Textile Industry and Climate Change

26 02 2019

“I believe we stand at a turning point in history. For the first time, humans are no longer just affected by weather cycles, we are affecting those cycles—and suffering the consequences of doing so.”

Patricia Espinosa,  UN Climate Change Executive Secretary

Climate change is without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century. It affects everything, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the food we grow. And considering that natural fibers are the backbone of the textile industry, and climate change affects the growth and production of these natural fibers, it is only right that the textile industry makes this major global issue a priority.

Cotton production alone leaves a huge impact on the environment. According to Textile Today, a kilogram of cotton (the equivalent of one pair of jeans and one t-shirt) can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce. Additionally, only 2.4% of the world’s crop land has cotton planted in it, yet it accounts for 24% of global sales of insecticide.

It’s not just the production of natural fibers that will affect the textile and apparel industry – the industry is known for being one of the most polluting industries of the modern world. The carbon footprint left behind by major textile operations is huge, and carbon is released throughout the supply chain,producing 1.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year. Over 60% of textiles are used in the clothing industry and a large proportions of clothing manufacturing occurs in China and India, countries which rely on coal-fueled power plants, increasing the footprint of each garment. One way the industry can make positive changes is by switching to renewable energy, such as solar or wind power. This would drastically reduce the amount of energy consumed by factories and improve sustainability around the world.

“The apparel sector is one where there’s a lot of uncertainty about what exactly the impacts are,” said Nate Aden, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, at a panel discussion on climate change in NYC.  “The best number we have now is about five percent of [global] greenhouse gas emissions [come from] the textile industry. To give you some sense of perspective, that’s about equivalent to the impact from the aviation sector, so all the planes flying in the world. Or in country terms, that’s about equal to Russia. So it’s pretty significant.”[1]

Fashion is one area in which consumerism has rapidly grown in recent years. Fast fashion has become more prevalent; clothing is produced on shorter timeframes with new designs appearing every few weeks to satisfy demand for the latest trends, but with this comes increased consumption and more waste. It has been estimated that there are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year[2] and we are buying 60% more than we were in 2000. Each garment is worn less before being disposed of and this shorter lifespan means higher relative manufacturing emissions.  Clothing costs have risen slower than those of other consumer goods, increasing their affordability, and there will be continued growth as the middle class expands and purchases increase to match this demographic shift. This combination of factors is expected to result in a tripling of resource consumption by 2050 (compared to 2000).

Synthetic fibers have seen rapid production growth since their introduction in the second half of the twentieth century. Polyester is now the most commonly used fabric in clothing, having overtaken cotton early in the twenty-first century. For polyester and other synthetic materials, the emissions for production are much higher as they are produced from fossil fuels such as crude oil. In 2015, production of polyester for textiles use results in more than 706 billion kg of CO2e. The authors of the study estimate a single polyester t-shirt has emissions of 5.5 kg CO2e, compared with 2.1 kg CO2e for one made from cotton. However cotton is a thirsty crop and its production has greater impacts on land and water.

With limited recycling options to recover reusable fibres, almost 60% of all clothing produced is disposed of within a year of production (ending in landfill or incineration)[3]. To put that into context, that is one rubbish truck per second to landfill[4]. It has been estimated that less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled within the clothing industry, with around 13% recycled for use in other areas[5].

There is also a push to return to slow fashion, with higher quality garments with longer product life and utilization. The recent report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation[6] advocates for a shift to a circular economy, where the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible and waste and resource use is minimized. This, alongside efforts to minimize negative environmental impacts from production, will create a more sustainable industry. For suggestions such as clothing rentals, and increased durability allowing reuse and resale, a shift in consumer behavior and attitude is required for them to gain traction.

A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation raised an alarm,pointing to an estimated USD 500 billion value lost every year due to clothing that is “barely worn and rarely recycled,” and which could lead to the industry accounting for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Regarding cotton production, 1 kg of cotton production (equivalent to a pair of jeans and a t-shirt) can require nearly 5,500 gallons of water, 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land, 2.4% of the word’s crop land is planted with cotton and yet it accounts for 24% of sales 11% of insecticid and pesticides.(7)

The Aral Sea which was world’s fourth largest inland water lake has been reduced to 15% of its original size as a result of irrigation to cotton industry:

Aral Sea.jpg

     Source:  NASA 2010

Another major polluting subsector of the textile supply chain is dyeing operations. All synthetic dyes and chemicals are hazardous to the environment. The wastewater from the dyeing industry is considered to be the most polluting of all given its volume and composition. Up to 200,000 tons of dyes are expelled in the form of effluent from dyeing and finishing operations due to inefficient processes.(8)  It is estimated that 20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles.(9)


(1)   Bauck, W., “The Fashion Industry Emits as much Greenhouse Gas as All of Russia”,  Sept.22, 2017 HTTPS://FASHIONISTA.COM/2017/09/FASHION-INDUSTRY-GREENHOUSE-GAS-CLIMATE-CHANGE-SUSTAINABILITY

(2) Kirchain, R., Olivetti, E., Reed Miller, T. & Greene, S. Sustainable Apparel Materials (Materials Systems Laboratory, 2015).

