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Life Cycle Assessment in Textile and Fashion Industry; Pitfalls and the way forward

October 25, 2022
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A worrying number of recent articles – from public posts, to blogs, to online journalism – have taken a swipe at LCAs. The authors of such pieces often denigrate the credibility of LCA science and datasets. Consequently, the handful of companies that do carry out LCAs in an ethical and transparent manner have suffered the collateral damage of this discourse.

To be perfectly clear: LCA is a scientific, precise method and an incredibly powerful tool. Just as a poorly trained surgeon cannot blame their scalpel, one cannot blame science if some of its practitioners are ill-equipped to handle certain methodologies.

It is vital to remember that the results from an LCA study are not magic. Rather, they are deeply dependent on foreground and background data, some of which is directly obtained from suppliers and brands (i.e. primary data), and some of which comes from third party datasets.

No organisation has full visibility into every aspect of its supply chain, which means that LCA studies must rely upon third party datasets. These are critically reviewed by a panel of experts, such as myself (I recently had the privilege to review Ecoinvent databases for textiles, paper, and plastics for over one hundred datasets). To perform a review, one must have a thorough knowledge of the complexities of foreground and background flows and datasets and how are they used in LCAs.  

I have previously acknowledged that there are pitfalls involved with LCA and the expertise of some of the practitioners of textiles LCAs. Unfortunately, a significant number of operators in this space lack either LCA skills or textile-side knowledge (generally the latter). I have practised in this space since 2008 and have continually reviewed a substantial number of reports for industry and academia. I have been struck by the lack of textile-specific knowledge in numerous reports. A prime example of this is the ambiguity surrounding methodological issues including functional units (and their problems), reference flow, scope, assumptions, limitations, and of course, comparisons.

Despite these issues, there remains an encouraging number of practitioners (individuals and companies) who carry out LCAs in a transparent manner and with strict adherence to ISO 14040/44 standards. This cohort demonstrates a reassuringly complete and thorough understanding of textiles as well as LCA.

It is crucial to understand that zeroing in on LCA malpractice and using misleading headlines to tar all LCA practitioners with the same brush is highly irresponsible. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater serves no one.

Before decrying the industry as a whole, critics of LCA ought to acquire skillsets and knowledge on LCAs and ISO standards, and properly research the industries and companies they so actively criticise. I recently read a post that referred to the blogs and websites of two companies, rather than referencing any final reports. The post noted that these companies do not refer to ISO 14040 and do not publicly disclose where their data comes from. How can one draw this assumption without assessing the final deliverables?

The LCA process generates the best means for companies and customers to make quality decisions on reducing our impact. Like any other solution, it is not perfect, but requires nuanced discussion; tossing industries wholesale under the bus via headlines which are more attention-grabbing than informative is deeply damaging.

I would implore anyone reading this to not misuse your public platform. If you encounter issues with data, datasets, or methodology, take the time to analyse them properly and think before disparaging others. Criticism should not be publicly posted without proper proof, and ideally, discussions with those concerned.

As I have been saying for over a decade, LCA is the future and it is our responsibility to foster its growth. Quality is always a key concern in any LCA report, and all LCA practitioners should strive to deliver credible, transparent reports.

So, let me ask - who is going the bell the cat? 

Green Story can help

At Green Story, our mission is to empower 1 billion consumers to know their impact and make choices that are better for the planet and the generations to come. We’ll help you quantify and visualize your environmental impact, make accurate claims about the sustainability of your products, and offset your emissions through verified carbon credits. We’ll also make sure your customers are along for the journey by telling your sustainability story in ways your consumers can easily grasp, integrating your story into every aspect of your communications, and achieving market-wide buy-in for your sustainability mission.

About Dr. Subramanian Senthilkannan (Kannan) Muthu, Ph.D.

Dr. Kannan Muthu is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Green Story and widely regarded as the foremost expert in textile Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the world.

Prior to Green Story, he led the Environmental Services Division-Asia of SGS and was head of Sustainability of SgT Group. With a PhD in Environmental Life Cycle Assessment in Textiles and Clothing, Dr. Muthu is a Textile Technologist and has published 140 scientific books and 100 research articles. He has over 12 years of experience in environmental and chemical sustainability and has worked with hundreds of factories and international leading brands’ supply chains. His body of work makes him one of the most respected and widely quoted figures in the field of LCA.