Carbon footprint of textiles

03 Apr 2009


The term 'carbon footprint' has emerged the latest environment terminology to be used frequently in the media. Whether you are environmentally challenged or environmentally savvy, chances are you would probably not be aware that unlike footprints of a more mundane variety a carbon footprint is rather weighty stuff. For instance, the 'carbon footprint' of that fancy T-shirt you are wearing is estimated to be around 6kg i.e. around 20 times its own weight!

But what exactly is 'carbon footprint'? Carbon footprint is a measure of the severity of the impact our activities have on the environment, and particularly on climate change. It measures the impact by the amount of greenhouse emissions, produced through the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heating etc in our every day lives. Activities that have a large carbon footprint produce large amounts of greenhouse gases and therefore have a large impact on the environment.

Greenhouse gases and global warming
As greenhouse gases produced by human activities accumulate and their concentration increases in the atmosphere, it causes global warming. The main contributor to global warming is carbon dioxide, which accounts for nearly 80 per cent of emissions from the industrialised countries. The gas is released from burning of fossil fuels: oil, petrol and natural gas. With the rising population and increasing demands on transport and energy the rate at which carbon dioxide is being released is also accelerating.

Other greenhouse gases that originate from industrial and agricultural processes are:

  • Methane
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
  • Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
  • Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)

As these gases accumulate, they absorb infrared radiation in the atmosphere, thus changing the dynamic balance between the energy received from the sun and the energy escaping.

The net result of these changes is a rise in temperature. Climate models predict a global temperature rise in the range of 1.4 - 5.80 C by 2100, if current warming trends continue unchecked. This is expected to trigger catastrophic events including:

  • Flooding of low lying coastal areas
  • Seasonal changes in the Northern hemisphere with wetter, warmer winters and hotter dryer summers
  • World wide extreme weather conditions with frequent storms, drought and heavy rainfall.

Gloal warming and the textile industry
Everything that we do has a direct or indirect impact on the environment, because all our activities right from commuting to work to flying on a vacation involves burning fossil fuels that  causes the production of green house gases. The impact of our activities is not limited to commuting but extends to everything we consume right down to the food we eat and the clothes we wear.

In fact, the modern textile industry is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases, given the myriad processes and products that go into the making of any item of clothing.

Primary and Secondary Footprint
Human activity impacts the environment in two ways - directly through processes that burn fossil fuels and indirectly through the products that we use. The carbon footprint is therefore, made up of the sum of two parts, the primary footprint and the secondary footprint.

  • The primary footprint is a measure of the direct emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels we burn including domestic energy consumption and transportation (e.g. car and plane). We have direct control over these emissions. 
  • The secondary footprint is a measure of the indirect carbon dioxide emissions over the entire lifecycle of the products we use - emissions associated with their manufacture and eventual breakdown. Simply put - the more we buy the more emissions will be caused will be caused on our behalf.

The primary footprint of your commute to the office and back is pretty straightforward to calculate or estimate, but the secondary footprint concept is a little more involved and tricky. To understand the concept you need to understand what is meant by the lifecycle of a product. The lifecycle of a product spans the entire period from the time the raw materials are farmed, produced etc. to the time the product is finally disposed.

If that is not complicated enough, there is no universally accepted way to measure the carbon footprint. For example retailers in the UK might only consider the emissions in the UK distribution of the T shirt, accounting for only part of the supply chain. But if the entire process - from cotton growing and mass production in India and delivery to UK retailers is considered the footprint would rise significantly.

But that is not all, research has shown that the size of your T-shirt's carbon footprint also depends on how frequently it is washed, and the manner in which it is washed and dried. Over the lifecycle, around 75 per cent of the T-shirt's carbon footprint will be caused by machine washing and drying. However, if you dry the T-shirt on a clothesline instead of frequently tumble drying it, the figure falls significantly.

Carbon footprint and the textile industry
According to estimates, textiles and clothing typically account for around four per cent of the secondary carbon foot print of an individual in the developed world. Thanks to a number of factors including the growing awareness of environmental concerns, and perhaps more importantly, the benefits the textiles industry hopes to reap from reducing its carbon footprint, the industry has taken several initiatives in the direction of reducing its carbon footprint.

If the textile industry is now seeking to align more closely with the goals of reducing its carbon foot print it is because of a growing realisation that a smaller carbon foot print is not only environmentally friendly it also makes good business sense on a number of counts. 

  • For starters there is the low-cost - a low carbon foot print means lower consumption of energy which often means more efficient use of energy. Low carbon foot print processes cut costs by reducing waste of raw materials and energy.
  • Many companies have read the writing on the wall - the future is green and
    tough environmental regulation will be a part and parcel of the new green paradigm. Not taking the right measures now could jeopardize operations a few years down the line. Instead of running the risk of supply chain disruptions at a future date, are increasingly aligning with the green concerns and environmental regulations.
  • Another important factor in the switch to greener alternatives is consumer pressure and demand. Informed consumers are now demanding products that comply with environmental regulations and in an age of growing competition and consumer assertiveness it is the consumer who drives sales and profitability. Which company can today afford to deny the consumer what he demands?

