To learn more about this methodology, The Mills Fabrica spoke to expert Dr. Shauhrat Chopra, an Assistant Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. His research revolves around building a socially just and sustainable future that is both environmentally and economically feasible. Shauhrat’s research is focused on designing indicators to support data-driven environmental decision-making, such as enhancing the sustainability and resilience of the built environment.
Prior to City University, Shauhrat was working as a post-doctoral associate at the Institute of Environmental Science and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago and received his Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool for the systematic accounting of environmental impacts across the life cycle of a product or a process. LCA can be conducted for two purposes: first, to benchmark the environmental performance of a product or process to identify opportunities for a sustainable design, and second, to compare two alternative pathways to achieve the same functionality. Systematic comparative assessments that are not based on intuition are necessary to avoid unintended consequences.
LCA is an ISO standardized methodology, which is widely adopted across sectors. Lately, textile manufacturers and retailers have been pushed by consumers' outcry against the environmental burden of fast fashion. As a response, many brands have launched sustainability initiatives; however, the concern of greenwashing remains. For this reason, it is essential to perform LCAs to benchmark impacts for much greater transparency.
Goal and scope definition, where we define the objective and the system boundary
Life Cycle Inventory (LCI), where we collect all the material and energy inputs, and waste and pollutants outputs from each of the life cycle phases
Life cycle impact assessment converts the input and outputs into environmental impact categories
Finally, an interpretation phase where analyzing the detailed breakdown of the sub-processes that contribute the most environmental impacts and perform scenario analysis to evaluate the alternatives.
Life Cycle inventory data is mostly obtained from industry average datasets, such as ECOINVENT. However, these databases do not contain data for the latest emerging technologies and most of the data is representative only of the Global North.
LCA is not restricted to just the quantification of carbon emissions, which means it is able to disclose the trade-offs between various environmental impacts, such as land-use change, ozone depletion, and human health toxicity, to name a few among others. This makes carbon footprint a sub-set of LCA.
Given that textile products are associated with water depletion and land-use change issues, it will be silly to optimize the production processes with the only aim to reduce carbon alone. It is imperative to drive sustainable design towards balancing all the different environmental impacts.
LCA allows for data-informed decision-making for various stakeholders engaged in the value chain of the textile product. For instance, by looking at the end-of-life impacts associated with a garment, fashion designers can fine-tune their material selection and inculcate design-for-circularity in the early phases of the garment life cycle.
Biological approaches are a promising technology for textile waste valorization to different chemicals. While biological recycling method is still quite nascent, it is promising to see the latest development in treating cotton-polyester blended waste streams to produce platform chemicals such as glucose and polyester.
While previously engineers mostly cared about the technical performance (i.e. yield) or the financial viability of the technology, there is a need to scale emerging bio recycling of textile waste streams whilst keeping economic and environmental
sustainability variables in mind. Techno-economic analysis, also known as life cycle costing, and LCA allow us to identify the scenarios that strike a balance between economic costs and environmental benefits. Previous studies have pointed to the high environmental and financial cost of enzymes, which makes it the major hotspot for intervention.