When it comes to better understanding the environmental impacts of our clothes, it is a little bit of a jungle out there. So-called Environmental Benchmarking Tools are trying to assist us in making better environmental choices when we shop our clothes. Examples out there are the Higg Index of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) of the European Union.
Environmental Benchmarking Tools have developed methods to be able to compare different environmental impacts between different fibres like cotton, polyester or wool as well as various manufacturing processes. These methods use complicated calculations based on Life Cycle Assessment data which include chemicals, water and energy used along with other relevant environmental factors. The outcome is a simplified colour coded graph judging if a fibre or a specific garment is good or bad for the environment.
The idea behind these Environmental Benchmarking Tools is great as it helps consumers understand the impacts their clothing choices have while also assisting retail companies and their designers to improve their textile supply chains.
However, there is also some caution and a little bit of more background knowledge needed when using these Environmental Benchmarking Tools especially when it comes to wool fibre.
Momentarily, the majority of the Environmental Benchmarking Tools do not take the impacts of the full supply chain into account. Often data is only used starting on farm up to the wool fabric manufacturing stage. Impacts that are not included for example are the use phase as well as the disposal phase. The reason for leaving these stages out is often that there is not enough data or knowledge about these stages.
When it comes to assessing the environmental impacts of wool however, the impacts during the use and disposal phase are very low compared to many of the other fibres. Wool garments, for example, are washed less often, are washed at lower temperatures, used longer and often are handed down to other family members. At the end of a wool garment’s life, it is very often recycled or can biodegrade.
If these special attributes of wool are not taken into account when assessing the environmental impacts, then the results of the benchmarking tools are inaccurate. Wool, compared to other fibres, has a relatively high carbon footprint on farm. However, this becomes relative if a wool garment then lasts longer compared to a synthetic or cotton garment.
As we mentioned before, there is a lot of work and research going on in the space of measuring environmental impacts as it is vital for our planet for us to better understand how we can reduce our product footprint. As this space further develops and matures we will see more and more accurate results. In the meantime we just want you to be aware that not everything is straightforward and accurate when it comes to understanding the true environmental impacts of our garments and the fibres they are made of.