Why Life Cycle Assessment standard PEF is critical for the Sustainability of Fashion

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The term sustainability is often misused by the fashion industry termed as “Greenwashing” and has been used to highlight environmental benefits in different contexts e.g., natural fibers, recycled materials, made-to-order, etc. It is a challenge to truly substantiate how much your product is ‘better’ than the competition. This is where Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) comes into play.

What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)? 

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product, service, or system across its life cycle. It can help you identify hotspots, compare alternatives, and improve performance. With an LCA study, fashion brands can measure the true environmental benefits of a product vs. other similar products.

Diagram showing the Cradle-To-Gate and Cradle-To-Grave system boundaries of apparel and footwear products all the way from the raw material lifecycle stage to the end-of-life stage

What are the common challenges of conducting a LCA study?

1. Significant effort and high cost

Conducting an LCA study is time-consuming and requires in-house or 3rd party LCA expertise to define scope and requirements, collect required data, and run the LCA analysis. The entire process can take up to six months and can cost up to $20k for one single product. If you are a brand with several hundred or thousand products in your portfolio, LCA can quickly become a major cost item on your P&L.

2. Inability to compare results

LCAs work on numerous assumptions and scenarios and attempt to assess the real world through a simplified model. So if two brands are conducting an LCA of an identical product, their results could be entirely different depending on the scope, assumptions, and scenarios used in the analysis. Detailed analysis is required to unravel the differences making it difficult for decision-makers to make precise decisions quickly.

3. Poor data quality and availability

LCA is a data-driven tool and if the incoming data is either insufficient or of poor quality, the study will not lead to effective conclusions. Current LCA methods don’t specify how to fill data gaps, giving LCA users the flexibility to use what they deem appropriate. This inevitably leads to significant variability in results.

4. Complexity of analyzed product system

LCA typically provides results on several environmental impact indicators. When analyzing a product system composed of several by-products, it creates confusion and makes it difficult to communicate the result to customers.

Life Cycle Assessment studies are complex, and software makes it much easier. There are many traditional software tools available that can be used to conduct an LCA analysis:

Logos of LCA software providers like SimaPro, Sphera, Ecochain, OpenLCA and Umberto

Whilst some tools come with their own databases, most LCI databases commercially available need to be bought separately. Further, the majority of these tools aren’t user-friendly and often require help from advanced LCA practitioners, or sustainability consultants.

Recently, Allbirds developed a life cycle assessment (LCA) tool and shared their methodology and results for public review. While the tool provides a simplistic view of how the calculations are done, it’s hard to use for other brands as their supply chains are significantly more complex than the tool can accommodate. Further, the tool requires users to identify and incorporate secondary data wherever data gaps exist.

The Role of the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method

To promote transparency and drive change, companies are presently employing various methodologies and labels to evaluate and communicate the environmental impact of their products. However, there is a pressing need for a standardized approach to measuring product environmental footprints. This is where the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method comes into play.

Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) is a European Commission-recommended methodology that provides a standardized framework to perform LCA studies. PEF was established to enable the member states and the private sector to assess, display, and benchmark the environmental performance of products, companies, and services based on an assessment of the environmental impacts during their life cycle. The PEF methodology supports the objectives of the “European Green Deal” initiated by the European Commission, which aims to establish more sustainable growth. The PEF method also specifies the requirements for developing category-specific Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR).

PEF Category Rules (PEFCR) for the apparel & footwear¹ industry are designed to ensure that all fashion brands follow a common framework to calculate and share the environmental impacts of their products. The methodology was developed by scientists to measure the impact across 16 environmental indicators such as carbon emissions, water use, freshwater ecotoxicity, and land use.

The image shows all 16 impact categories covered by the PEFCR

PEFCR is based on globally accepted International Organizations for Standardization (ISO) standards, 14040 and 14044. Unlike the ISO standards that offer general guidelines for any sector and leave a lot to user interpretation, PEFCR for Apparel & Footwear are extremely thorough and have been custom designed for the fashion industry.

