Can the fashion industry calculate its way to sustainability? - The potential of LCA

published at 17-05-17, by renske koster

The complex life cycle of a fashion product strongly associates with negative environmental impact. Measuring the impact of products is not yet standard practice while this can stimulate sustainability in many ways. For example, the quantitative impact data can create awareness, increase transparency, encourage innovation and support sustainable consumption.

So how do we measure the negative environmental impact of a product? The most commonly used method is LCA (life Cycle Assessment). This scientific method assesses the environmental impact of a particular product or process throughout its lifespan and can be used to indicate impact hotspots. LCA can also be used to make comparisons between goods and processes to measure which has the lowest environmental impact.

This scientific approach aims for a high level of accuracy, however, is therefore also very resource intensive. In addition to the required investments, the fact that fashion professionals are mostly not trained in performing or analyzing scientific research limits the uptake of LCA by the industry.

In order reduce the required investments and to enable industry professionals to perform or access LCA research commercial tools that simplify LCA methodology or data exists. Examples of commercial LCA tools are; the Higg Index (Sustainable Apparel Coalition), the Environmental Benchmarking Tools for Fibers and Wet Processing (MADE-BY), the EIM software (Jeanologia), and the Ecotool (Modint). Consultancies create these tools specifically for their customers and are to be used by for example designers, buyers, and manufacturers.

Each tool comes with its benefits and limitations which should be considered when selecting the right LCA method. The Benchmarking Tools by MADE-BY are publicly available for the other discussed tools the user needs to become a member of the organization and pay to use it. Working with the Higg Index or the Modint Ecotool gives a company more insight into their particular situation however also requires more resources. Sector specific tools like the EIM which analyzes only the finishing processes are very suitable for denim companies focusing on sustainable washes, nonetheless, also exclude the other stages of the life cycle.

For many small businesses, the required resources limit the integration of LCA. A solution is to collaborate with industry partners and researchers. Shared interested can lead to better research and shared investments. Publicly accessible information sources such as the Sustainable Material Guide by Modint also offer small companies the opportunity to work with credible data and make justified decisions regarding their products. 

(Infographic by Levi Stauss & Co. communicating LCA results,