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How Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) benefits innovation in the Textile/Apparel Industry

EarthShift Global Partners with Clients to Identify Impacts, Solutions

Organizations large and small, with wide-ranging priorities, have benefitted from LCA insights on a diverse range of textile-oriented projects

The trillion-dollar global textile industry reaches virtually every person on the planet, through apparel, household goods, industrial products, and other avenues. Textile production’s scale and scope place it at the center of many environmental and social sustainability discussions.

Several collective industry-wide efforts are seeking to address concerns including carbon emissions, water scarcity, responsible material sourcing, microplastics, fair labor, deforestation, waste minimization, and increased use of post-consumer materials. Innovative companies are developing new approaches that can reduce impact in these and other areas.

A common theme uniting these wide-ranging efforts is the importance of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a means of identifying the greatest impacts and the most effective solutions. Here we will review LCA’s role in supporting sustainability work at three textile-oriented organizations of different scales and with different priorities: a startup materials company, a midsized manufacturing company, and the non-profit research and promotion organization for the cotton industry.

Bolt Threads draws inspiration from nature to provide brands with alternative materials that reduce impact. One solution is Mylo material – a mycelium-based leather alternative. Production of Mylo™ is scaling up with choices to be made in pursuit of a competitive alternative to leather both in functionality/feel and environmental impact.

Bolt Threads has been working with EarthShift Global to apply LCA early in development and scale-up to identify the most promising pathways. LCA allows testing of different scenarios, simulation of production alternatives, and identification of approaches with greatest impact reduction.

This work has allowed engineers and teams in the US and EU to join forces and pursue unified strategies that benefit the final product. Early application of LCA highlighted the biggest drivers of impact, providing the teams with a roadmap for further reducing the impacts of this material during the scale-up process.

As a result of the LCA work, Bolt Threads has decided to expand this role within the company and recently opened an LCA engineer vacancy. For us, this further confirms the value of LCA in start-up enterprises.

Unifi company logo

Unifi is a midsized manufacturing company based in North Carolina that produces a line of postconsumer PET and Nylon yarns called REPREVE®; hundreds of companies use REPREVE®, including Target, Nike, Patagonia, and Ford.

To support its communication and client engagement efforts, Unifi used LCA data to develop information about its yarn solutions that could be shared via the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) platform, a suite of tools for standardized measurement of value chain sustainability developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The Higg MSI consists of five life cycle indicators to help the apparel industry inform material selection at the design stage. EarthShift Global supported Unifi in this process, from modelling the impact of the recycled yarns to managing the submission and revision process.

One interesting finding: changes in the manufacturing of post-consumer yarns, including the focus on collection and processing of materials in the US to reduce transportation, have led to considerable improvements within its offering. This has allowed Unifi to scale up operations while simultaneously reducing its impact intensity, with LCA playing a critical role in documenting and communicating the advances.

Cotton Inc. logo

Cotton Incorporated is a not-for-profit research and promotion organization for the worldwide cotton industry. Cotton Incorporated helped support the U.S. cotton industry in setting sustainability goals and is dedicated to providing research to spur continuous improvement across all aspects of the cotton supply chain. The organization uses LCA to identify environmental hotspots along the cotton supply chain and focus research efforts to develop innovative solutions to lowering the environmental impacts associated with the highest-contributing life-cycle stages.

For example, in 2020 Cotton Incorporated completed a full ISO comparative LCA study that evaluated the potential environmental advantages of cottonseed oil for high-temperature frying compared to other vegetable oil alternatives. Historically, cottonseed, a by-product of cotton cultivation, was considered a lower value co-product. The production of cottonseed oil converts the cottonseed into a potentially valuable commodity, thus both generating more profit for cotton growers and highlighting the efficient use of land, water, and other resources associated with growing cotton.

Another project was aimed at understanding the role of co-product treatment in LCA results and tested different approaches in the field from an attributional and consequential perspective. These co-product treatment approaches are necessary in all LCAs to allocate the environmental impact of product systems to individual functions whenever there are multifunctional processes such as in agricultural systems (cotton lint and seed) or industrial systems (refineries).

Cotton Incorporated’s long organizational experience with LCA allows them to delve deeper into these methodological aspects and gain greater understanding of how they may affect results and what they may mean for the future. This work will be the methodological foundation for future cotton life cycle assessments.

For More Information

Life cycle assessment has proven to be a valuable guide to innovation in the textile industry. Learn more about our LCA work in the textile industry here: https://earthshiftglobal.com/design-and-manufacturing. Visit Bolt Threads, Unifi, and Cotton, Inc. to learn more about their organizations.