Conducting Full LCA
When envisioning pollution, we often think of coal power plants, oil and gas spills, and raw sewage piped into our waterways. It’s hard to imagine the fashion industry as the second-largest polluter in the world next to oil and gas. A simple shirt goes through a complex, extended supply chain of production, starting with raw material, textile manufacturing, cut&sew to shipping, retail, use, and ultimately disposal. Environmental issues not only take place during the disposal of a garment, but often, the entire life cycle of a garment is problematic from seed to disposal.
In 2018, we started a comprehensive research on the fashion industry relative to waste management and social and environmental sustainability. We conducted full LCA of various brands and garments and took into account waste and pollutants from seed to disposal of each garment. When analyzing textile options, we considered the incredible deal of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, and shipping. For example, in conducting a full LCA, in comparing regular cotton and organic cotton, we had to take into account the impacts of biotechnology and better irrigation techniques in conventional cotton farming practices. Although organic cotton seems to be a much more sustainable option than regular cotton, since it has not been genetically engineered like regular cotton, the farmers have to plant more organic plants, which means using more land. This makes the analysis much more complicated, and the results vary based on the production scale, region, and many other factors. Synthetic, man-made fibers, while not as water-intensive, have issues with manufacturing pollution and intensive chemical dying processes. The study also had to calculate the amount of CO2 emission as textiles and garments travel around the world.
Overall Worst Performer
Based on this research, we concluded that the overall worst performer in the production process is polyester; it emits the highest carbon dioxide emissions in the production process with the input of oil in its manufacturing process as one-third of the total impact of the product. Polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today. That equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester—a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015. The annual production exceeding 22.67 billion tonnes worldwide. Unfortunately, Synthetic fabrics like polyester, spandex, nylon, etc, take between 30 to 200 years to degrade in nature.It takes a special kind of dye to successfully color polyester. These dyes, known as disperse dyes, are insoluble in water and, like polyester, are made up of a complex molecular structure that does not readily decompose. Wastewater from textile factories containing leftover dye is difficult to treat and, as such, enters the local environment where its toxicity causes serious problems to plant and animal life. In addition to causing environmental issues, polyester dyes are also toxic to humans. Dye workers worldwide report higher incidences of cancers and lung disease than the general population. The best overall performer was organic hemp. In terms of water consumption, cotton required 3 times as much water as organic hemp. In our analysis of carbon dioxide emissions, we calculated the amount of energy needed to produce oil-based fibers vs natural fibers. This calculation on its own had many complicated factors such as context, factory conditions and use of renewable resources vs. raw resources which had to be considered.
With every wash, polyester garments have alarming consequences by shedding thousands of microfibers. Out of the 5.5 trillion particles of plastic waste on our planet, 95% were smaller than a grain of rice. Every time you wash your polyester/ repurposed plastic clothes, shoes, and other wearables, they shed tiny plastic bits that wash off of the items in the washing machine. All synthetic fibers come off in the wash and pass through to sewage treatment plants, which often don’t have filters fine enough to catch them. Treated wastewater is then often dumped into rivers or the sea, carrying a high level of microfibers. As much as 1 million fibers could be released from washing a single polyester fleece. Washing synthetic clothing in a microfiber protection bag, significantly improves against micro-plastic pollution from washing and helps reduce the overall negative environmental impact of a reclaimed garment.
While we may donate our old clothing to charity, or a clothing recycler, the truth is, even then according to the EPA, a staggering 84 percent of our clothing ends up in landfills and incinerators. To put it in numbers, the U.S. currently exports a billion pounds of worn clothing per year. Without the intervention of textile recyclers, our enormous surplus of charitable donations would be rendered useless and sent to landfills. This excessive amount of clothing ends up in landfills, making mountains of trash in developing countries and disrupting local economies. Dr. Andrew Brooks, the author of Clothing Poverty states that in Sub-Saharan Africa, the constant flood of used clothing is so pervasive that it’s even part of the language. In his book, he translates the colloquial Ghanaian phrase “obroni wawu” to “clothes of the dead white man.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons or 68 pounds of textiles per person.
The impact of fast-fashion on our planet is inconceivable. Our clothes continue to impact our planet after purchase, through shedding microfibers while washing and through common disposal practices. According to the Environmental Protection Agency in less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 16 million tons or an astounding 80 pounds per person. Of this amount, 2.62 million tons were recycled, 3.14 million tons were combusted for energy recovery, and 10.46 million tons were sent to the landfill. Cotton, as the world’s most commonly used natural fiber, makes nearly 40 percent of our clothing, but it is a water-intensive, chemically dependent crop. At only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it consumes 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides. The crop is grown all over the world, with China being the largest cotton grower followed by India, the U.S., Pakistan, and Brazil. In the 50s, two rivers in Central Asia, the Amu Darya, and the Syr Darya, were diverted from the Aral Sea to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and nearby Turkmenistan. This caused the water levels in the Aral to decrease to less than 10 percent of what they were 50 years ago. The communities that once relied on Aral were aborted. Dust from the dry, exposed lakebed, containing these chemicals and salt flooded the air, creating a public health crisis contaminating the soil while settling onto farm fields. The Aral is on its way of becoming a dry sea, and the loss of the moderating impact that such a large body of water had on the weather system has made the region’s winters much colder and summers hotter and drier. The impact of cotton agriculture is felt in other areas, including Pakistan, Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and the Rio Grande in the U.S. and Mexico. Based on our analysis, organic cotton is a much more sustainable alternative, but today it is only about 0.7 percent of all the cotton grown worldwide.