[3] Remy, N., Speelman, E. & Swartz, S. Style That’s Sustainable: A New Fast-Fashion Formula (McKinsey&Company, accessed 11 December 2017).

[4] A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

(7) Patwary, Sarif Ullah, Masters thesis, Kansas State University, “Global climate change   and the textile industry”, March 22, 2016

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ellen Macarthur Foundation, “A New Textiles Economy Summary of Findings”; https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/a-new-textiles-economy-redesigning-fashions-future.





Cradle to Cradle

26 08 2011

Cradle to Cradle (often written as C2C) is the certification managed by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII) – previously managed byMcDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).  William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Time magazine’s anointed “Heroes of the Environment”, are both internationally renowned in their fields.  Known for idealism, vision, and consulting for high-profile corporate clients like Ford Motor Company and Nike, McDonough and Braungart have envisioned “a new industrial revolution,” calling for “remaking the way we make things,” the subtitle of their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle. In that book and elsewhere, McDonough and Braungart disparage “cradle-to-grave” products that aren’t designed to be lasting parts of the manufacturing cycle and that poison the environment through pollution and disposal. MBDC’s Cradle to Cradle™ (often written as C2C) protocol envisions every resource used to make products as a safe nutrient in an endless cycle.[1]  On paper Cradle to Cradle is a dream:   Their goal is to have  “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power- economically,  equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”

Credit: MBDC

It is a brilliant concept – how can anybody not love it?   Well, this may be a case of something sorta like the Emperor’s new clothes – two highly esteemed people, with overreaching, altruistic goals, seducing us all with ideas we can fall in love with.   But, as Lloyd Alter explains in a Treehugger article this year ( click here to read the article )  after looking deeper, we find out that it might not be  quite as wonderfully “green” as we  thought.  MBDC says that “Consumers can rely on the C2C certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products” when in fact, at least at the Basic and Silver levels, you cannot.  According to Environmental Building News, one realizes that, at the lower levels of certification (Basic and Silver), Cradle to Cradle Certification isn’t really a product certification at all.[2]  And that creates a problem, because designers – even relatively sophisticated “green” designers – perceive that any level of C2C certification means a truly sustainable product.

So let’s back up a bit to understand why the Basic and Silver “certification” is not, as Environmental Building News claims, a product certification at all.    To be clear, C2C has not claimed to be a third party certification, because MBDC consults with manufacturers to help them gain a thorough understanding of their products (since many manufacturers depend on components from other manufacturers).  They then help the manufacturers make changes necessary to achieve certification –  so some perceive a bias.   In 2010, perhaps to avoid this perception, MBDC transferred the C2C system to the C2CPII, a California-based nonprofit, which will allow the separation of the certification body from the consultation body.

The C2C certification program works to express the C2C design philosophy through five categories.  A product’s final score is the lowest of its five individual scores in each of these five areas:

  1. Material Health  – i.e., chemicals contained in a product.  Materials chemistry is  MBDC’s greatest strength and, according to MBDC’s Jay Bolus, executive vice president for certification, “the heart and soul of the program”. To achieve any C2C certification requires that all ingredients be identified down to the 100 parts per million (ppm) or 0.01% level and assessed according to 19 human and environmental health criteria. MBDC uses these criteria to categorize chemicals as red, yellow, or green. Chemicals with incomplete environmental data are rated gray and are, according to Bolus, treated as if they were red. For a product to achieve any C2C certification other than Basic or Silver, it cannot contain any ingredients classified as red;  if it does the manufacturer must have a plan for eliminating them — unless red ingredients have no existing substitutes and the manufacturer contains those ingredients in a controlled, closed-loop technical cycle.[3]  Published C2C guidelines don’t detail what the certification requires of those strategies to eliminate the toxic elements. ”We will help them develop the strategy and develop some measurable milestones,” Bolus explained. “Let’s say it’s a textile—we might know of some dyes that don’t have hazardous characteristics.” MBDC would share that information and help the manufacturer reformulate its product.
  2. Material Reutilization:  this category concerns recycled or renewable materials.
  3. Renewable Energy Use  in manufacturing.
  4. Water Stewardship (water use in manufacturing) – both energy and water use standards focus on manufacturing and do not address the energy and water consumption that results from use of the product.  In addition, there is no assessment of air emissions or product longevity.
  5. Social Responsibility (corporate)

Based on ratings in each of these categories, a product can be certified by MBDC as C2C Basic, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

However, according to Environmental Building News (click here to read the full article ) , there are a number of areas where the concept and the reality of certification—at least at the levels that are being achieved today—don’t match.