Strategies for reducing carbon footprint
Spurred by these factors, the textile industry and players across the value chain have adopted various strategies for reducing the carbon footprint. Besides the textile industry's switch to more energy efficient processes, companies across the supply chain have also pitched in with innovative products with smaller carbon footprints: 

DuPont, the US based chemicals major, that revolutionised the fiber industry with the introduction of man-made fibers like nylon, rayon and spandex now offers Sorona, a polymer which is made with agricultural feedstocks instead of petrochemicals. Sorona has high renewable ingredients content - 37 per cent by weight. Fabrics made with Sorona provide a 30-per cent carbon dioxide reduction while the Sorona  manufacturing process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 63 per cent, compared to conventional nylon made from petroleum.

BASF, the German chemicals major has launched a number of eco-efficient solutions that are environmentally friendly and contribute to saving resources. Two of these were compared against the conventional systems used in textile mills: BASF's aftersoaping agent Cyclanon XC-W for dyeing and BASF Color Fast Finish system that is an intelligent colouration system. The former can reduce the processing time and water consumption compared to the conventional system. BASF Color Fast Finish, an intelligent coloration system, is a one-step-process of textile dyeing and finishing, combining the dyeing, washing and finishing steps into one step, which can reduce the processing time and carbon dioxide emissions.

Novozymes, Denmark, the world's largest producer of industrial enzymes, which are basically proteins has developed products for textile applications. These enzymes replace harsh chemicals used to remove impurities from the fiber or fabric which reduces energy costs, water consumption and also improves the feel of the fabric. Vijayeswari Textiles, Coimbatore which switched over from chemicals to enzymes reports good results following with the replacement. Says R. Parameswaran, General Manager, ''We started using enzymes which have given us good results compared to the feel of the fabric, and also the output of the effluent.''

US-based Gaston Systems, has developed an innovative machine that applies finishes to fabrics using foam, which conserves water.

Huntsman, a Swiss company is a leading supplier of dyes. The company has developed  inks from the dyes which can be used in a digital printer for printing on fabrics just like the inks in an office printer.  Digital printing wastes neither fabric nor ink and does not use harmful salts and significantly reduces the environmental footprint.

Revolutionary dyeing technologies: Conventional dyeing uses water to transport the fabric through the machine, a new technique uses air which significantly reduces water consumption. With conventional dyeing methods it takes 200 liters of water to make a T shirt. With the revolutionary air technology the same T-shirt can be made using 50 liters of water, which also reduces energy and chemicals consumption.

Innovative denim mill: Lucky Textiles in China has recently built a new denim facility, the size of 11 football fields. Designed with the environment in mind the facility uses natural light to serve most of its illumination needs. Thanks to the hi-tech systems it uses, Lucky can accurately use fewer chemicals and dyestuffs with absolutely no waste. With less chemical on the fabric, washing can be light which reduces the impact on the state-of-the art water treatment. The company even built a new canal for the facility with connection to the Environment Protection Bureau which can monitor the quality of the waste water in real time.

The global textile industry has taken several strides towards reducing its carbon footprint and meeting the challenges of building a more sustainable future. At the same time there is a growing awareness of environmental issues among consumers who are increasingly now increasingly insisting on textile products complying with environmental standards. These complementary trends will hopefully continue to drive the industry toward offering the consumer products that are not only red, blue, white etc. but also green.

Indian textile industry oblivious
The Indian textile industry however seems to be oblivious to the writing on the wall. At a two-day national seminar organized by the Institution of Engineers (India), Shahi Group, Lakvinsar Projects and Infrastructure, held in Bangalore in February 2008, GS Nadiger, director (laboratories) textiles committee, in the ministry of textiles said that a large number of textile industries and units, particularly those in the processing sector across the country have failed to meet many environmental laws and regulations. He added that despite stringent environmental laws and regulations, the compliance level by the textile industry has not been very satisfactory.

In November 2008, addressing an international conference, 'Sustainability of Textile Fashion Industry Chain: Crop to Shop', in New Delhi, minister of state for textiles, EKVS Elangovan called upon the industry to use cost-effective and energy-efficient technologies for encouraging sustainable development. He added that the industry's size and extensive use of raw materials and chemicals makes it mandatory for the industry to adopt technologies that are environmentally sustainable.

Speaking on the occasion, chairman of the Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC) Rakesh Vaid said that the industry needed to proactively work towards evolving a sustainable supply chain. He added that cotton waste recycling, low-carbon manufacturing programmes and carbon accounting in factories, carbon footprint calculation projects, benchmarking energy consumption across the textile and apparel supply chain are some issues that need to be addressed on a private-partnership mode.

Vaid, said that production strategies have not addressed sustainable production systems or alternatives so far.

However, an important initiative was taken when, on the sidelines of the conference, the AEPC joined hands with a global industry group led by retail major Marks and Spencer and the University of Leeds under a programme called 'Reducing the Impact of Textiles on Environment (RITE). Under the programme, Pearl Academy of Fashion (PAF) which organised the conference will set up a joint apparel and garment coordination committee for sustainability.

PAF intends to prepare a manual of best practice for sustainability for the fashion value chain. According to AKG Nair group director at PAF, the initiative is a significant step as India is a developing country with an aspiring consumption drive and vast untapped markets, but seems to be largely unaware of the emerging sensitivities related to sustainability.

The Indian textile industry will need to cover a lot of ground on crucial environmental issues that will impact both competitiveness and bottom line in a regime driven by environmental and sustainability concerns. A world-wide paradigm shift toward cleaner and greener processes is already underway and it can no longer afford to remain a mute spectator if wants to emerge as a significant player in the globalised market.

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