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LONDON – A new lifecycle analysis (LCA) study found that the number of times a garment is worn has a much more significant environmental impact than the types of fibres used. Researchers compared two strategies for reducing the environmental impacts of garments – changing fibre types or increasing the number of wears per garment to avoid manufacturing new garments.

They found that increasing the number of wears per garment resulted in lower impacts across all indicators and fibre types. Conversely, changing fibre types resulted in changes to co-product systems and trade-offs between environmental impacts, thus limiting the effectiveness of this strategy to reduce garment environmental impacts.

“Consistent environmental improvements were achieved by maximising the actual wear life of garments and minimising unnecessary garment purchases, not by changing fibre types,” states the paper. “Strategies focused on reducing impacts from textiles and garments should focus on maximising consumer garment use as the highest priority to reduce environmental impact using fibre types and garment designs most suited to long life.”

The researchers used a consequential life cycle inventory (cLCI) which included primary data collected from industry (as part of previous research), and secondary data from relevant literature (e.g., textile manufacturing for cotton and synthetic sweaters, and the use and EoL phases of garments). 

The paper adds: “The results showed increased wears per garment life had consistent benefits across all fibre types and indicators. For example, the climate change impacts of all natural fibres were negative if the number of wears was increased by 50 per cent: that is, greenhouse gas emissions would be avoided entirely primarily because emissions associated with the manufacture of a new petro-PET garment were averted. These results were consistent with research showing extending garment lifetime reduces full life cycle impacts.

“In contrast, a change in fibre type not only involved trade-offs but also induced changes in a large number of allied production systems (e.g., rice and meat for human consumption, as well as products that have multiple uses, such as soy and vegetable oil). The use of cLCA to evaluate the importance of indirect effects is a strength of this methodological approach. This primary finding reduces confidence in the ability of a change in fibre type to achieve change in the desired direction and amount required to reduce the impact of garments.”

Further Reading: Strategies to reduce environmental impacts from textiles: Extending clothing wear life compared to fibre displacement assessed using consequential LCA – ScienceDirect

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