LAUNDRY GUIDE — LCA, life cycle assessment: measure to learn and improve


By Ecochem s.r.l. and Ritex Ricerche e Prove Tessili

The LCA methodology (Life Cycle Assessment) was born in the ’60s as an answer to a growing worry about the limitations of raw materials and energy sources. The first company to have commissioned the LCA research was Coca Cola that, in 1969 studied various alternatives to packaging (glass, plastic, aluminium) for their product while considering both the energy consumption and the quantity together with the final destiny of the materials in the environment. In 1997, this methodology was finally standardized thanks to the creation of standard series ISO 14000. Today, the LCA methodology is internationally recognized and used as information base for the EcoLabel certification, EPD certification and EMAS registration.

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) analyses environmental impact on health and resources of a determined product or process. Unlike other methodologies, it takes into consideration the entire life cycle of a product, starting from the extraction from the raw material to the production processes, through the use stage and the final stage of waste management. The all-inclusive approach allows, on the one hand, to establish the critical points as points of intervention in order to reduce the impacts and on the other hand, not to “move” these impacts from one production stage to another.

Practically, what is evaluated for each stage of the product life cycle is the relative input (material, energy, machines …) and the relative output (emissions, water, land …). Every type of input will have had its input and output that will also be evaluated through iteration. Having completed the inventory of what is needed to produce the product and the corresponding output, the next step involves the calculation of effects on the environment in terms of impact categories, for example, by evaluating the greenhouse gasses emissions or the quantity of water used during the entire life cycle.

Among the many categories of impact it is crucial to choose those that are the most coherent with the system subjected to study without leaving behind the categories where the performance could be negative. Among the most used categories, there are climate change (Carbon Footprint), water consumption (Water Footprint), the eutrophication (injection of nutrients into water bodies that provokes the algal boom and the consequent death of water fauna), the stratospheric ozone depletion (hole in the ozone layer), toxic impact on animals.

Applicable to any sector, the LCA methodology is increasingly used also in the textile sector. Some famous international brands decided to study and analyse their products in order to make the productive processes more efficient and to offer the consumers more sustainable options.

One of them, a study called “The Life Cycle of a Jean” by Levi Strauss considered the carbon emissions, the consumption of water, eutrophication (see above), territory occupation and the exploitation of abiotic resources (fossil energy, metals and minerals) as they are relevant impact categories in the production of a  pair of jeans. The results of the analysis identified the stages of cotton cultivation (water use, pesticides, fossil fuels) and the use by the client (water and energy consumption in washing) as crucial. Following the results, Levi Strauss developed an innovative method of cotton cultivation in order to reduce water consumption. They also established several initiatives on personal habits awareness and on the possible actions to be taken in order to reduce the environmental impact.

Another study conducted by Mistra Future Fashion in 2015 analysed five typically worn garments by the Swedish in order to evaluate the impact and effects of the textile sector on the environment.

Considering the average carbon imprint that is the quantity of CO2 released for each activity, products and services used by a Swedish citizen, it is about 10 tonnes of CO2 per year. In case of fashion industry, it is “only” 0,25 tonnes.

If, in proportion, it could seem to be a reduced quantity, the necessity to dramatically reduce the emissions per capita requires the involvement of all the sectors in order to adopt more sustainable techniques. According to the study, many garments are thrown away before they are actually unwearable, whereas if they were used three times as long (thanks to more resistant products but also by giving or selling the unused garments still in a good shape), the quantity of greenhouse gasses emissions would be reduced by 65% and water consumption by 66%!

Another possibility evaluated in order to reduce water consumption is the replacement of cotton by a cellulose fibre Tencel. As a matter of fact, the cultivation of wooded areas for the production of this fibre is carried out in water-stressed areas and allows  to reconvert the previously cultivated cotton fields into other cultivations, e.g. human or animal food growth.

Examining the examples, it seems clear that apart from informing the stakeholders and stimulating the innovation, a LCA study can supply a guide line to orientate future industrial choices: comparing new potential products before their actual production allows for the choice of the alternatives in advance which would have a lighter impact therefore, more sustainable from the environment point of view.

Indeed, the solid scientific basis and the all-inclusiveness of this method guarantee, should a company decide to use it, reliable, comparable, and internationally recognized results. Therefore, no greenwashing but real engagement in the actual improvement of the products towards greater attention to the environment, as this what the consumers all over the world have been requesting more and more.