Life Cycle Assessment-FAQ

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) provides a framework for measuring the environmental impacts of products or services. It is used broadly across various industries and sectors and there is an entire community of LCA certified professionals globally who are technical experts in using and applying this methodology and interpreting the results.

In the apparel, textile, and footwear industry today, LCA data is used as the primary means to understand the environmental impacts related to raw materials and finished products at a broad scale. It is used to calculate impact assessments for companies and the industry (including greenhouse gas [GHG] footprints).

Limitations and Realities

Textile Exchange believes that LCA methodology, when applied to raw materials used by the apparel, textile, and footwear industry, has some key limitations as it stands today:

  • LCA does not capture certain impact areas that Textile Exchange feels are important to a holistic view of the impacts associated with raw material production, such as biodiversity, soil health, animal welfare, and social impacts.
  • It is extremely cost-prohibitive and resource-intensive to conduct a single LCA study on a raw material – hundreds of data points must be collected to capture the breadth of impacts related to the specific production system and geographic location. LCA studies also only capture what is happening at a single point in time. This means that use of LCA data to capture the impacts of materials in use by a brand or by the industry at large is often in a “proxy” capacity, providing an estimate of impacts related to materials rather than primary data.
  • The system boundaries defined for LCA studies can vary within and across fiber types, given the variations in production systems (particularly agricultural systems.) Additionally, there are different functional properties associated with different fibers and materials. For these reasons, it is never recommended to directly compare LCA data from different fiber categories, i.e. polyester against cotton – it is not an “apples to apples” comparison.
  • Results from LCA studies can be presented in multiple ways – for example, “global averages” or regional impacts. Global average results cannot be used to differentiate impact across geographies and must be interpreted with care, as not all sourcing locations may be considered within the average calculation. Differences between and across regional impacts may be lost when aggregating at a global level.
  • Within LCA methodology, from study to study, there can be significant variability in the scope of what is covered as well as in other assumptions that are made. This means that a comparative LCA framework or database such as the Higg Index Materials Sustainability Index [MSI] or Quantis WALDB can be employed to ensure that all parameters used in each study are consistent. The same consistency can also be achieved through a specific peer review process.

Despite the limitations above, the reality is that LCA is still the best available, most widely used data set for calculating the impacts of materials in the apparel, textile, and footwear sector. Currently, there is no other way for the industry to calculate brand or industry greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints or to conduct intervention modeling at scale. We must be aware of the limitations and considerations when using, applying, and interpreting LCA data.

It is also important to note that these limitations are consistent across any application of LCA, in any industry– these challenges are not unique to the apparel, textile, and footwear industry.

An “LCA+” Approach

At Textile Exchange, we believe in an approach to impact data we call “LCA+”. This approach can help the industry fill key gaps in LCA data and methodologies, while also investing in identification of additional impact data approaches to address other important impact areas not covered by LCA methodology today, such as biodiversity and soil health.

A Note on the 2014 Textile Exchange Organic Cotton LCA

The LCA of Organic Cotton published by Textile Exchange in 2014 was the first of its kind for organic cotton. Thinkstep (formerly PE International, now part of Sphera) – the same consultancy that had prepared LCA’s for other cotton-based growing systems – was specifically commissioned to conduct the study to ensure consistency in in methodology and software used, and the study was conducted in accordance with ISO standards 14040 and 14044. The data within the study is sound and should continue to be used as appropriate within LCA databases.

The LCA “Summary of Findings” highlighted some comparative data between the 2014 Organic Cotton LCA and a 2012 LCA of U.S.-grown conventional cotton, conducted by Cotton Incorporated. These comparative numbers, including a finding of 91% water savings for organic cotton, were only intended to be considered within the context of these two specific studies. The LCA results demonstrate that at the point in time that the LCA study was conducted, there were differences in water consumption between the organic farms and the conventional farms sampled; however, this does not mean that switching from conventional to organic practices at an individual farm level will automatically result in this specific amount of water reduction. Textile Exchange is aware that there have been instances in which this comparative number has been extrapolated to make specific claims about the water savings associated with a cotton-based product, or to make broader claims about organic vs. conventional cotton at large. This is not appropriate use of LCA data.

As our industry – including our organization – builds its technical, scientific understanding of LCA data and its appropriate use, we will continue our efforts to provide industry education and capacity-building around how LCA data should and should not be used. Our recommendation is always for members to seek advice from a trusted legal professional around any claims they wish to make about their products or materials.

For more detailed information about using LCAs within the apparel, textile, and footwear industry, we recommend the following resources (please reach out to Textile Exchange if you know of others we should include in this list):