

At best, such flawed comparisons result in no additional harm or confusion, but at worst, they could contribute to emissions overshoot, biodiversity loss and soil degradation by obscuring critical data and context. Given the ramifications, I delved into this topic with experts from Quantis (creators of the WALDB), the Materials Innovation Initiative (MII) and VF Corporation to understand how LCA pitfalls and opportunities, particularly as the search for next-gen low impact material intensifies.

Experts weigh in on LCAs

During a video interview with Quantis’ Innovation Lead, Marcial Vargas, he explained that “only an LCA specialist [has sufficient] knowledge to deduce LCA comparisons” and that this would be “based on a full set of data”—not the summaries typically cited publicly; But many brands use publicly available summaries to make claims about the relative sustainability of their products, so such breaches are a common problem for both brands and consumers. This is a fact underlined by rising regulation to stamp out greenwashing.

I also raised incomparable LCAs during a separate interview with the newly appointed Senior Director of Sustainability at VF International, David Quass. He acknowledged the problem and is hopeful that the European Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative, which is establishing 13 product-specific categories of environmental footprint analysis, might help. “I think where the industry is headed is [analogous] to energy efficiency labels [and] having a similar disclosure on impact”, adding that he expects “some level of consumer-facing disclosure that would include Life Cycle Assessment results”.

On the subject of next-gen materials, Quantis’ Global Fashion & Sporting Goods Lead Philipp Meister says ”such innovators tend to be focused on their impact right from the beginning, integrating Life Cycle thinking into their impact modeling”. But how do they ensure their LCA data is accurate during ongoing research and development, and how can theirs be compared to incumbent materials to determine impact at scale?

“Quick and Dirty” LCAs

This comes down to the methodology and assessment frequency, I learn. Regarding the methodology, Vargas describes it as a “quick and dirty process” to obtain an overview and collect information on key metrics. “Materials [are] developing rapidly, so impact assessment needs to be done dynamically and repeatedly–it needs to be a continuous and somewhat integrated assessment to guide the R&D process,” adds Meister. This means Quantis works with some early-stage innovators on a flexible retainer basis, guiding them with ongoing assessment. Vargas adds that LCAs conducted in this manner have successfully allowed the modeling of lower impact factories in the food and beverage industry. “For the fashion industry, this will also be the case” he believes.

Well placed to expand on the environmental impacts of next-gen materials is the Materials Innovation Initiative (MII), a nonprofit seeking to accelerate the development of sustainable, animal-free next-gen materials. Regarding LCA scope and methods, MII’s Environmental Data Scientist, Ranjani Theregowda said during a video interview: “The science is solid,” but human use of the data as a means to an end isn’t. Theregowda’s experience spans analyzing next-gen materials at Modern Meadow and conducting client-based LCAs at Green Story, thereby honing her knowledge from both a materials R&D and consumer communications perspective. Theregowda, alongside MII’s Chief Scientific Officer Sydney Gladman, is in the process of convening the industry on LCA best practices, especially in the context of next-gen materials.

Best available data

But for now, what does MII use to guide their analysis of comparative material impacts? “We’re using the Higg Index for high-level sustainability and comparative analysis,” says Gladman. “We use [that] data because it’s the best available at a [broad] level to talk about how next-gen materials compare to incumbents”. And here we strike on an important point further underlined by Theregowda, which is that the crux of next-gen material impact differentiation is in the raw material. Beyond the raw material, many next-gen materials leverage existing processing and manufacturing infrastructure (indeed, the ones set to scale most quickly and affordably do), so this is an important focal point for environmental impact analysis, and partly explains the ‘quick and dirty’ dynamic methodology described earlier by Marcial Vargas.

In a recent MII next-gen materials report, brands attributed up to 80% of total product impact to raw materials (before the creation of the fabric and product), but could this be accurate, I asked? Theregowda explained it thus: “the raw material has a lot of inputs, for example, cotton comes from an agricultural source that needs fertilizers and water to grow, and fuel that goes into transportation and processing just to make cotton ‘cotton’, before it becomes a material or fiber.” After that, processing require some lesser energy and water inputs, she explained. This begs the question: Would a highly nuanced methodology for assessing raw material sources and their holistic environmental impacts better serve the planet and the industry, rather than focusing on broader LCAs that can sometimes cause ‘carbon tunnel vision’ and lead to flawed environmental comparisons and sustainability strategies? Gladman and Theregowda’s response hints at this being a consideration, but it no doubt would require collaborative action and unparallelled data sharing–something many stakeholders are reluctant to do.

Best practice for impact comparisons

So right now, how can LCAs be best used to guide sustainability? Theregowda boils this down to one point: “what we LCA analysts most scientists understand is that LCA is not just a number [and] it should never be a fixed number [attributed to] a material or apparel. It should always be a range”. She cautions against this type of approach: “if you compare cotton with polyester [and conclude] polyester is worse, yes, polyester comes from fossil fuel whereas cotton doesn’t come from that source, but you’re not comparing apples to apples. Neither are you comparing the right processes because polyester is made in a different way from cotton”. Similarly, she argues that cow leather and PU leather, for example, are not comparable because their only similarity is in their end-use as a leather/leather equivalent product. It seems that comparison at a product level in particular is interfering with understanding of the materials environmental impacts, which account for the greatest portion of environmental impact, and are where we should focus our attention.

What has transpired from these interviews is that the current LCA methodologies can and do work, but only if interpreted and disseminated according to interpretations by LCA specialists. In a world of bite-size marketing-led sustainability, there is rarely the scope carved out for such nuance and context; But without it, can we really understand which is the more sustainable innovation or process to help meet climate targets, and can we ever avoid greenwashing? Instead of focusing on single-digit spicy comparisons, it seems it will take renewed reverence for detail and context and a willingness to listen to the science. In addition, analysis of raw material impacts in and of themselves and using a methodology that allows their comparison appears to be a crucial and missing puzzle piece sustainable transformation.

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