  1. A C2C Basic or Silver certification, for example, doesn’t guarantee that a product is free of all red ingredients as mentioned above — the only “knockout” chemical at those levels is PVC, for example.  Although C2C identifies red ingredients at the Basic and Silver level, and companies are asked to develop plans to phase them out or optimize them, there is no C2C report card for consumers that details what a certified product does or does not include – because the list used is proprietary.  An example of what this means is exemplified by Owens Corning Propink fiberglass, which is currently certified C2C Silver.  One can wonder how a product  that some consider “the asbestos of the 21st  Century” and is a possible carcinogen can be awarded Cradle to Cradle Silver. But the fact is, they don’t list the ingredients and publish the spreadsheet or the formula for figuring out the nutrient calculations.  It’s considered proprietary.
  2. MBDC  certifies just the product,  without looking at how it is installed or used. For example, Hycrete  is an additive designed to waterproof concrete[4].  However, when used as intended it is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled by any established process. In practice, then, C2C’s certification of Hycrete as a biological nutrient means that “if you accidentally spill a five-gallon bucket into a local stream, it’s going to degrade and isn’t going to do any harm,” said Bolus.
  3. Also a concern to some industry peers is that C2C is not a true third-party certification program. Third-party certifications are respected by consumers in part because the certifier doesn’t have a financial relationship with manufacturers that could influence the program’s standards or the certification results. The standards community is moving toward a separation between the organizations which develop the standard from the ones which do the actual certification.  In contrast to this model,  MBDC developed the C2C standard and certifies products with it, while its primary business is consulting with manufacturers.

For many of the C2C criteria, Basic, Silver and Gold certifications are based on plans and intentions. “Platinum is where the rubber meets the road and they’re actually recovering product,” said Kirsten Ritchie, director of sustainable design for Gensler and an expert on product certification. Tom Lent, policy director of the nonprofit Healthy Building Network, said, “It is pretty important to understand that C2C certification is, at least before Platinum, more about [the manufacturer’s] process with MBDC than actual final accomplishments in the product.” Explaining MBDC’s rationale for the tiered certifications, McDonough said, “People need the opportunity to improve products. We’ve got to give everybody a chance to get into the game, and then we need to test them on their promises.”  As of today, no product of any kind has achieved Platinum.

These distinctions between levels, however, may not be readily apparent to consumers and design professionals, who see the C2C logo stamped on a product as a validation that it is “green”, and who believe they’re supporting the lofty ideals exemplified by the MBDC protocol, without realizing that those ideals are reflected only at the unattained Platinum level.

The editors of Environmental Building News have called for MBDC to fix this by continuing to refer to Gold and Platinum levels as product certifications; while the Basic and Silver levels should be referred to in language which “clearly conveys that such a product is being reviewed by the Cradle to Cradle program and that the company has committed to work with MBDC to make it better. That’s important and a huge step for a manufacturer—so it deserves to be recognized—but to call it “certification” is misleading.”[5]

As Lloyd Alter, in a Treehugger post in February, 2011, says:

” There is so much to love about Cradle to Cradle. As a design philosophy, it is brilliant and a  model for everyone. I admire William McDonough as an architect and as a thinker. As a certification system there are issues, and I hope that the new, truly Third Party assessment system and the next generation protocol will address them.  But again it is a cautionary tale, that one can fall in love with an idea, and after looking deeper, find out that it is not quite as wonderful as one thought. MBDC says that “Consumers can rely on the certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products” when in fact, at least at the basic and silver levels, you cannot.”[6]

According to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute website,  as of June, 2011, the new Version 3 of the C2C product certification protocol has been completed and was about to be released to stakeholders for review.

…and more press this month

18 03 2009

Hi there…just found out we’re in eco-structure Magazine, in the “Innovators” section!  If you haven’t read this publication, and you are curious about green building, you should.  AND…Robb Report Collection for April, which comes with your Robb Report, gave us a FULL PAGE in their “Design Guide” section.  BTW, April is their ‘green issue’, so check it throughout!  We’re very thankful for this initial support from the media, we love that they see the beauty and value in our products.  We also look forward to working with them to explain more indepth about how important it is to change the manufacturing process and educate everyone about the very serious issues of the every day, chemical-laden textiles most live with.  Onward…!