Benefits of using the PEFCR methodology for LCA

1. Comprehensive common framework

The PEF Apparel & Footwear Category Rules offer the fashion industry a standardized framework and specific guidelines for calculating environmental impacts across 13 product categories, including t-shirts, dresses, and more. This framework allows stakeholders to accurately assess and share environmental impact data, enabling more informed decision-making. The comprehensive framework evaluates products based on 16 environmental indicators, providing valuable insights into areas of concern and potential opportunities for enhancing the environmental performance of products.

2. Product labels and comparability

PEFCR ensures consistency and comparability in assessing the environmental footprints of two items by allowing the industry to evaluate their environmental impacts using standardized calculation rules. By ensuring that product carbon footprint labels are comparable, PEFCR empowers consumers to make more informed choices when selecting products.

3. Cost optimization

The standardized set of calculation rules with pre-defined and validated assumptions provided by the PEFCR makes it easy for software solutions to automate product environmental footprint calculation. Automation significantly reduces the cost and time taken to conduct LCAs thus improving accessibility to even small brands and manufacturers.

4. Facilitate eco-design

The results of product footprint assessments assist designers in understanding and embracing eco-design principles. By identifying the areas with the greatest potential for environmental impact improvement throughout the product life cycle, designers can channel their innovation efforts effectively. PEFCR further encourages brands to prioritize metrics related to product circularity, such as the use and origin of recycled materials. Additionally, it promotes considerations of durability, aiming to extend the lifespan of products, and repairability, seeking to minimize environmental impact through product repairs.

5. Accurate carbon taxes

Many governments are imposing stringent regulations and are expected to levy carbon taxes on apparel and footwear products. EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) will come into force later this year and may include the fashion industry down the line. The regulatory landscape is changing quickly, and building a product impact measurement roadmap has become critical for fashion brands. We expect Product Environmental Footprints to become a defacto in the fashion industry, where they will be passed on from one company to the next in the form of a carbon invoice.

In addition to the aforementioned applications, product environmental footprints can solve Scope 3 accounting challenges faced by fashion sustainability teams, which we covered in an earlier post.

Limitations of PEFCR

While the PEFCR methodology is solving trust issues in measuring and comparing the environmental impacts of fashion products, the current version of the PEFCR doesn’t consider some other environmental impacts:

1. Microplastics

Synthetic fibers are a source of microplastics that get released with every wash of a garment and their impact should be assessed in the total environmental impact of a product as called out in this critical review. However, measuring microplastic pollution is hard and the methodologies to assess their impact are still in development.

2. Second-hand item labeling

Several second-hand marketplaces and brands have come up in recent times to extend the life of fashion products and drive sustainability in the industry. However, the PEFCR methodology calculates the impact of products for a pre-defined lifetime no matter how many users have used them and for how long. It doesn’t provide guidance on how to differentiate the impact labels of first-hand and second-hand products.

3. Biodiversity

Though PEF covers several impact categories that impact biodiversity, the “biodiversity” category itself is not yet covered in the list of impact indicators.

The European Commission is very aware of these shortcomings and hopes to address them in the future revised versions of the PEFCR. The PEFCR methodology will continue to evolve as more scientific data and feedback from the industry is shared with the European Commission.


Conclusion

Cost and scalability are other crucial factors to drive the adoption of PEFCR in the apparel & footwear sector. To effectively implement PEFCR, a user-friendly software solution is essential. Such a solution automates footprint calculations and generates results that are easily understandable, shareable, and communicable to customers. Software tools like Carbon Trail empower sustainability teams, even those with limited life cycle assessment (LCA) expertise, to accurately measure the environmental footprint of their products in alignment with the PEFCR.


References

1. Draft Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) Apparel and Footwear by Quantis (Version 1.2)

2. The PEFCR Apparel and Footwear website

Co-Founder & CTO

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