The Citarum River in Indonesia is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world due in great part to the hundreds of textile factories lining its shores. This is enormously alarming to the 5 million people and the wildlife living in the river basin. Clothing manufacturers dumped their chemicals into the river, making the Citarum nothing more than an open sewer containing lead, mercury, arsenic, and a host of other toxins. Greenpeace also found the water to be high in alkalinity and described the discharge as “highly caustic, will burn human skin coming into direct contact with the stream and will have a severe impact (most likely fatal) on aquatic life near the discharge area. The European Union (EU) member states have banned imports of clothing and textiles containing nonylphenol ethoxylates. While not prohibited in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified eight safer alternatives to nonylphenol ethoxylates!!
This is not only an issue of the half-trillion gallons of fresh water, which is used in the dyeing of textiles each year but also an issue of the untreated discharge into nearby rivers. With China, according to Yale Environment 360, discharging roughly 40 percent of these chemicals. More than 60 percent of world clothing is manufactured in developing countries. Asia is the major clothing exporter today, producing more than 32 percent of the world’s supply. China is the leading world producer and supplier of clothing, but as production and labor costs rise in China, clothing companies have moved to places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines. These countries might not have the raw materials needed, so they’re often shipped from China, the U.S., and India. The process of calculating how much fuel is used to ship clothes worldwide is exceptionally complicated. We know that 22 billion new clothing items are bought by Americans per year, with only 2 percent of those clothes being domestically manufactured. In total, some 90 percent of garments are transported by container ship each year!Is it possible for us Americans to stop our current culture of consumerism and transform our lifestyles with our planet in mind, when shopping has become a weekly pastime, and glossy ads and magazines consistently encourage us to buy more? Making for self-conscious teenagers who seek worth and identity in their clothes and appearance. Fast fashion is incredibly worrisome as it is designed to create demand and churn out a massive amount of cheap clothing while fast-tracking carbon emissions and global warming as a result.
Based on the research briefly outlined above, we concluded that our focus should be placed on preventing the use of virgin polyester wearables and replacing it with natural fibers, which have a considerably smaller footprint in their life cycle. We anticipate that this approach will continue to evolve as biotech reaches new advancements in fiber generation and disposal methodologies. Our supply chain consists of factories that have obtained GOTS certification and rely on Global Organic Textile Standards and OCS Certifications in becoming part of the solution. By relying on teams that are already certified we know there is no ambiguity behind the fibers.
Compostable and Biodegradable Collection of Clothes
We follow the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility in putting our pieces together.The Compostable Collection consists of pieces that are made of organic cotton, hemp, silk and linen. We believe dying natural fibers diminishes their unprocessed aesthetic and natural patina, so we leave a large share of our compostable pieces undyed with the remaining few vegetable dyed. We use no toxic chemicals in fixing the vegetable dyes or controlling the properties of the fabric. We use cotton thread to sew the pieces and natural buttons made of shells, wood, and coconut. We mix organic cotton with hemp, which is a magical crop in reducing water consumption and leave the final product undyed. Weight and texture variations are typically built into the fabric by inserting innovative weave configurations, and yarn mixes.This means at the end of each garment’s life cycle, you may place it in a house-hold compost and use the soil for organic vegetable gardening and all other organic garden practices. We recommend cutting the products into smaller pieces for faster degradation prior to placement in a house-hold compost.
The Biodegradable Collection also degrades in a biological cycle of recovery. The Biodegradable Collection consists of all-natural and organic fibers similar to the Compostable Collection, such as organic cotton, organic linen, hemp, mulberry silk, and modal. The difference between the compostable and the biodegradable collection is in the dyeing process. Although both collections are made of 100% natural and organic fibers, the biodegradable collection utilizes non-toxic, OEKO-TEX® certified and in some cases low-impact dyes in the manufacturing process. Because dyes have been used in the making of this collation, the pieces offer patterns and a variety of colors. If you are composting these pieces at home in a house-hold compost, we recommend using the soil for fertilizer for lawns and farms or taking the pieces to a compost facility at the end of their life cycle. Otherwise, we suggest composting these items at your local commercial compost.
We understand that in creating clothes for daily use, synthetic fibers may be necessary for high durability in activewear. This was the catalyst for our reclaimed collection, which turns plastic bottles and marine plastics into regenerated fabric.
Using regenerated polyester and nylon would reduce the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80% compared with material derived from oil. But as mentioned above, just like all other oil-based fibers, the garments would still shed microfibers in each wash. Although microfiber protection bags considerably reduce the amount of shedding, when we looked closely at the full life cycle analysis of synthetic fibers, there were still many issues around the dying process of the fabric and technical cycle of recovery at the end of its life cycle.At this point, we strongly believe plastic use should be reduced as much as possible. Although we are excited about LEONOEL’s Reclaimed collection, we are still working on improving the impact of this collection on our planet and anticipate launching when we get a better handle on all the remaining issues.
Collections: The Compostable, The Biodegradable and The Reclaimed collections of wearables.
Manufacturing Platform: Open Source, Transparent.
Fabric Supplier: GOTS Certification, Global Organic Textile Standard, OCS Certification.
Current Dye Process: No- Dyes, Vegetable Dyes, Oeko-Tex Certified Dyes.
Manufacturing: Worldwide with those who hold a humane production system with all the necessary certifications.
Research: We close the loop in a biological and a technical cycle of recovery. We conduct full Life Cycle Assessment of each garment and collectively of each collection to trace our social and environmental footprint.
Programs: Aim to become B-Corp and join 1% for the Plant. Built-in Give Back Program.
© Demirchelie LLC. All Rights Reserved.