Why do synthetics keep coming out on top when compared to natural fibers in life cycle assessments? An author of a recent report suggest that the better question is perhaps “who is making the rules?”

Legislation increasingly requires more objective data on the environmental impacts of the textiles and apparel industries – a trend seemingly welcomed by both consumers and industry alike. But just how balanced a picture do current measurement tools provide? In our recent position paper titled “Critical Review of Product Environmental Footprint (PEF),” we explored this question and concluded with a rather scathing criticism of these tools’ bias in favor of synthetics.

Cherry-picked criteria

Building upon the findings of three research projects, we argue that far from providing an objective score, PEFs and the most commonly used criteria of LCAs make numerous assumptions that ultimately downplay natural fibers’ advantages and exaggerate those of synthetics.

LCAs do not factor in the renewability of raw materials, for example, neither do they account for the fiber’s biodegradability nor its contribution to microfiber pollution. If they did, synthetics’ score would be dismal. This is, however, how LCAs are currently set up. And they do not include any positive aspects that contribute to for example soil sequestering carbon.

LCAs also favor the intensive or landless production methods of big multinational petrochemical corporations. Yield is also important, so organic production will actually be a failure within LCAs. This is the exact opposite of established social and environmental sustainability knowledge, which prefers widespread, low-impact production that promotes local community livelihoods and biodiversity.

Finally, as data is usually not available at the individual fiber level, these analyses use averages in their calculations. This can often be very misleading, as the fact is that the impacts between two types of production of the same fiber can often be greater than the difference between two completely different types of fiber.  When the only environmental data available for synthetics production comes from the Global North, one can only wonder how this data would look if it included China, where most of these fibers are actually produced?

Ignored use-phase

A second criticism relates to the product’s use-phase – often one of the most significant phases in terms of a product’s environmental impact and one where studies show natural fibers to have significant advantages over synthetics. Yet so-called “Cradle to Gate” LCA’s ignore this phase entirely, while others gloss over the use-phase with oversimplified models.

For example, assessments will commonly focus on the fabric’s strength as the primary determinant of garment longevity. Synthetics consistently score higher in strength than naturals, yet no research supports this premise that the strongest clothing is the longest lived. If this were the case, new clothing would only be purchased once the old clothing had worn out. With the rise of fast fashion, this is increasingly just not the case. In the EU, up to 2/3 of clothing is discarded long before it is worn out. The fact is that we are moving towards low-use/disposable clothing, and in this scenario stronger materials should not be interpreted as increasing the product’s longevity.

All in all, in the report we argue that strength alone is a wholly inappropriate measure of a product’s longevity and that the focus must be on dividing the environmental impact of a product by the number of actual wears. This number is largely determined by factors like functionality, fit, and how much the owner values the garment, and methods like waste analyses would provide much more realistic estimates of clothing lifetimes.

Targeted Producer Responsibility

This is where a proactive idea comes into play, which we call Targeted Producer Responsibility (TPR). The idea is based on the research project Wasted Textiles and picking analyses performed in waste streams (municipal waste and a sorting facility for one of the largest collectors of used textiles). Here we found that data can be collected on how much is in the different waste streams from different industry actors, in what condition these are in and how long they have been used (or not used at all). We had a eureka moment when we realized that such “real world” data  could underpin an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fee system. Currently, such suggested fee-systems and other tools to ensure that products put on the market are “durable, repairable and recyclable,” are based on projections from the industry, technical durability tests and other measures that are in essence looking optimistically into a crystal ball.

TPR would ensure that data on the use and end-of-use phase are actually captured. In LCAs and related measures like PEF, this does not address the elephant in the room: Volumes. TPR is a tool to generate knowledge, but it is also a potential policy measure. It could work to discourage those products no one wants or uses only for a very short time. If the size of a fee allotted to products that go out of use prematurely is high enough, it can discourage these products entering the market. TPR ensures that knowledge acquisition is based on actual empirical facts and not assumptions, and on knowledge that can be obtained from third parties and not the industry itself.

Who is making the rules?

In sum, our position paper can be interpreted as a warning against taking LCAs and PEFs, as currently devised, at face value.

If the PEF for apparel and footwear are to get on a better track it is necessary to take seriously that “(a)ny weighting scheme is not mainly natural science based but inherently involves value choices that will depend on policy, cultural and other preferences and value systems. No ‘consensus’ on weighting seems to be achievable. This situation does not apply only to weighting in a LCA or Environmental Footprint context, but seems inevitable for many multicriteria approaches.”(1)

In other words, while proponents of LCAs and PEFs may champion their use of “objective” data, the reality is that what is included and excluded, and how these are weighed against each other, are all subject to value choices. This begs the question of who are making these choices? Often the same actors that have the greatest vested interest in synthetics in the first place. As we conclude:

“Fast fashion will remain in fashion if those who have the most to gain from it are making the rules.”


About SIFO

Consumption Research Norway (SIFO) is a non-profit, transdisciplinary research institute and a part of Oslo Metropolitan University, at the Centre for Welfare- and Labor Research (SVA).

Visit website.


Ingun Grimstad Klepp
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