What is LCA?
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is the most commonly used process for evaluating the environmental performance of products. When undertaken thoroughly, LCA measures the use of natural resources, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other impacts made during a product’s lifespan.
LCA plays an important role in establishing comprehensive environmental measurements for products and materials. In evaluating wool, LCAs typically assess four life cycle stages:
- On farm
- Processing and manufacturing
- Use phase
- End of life.
First Full Wool LCA Reveals Importance of Use Phase
Completing seven years of work, a team of researchers from Australia, New Zealand and Norway have published the first full wool LCA. The study analyses the life of a 300-gram wool sweater made from Australian wool, processed in China, and sold in the European Union.
The Wool LCA revealed that the Use Phase is key to the sustainability of clothing, with the number of times a garment is worn being the most influential factor in determining impacts.
Practically speaking, this means that an item of clothing that is worn more often and is kept for longer has a less overall impact on the environment than one that is used fewer times and kept for a shorter amount of time. How so? Because the more times a t-shirt is worn, for example, the better the resources that went into that t-shirt are being used. The cost of making the t-shirt lessens as its number of uses wears increases and the length of time it is kept increases.
In addition, no substitute or replacement t-shirt is required. The same one is still being used. No more resources had to be consumed to make another t-shirt.
Thus, that item of clothing is more sustainable.
The first of its kind
Previously, little research looked at the full lifetime of wool garments. The majority of wool LCA studies focused on a single segment of the supply chain.
Seeking to address the knowledge gap, Australian Wool Innovation initiated this LCA research. AWI is a not-for-profit company that invests in R&D for the Australian wool. The Australian Government provides matching funding.
“This is one of the few published studies of a full supply chain for a garment, with detailed data behind it,” says Dr Wiedemann. “Of the major fibres, only cotton has also published such substantiated LCA work. None of the synthetics or cellulosic fibres have.”
Read more about the findings of wool’s full LCA: iwto.org/first-full-wool-lca/
How the wool LCA will be used
The wool industry is a strong supporter of using robust LCA methodology as a key part of the environment assessment process. The compelling sustainability benefits of wool include:
- Naturally renewable
- Readily recycled
- Low cost of care.
Looking at these factors, wool performs well from a sustainability point of view at every stage of a garment’s life cycle. However, many established LCA methods are inadequate and fail to thoroughly or accurately evaluate wool. The IWTO and partners are working to help organisations improve LCA processes, while also strongly advocating for other characteristics of wool to be taken into account when measuring its overall environmental impact.
Citation to the study: Wiedemann, S., Biggs, L., Nebel, B. et al. Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woollen garment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1486–1499 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-020-01766-0