Identifying Low Carbon Sources of Cotton and Polyester

Published: April 27, 2021

This week, the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action Raw Materials Working Group issued the report, “Identifying Low Carbon Sources of Cotton and Polyester Fibers”.

This important report highlights actions that can be taken now to reduce Green House Gasses (GHGs) during the cultivation of cotton and polyester production. It also highlights the pressing need to improve the available data and calls for alignment on the scope and methodology used for Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs).

In response to the report and its recommendations, we wanted to share some of the things that Textile Exchange is already doing to answer the needs identified in the report. The report focuses on the two most-used materials in the fashion and textile industry – cotton and polyester. 

Textile Exchange has a long history in cotton and has always held the belief that it is possible to transform cotton farming at scale. We started our journey as the Organic Exchange in 2002, focusing on increasing the adoption of organic cotton. In 2010, we became Textile Exchange and expanded our focus to include a diverse preferred fiber and materials portfolio.

The report clearly states a need to improve fiber and material data, and we couldn’t agree more. As a part of our Climate+ Strategy, we are working on identifying methods and systems for increasing the availability of regional and farm-level data. As the report points out, the information on cotton has long been riddled with misconceptions due to outdated LCAs and extrapolations based on generalizations. We have long lacked regional or farm-level impact data at scale. It is imperative that we improve the data that the industry is using to make decisions, and at Textile Exchange we are already working to address this lack of data.

One example of this is the Delta Framework pilot that we are running with over 200 cotton farms in India. We are piloting 12 of the 15 sustainability indicators in the Delta Framework. This initial piloting in India is being done through an ISEAL grant.  We will be extending beyond the scope of the grant, engaging selected farms in Africa, USA, Turkey and Latin America to further pilot this framework.

Leveraging on the learnings from the Delta Framework pilot, these KPIs will create the backbone needed to implement Impact Incentives to connect the adoption of best practices at the farm level utilizing certification to chain of custody standards for farm-to-product proof of impact. 2021 also brings the piloting of geospatial impact assessment for our Responsible Wool Standard to better understand land-use related changes and outcomes.. The next phase of the project is planned for our other animal material standards and the Leather Impact Accelerator.

Additionally, we plan to contribute to improving the underlying LCA datasets. These integral improvements cannot be done by us alone, and we are calling on the industry to support this push for better data.

Despite this lack of granular data, we have clear indications of where the most significant opportunities for GHG reductions are. For example, synthetic fertilizers are shown to be the key driver of GHG release in cultivated production systems. On-farm fertilizer (manure or compost) derived as a waste product (passive fertilizer application from owned cattle as an example) is the best solution to reducing impact where applicable. Using best practices in soil amendments like compost gives soil carbon the biggest and fastest boost – more so than both conservation tillage and cover cropping, although these remain important[1]. The report is not able to point to a data-backed linkage to organic practices and GHG reductions. For example, soil microbiology has been shown to increase sequestration,[2] but this research is not currently captured in LCAs, nor is the potential negative effects from synthetic pesticides on soil health and sequestration. We understand that based on the available data that the benefits of organic are not captured in their full capacity. This is why we believe that it is essential to move beyond relying on LCAs to understand the impact of cultivation methods. A more holistic view is required, as is better data.

The report points to the developing evidence that holistic land management strategies have a synergistic effect, so a whole systems approach is significant. There is also reference to the potential that regenerative practices hold toward carbon sequestration.

Textile Exchange is committed to furthering the research on regenerative agriculture. We will be launching a piece of research shortly that we hope will serve as a guide to the industry. This work is intended to provide the fashion and textile industry with a clearer understanding of the tools, programs, initiatives, guidance, and best practices within the regenerative agriculture landscape – and offer concrete pathways for brands to deepen their engagement. Regenerative agriculture presents an immense opportunity for brands to support practices that sequester carbon, protect biodiversity, enhance ecosystem services, improve livelihoods and lead to long-term climate resilience. Despite these benefits, programs can be challenging to support due to a complex network of stakeholders, all with different outcomes, practices, accounting methodologies, and claims. Through this work we hope to help organisations navigate the regenerative agriculture landscape.

The report similarly shines a light on actions that can be taken now to reduce GHG emissions during the production of polyester. It also highlights the current issues with virgin and recycled polyester data sets. There are some clear improvements that can be made on the polyester LCAs currently available, such as the inclusion of an LCA for virgin polyester production in Asia, where the vast majority of the world’s polyester fiber is produced. The LCA widely being used by the industry at this time is for polyester produced in Europe.

The report reminds us again of the limited scope that LCAs have. Current polyester LCAs do not include the extraction of oil in their scope nor the release of microfibers.

Despite these data flags, one thing that is clear is that mechanically recycled polyester offers a significant reduction in GHGs as compared to virgin polyester. Each kg of mechanically recycled polyester represents a significant reduction in GHG emissions as compared to virgin polyester.

Polyester (PET) is the most widely used fiber in the apparel industry, accounting for around 52% of the total volume of fibers produced globally. The apparel industry accounts for around 32 million tons of the 57 million tons of polyester used each year. Currently, only approximately 14% of this comes from recycled inputs – predominantly from post-consumer PET bottles (Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2020).  

To further spur climate action on lower carbon raw materials, the Fashion Industry Charter and Textile Exchange have launched the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge. The challenge seeks commitments from companies to replace their use of virgin polyester with recycled polyester to shift global volume from the current average of 14% up to 45% by 2025.

Today, mechanically recycled polyester from plastic water bottles makes up almost all recycled polyester. However, chemical recycling and, more specifically, textile-to-textile recycling will be a necessary part of reaching our goal. We recognize the many challenges to scaling the volume of recycled polyester and through our rPET Round Table we aim to support the industry in tackling this challenge head on.

  • Other important strategies for reducing GHG emissions from PET include:
  • Accelerate scale of recycling technology providers
  • Improve recycling infrastructure
  • Invest in automated sorting technologies
  • Invest in alternative feedstocks for PET production
  • Scale of Carbon Capture, utilization and storage technologies to mitigate GHG emission from petrochemical production

As a final thought, we are excited to see the clear recommendations to brands, but in addition to changes that companies can make, we feel that it is important to remember that real change can only be achieved through partnership. We need to mobilize all parts of the supply chain to achieve the changes that will enable us to reduce GHG emissions at the rate that keeps us within the 1.5 pathway.

[1] https://www.organic-center.org/sites/default/files/Soil/the_organic_center_carbon_sequestration.pdf

[2] Dr. David C Johnson as cited in Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action Raw Materials Working Group, Identifying Low Carbon Sources of Cotton and Polyester Fiber, 2021. p72