We’ve calculated global and national carbon emissions, and businesses have increasingly measured carbon footprints from Scopes 1-3. But somehow, an accurate carbon footprint for a single product continues to elude us. Until now?

The problem is straightforward: Consumer demand is driving brands to achieve more product sustainability, and retailers and brands need the data to support it. But for most impact areas, only aggregate data is available. Though not without its uses, the ability to identify a simple product’s impact from this aggregate data is limited at best.

One solution also seems straightforward: Acquire more data from manufacturers. But the multitude of different requests being directed to suppliers is overwhelming them with “audit fatigue,” leading to uncertainty or downright ambivalence. The general consensus has therefore been that for this to work, the industry needs to unite around a standardized methodology of assessing and measuring sustainability criteria. This has indeed led to some notable, albeit lurching, legislation and industry-led action with promising potential.

But what does this mean for brands wanting answers now?

Photo: Performance Days

The Journey to Carbon Neutrality

One of the hottest places to find such answers along with the latest materials innovations has been the Performance Days fair, where manufacturers and brands gather each spring and fall in Munich. Together with industry stakeholders, Performance Days determined that along with biodegradability and recyclability, the CO2 neutral production of such fibers and materials is the industry’s primary sustainability priority. In response, it set out a 3-step roadmap to help the industry forward:

Step 1 was implemented at the April 2022 fair, where the focus of the fair was on CO2-reducing technologies and the measuring of a product’s carbon footprint. Step 2 commenced at the November 2022 fair, where only products that indicated CO2 emissions caused during production were shown to facilitate greater transparency in the industry. This March, Performance Days gathers in Munich to initiate Step 3 of its “Journey to CO2 Neutrality,” where it will present the amount of CO2 emitted by each product to facilitate comparability.

For now, the fair will collect common criteria between three categories: Synthetic fibers, cellulose fibers, and fibers derived from animals. But objectively valuing fibers and materials in terms of origins, comparable strength, durability, and performance characteristics is no easy feat.

Performance Days does not claim to have all the answers and acknowledges the journey towards the CO2 neutral goal “is still a long one.” But according to Performance Days, it is nevertheless a journey that is already well underway:

“The last three fairs… clearly show that now in spring, we are still on a journey,” shares Performance Days General Manager Marco Weichert in a statement.

“We are aware of how extensive and complicated it is to compare and set side by side values and concrete data for documenting the CO2 neutrality of fibers and fabrics on an equal footing. However, we have in fact succeeded in taking a first step. Already 30% of all submissions to the Performance Forum have been sent in with CO2 values. Now, in close cooperation with manufacturers, we need to support the development of an index that takes into account the various properties of a fabric. This index is intended to make materials comparable with each other. This is the only way that allows visitors to make the best decision in terms of fabric selection.”

Time to learn a new abbreviation – PCF?

To attain more and better data from manufacturers, Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) are already widely used and understood, and evaluate a broad range of criteria such as all relevant input from the environment (e.g. ores and crude oil, water, land usage), as well as emissions released in the air, waterways and soil (e.g. carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides). But acquiring LCA data is labor intensive and is still often lacking for many yarns, fabrics and fibers. For this reason, and due the urgency of the climate crisis, Performance Days and others are looking into meaningful solutions that can account for greenhouse gas emission values alone.

One such solution gaining support is that of a Product Carbon Footprint (PCF), a mini-LCA of sorts that essentially assesses and calculates the greenhouse gas emissions of a product along its various life cycle phases. This means that everything – from the extraction of raw materials, to the manufacture and transport of the product, to its usage and ultimate disposal – is included in the calculation.

PCFs can “identify the largest emissions sources”

One company providing PCF services is Climate Partner, and its Commercial Sustainability Manager Martin Michelberger explains why in the context of increasing consumer demand, legislation and a business’ own climate pledges, PCFs are picking up steam:

“PCFs enable a company to identify the largest emission sources along the product life cycle and to derive appropriate reduction measures.”

He continues to explain that the benefits of a PCF have the potential to go well beyond a single product. Like LCAs, PCF results can be useful in informing entire product families: Having realized the impact of exchanging virgin material with recycled, for example, or opting for land transport over air, these findings can help highlight where the greatest impacts are and how to best mitigate them.

But just as with LCAs, substantial data gaps remain a looming challenge to arriving at results that have high validity, and filling these gaps will require much greater transparency at all levels of production than is the case today. But to Martin Michelberger, currently available data is more than sufficient to take effective action:

“More granularity is, of course, always desirable. Primary data, i.e. concrete consumption data from the value chain, is always more accurate than secondary data. Still, with the appropriate secondary data, it is nevertheless possible to achieve a very good approximation of the real result and to identify the relevant emission drivers and thus lift reduction potentials.”

Towards an ideal PCF scenario

These are still early days for PCFs, but with increasing pressure for climate transparency, their usefulness will likely only rise. Martin Michelberger points to the need for standardization across the industry, whereby all stages of the value chain pull together to make their part transparent – voluntarily if possible, or by legislation if necessary. More data will make it easier for the industry as a whole to learn and improve faster.

But at the same time, Martin Michelberger argues that there’s no need to wait to start taking action now:

“The best advice I can give at this point is to simply start with the capabilities available today and strive for steady improvement in data quality year after year, rather than waiting for the perfect framework.”

To this end, Climate Partner has been involved in various working groups on harmonization of standards for many years and is actively contributing to their work. Martin Michelberger highlights the efforts of initiatives like European Outdoor Group’s Supply Chain Decarbonization Project as an impactful way other companies can join forces to achieve what they could not do alone.

But even in some future scenario where PCFs become widespread, Martin Michelberger says that they are just one element of a sustainability strategy and cautions against having too narrow a view on a product’s climate performance:

“A product may have a higher PCF result but need to be washed less often or actually be more durable. Add in an educated end consumer and the overall footprint becomes smaller. And from an even broader perspective, if every new sustainability aspect of a product only leads to more consumption, we’re ultimately cannibalizing all efforts to become more sustainable as an industry. I think topics such as degrowth and the decoupling of revenue and resource consumption will keep us very busy as an industry in the coming years.”



Lead Photo: Jacob Campbell / Unsplash

Jonathan Eidse
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