Functional units: A new take on LCAs for textiles?

Tone Skårdal Tobiasson
Posted on
Monday, 25 April 2016
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In an article published today by Consumption Research Norway (SIFO), in the book ‘Consumption and the Green Shift’, researchers Dr. Ingun G. Klepp and Kirsi Laitala challenge the current rhetoric on apparel’s lifetime and LCA evaluation.

“We need to look at a better way of measuring clothing’s impact on the environment than today’s fiber rankings used by Made-By and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition,” says Dr. Klepp. In the article ‘Clothing’s life-span: LCAs for life and death’ the two consumer researchers point to the lack of use of ‘functional units’ in LCAs for apparel ends up making recycled polyester the winner. “In the race for being the most sustainable, designers are asking what is the most sustainable material, the consequence for the fashion business being that one makes more garbage from old garbage, instead of actually looking at what fiber is best used in what products for longevity and function.”

The article points to other sectors where functional units now are the way of evaluating and comparing products and services, for a better and truer look at the actual environmental impacts. “One looks at the amounts of seats filled in a plane, not the number of flights; one looks at how long one waits between painting a given wall, not the amount of liters of paint used,” Dr. Klepp explains. “But when it comes to apparel, there is very little research on life-span or how often clothing is actually ‘functional’ or in use. This is where the battle needs to be held, not in finding ways to recycle or down-cycle materials that should actually stay in functional use.”

The article challenges the current and massive focus on developing ‘closed loop’ systems for textiles, and brings to the forefront the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway which is 1700 years old, and seems to have been well used by its owner or owners before it was left behind in the mountains and froze for posterity in a glacier. “Technically there is no reason that clothes cannot be in use for 100 years, and we still find clothes from early 1900s in use. These clothes are truly sustainable,” the researchers insist.