40 years of progress

Life Cycle Assessment

The Life Cycle Inventory & Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber are part of the Cotton Foundation VISION 21 Project and included the participation of the National Cotton Council, Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated. The two-year study, managed by PE International, was designed to establish current and accurate benchmarks of potential environmental impacts across the global cotton supply chain. The peer-reviewed data and assessment methodology will help direct sustainability research efforts for the cotton industry, as well as to aid textile decision-makers in achieving their own sustainability goals.

The textile industry has always been challenged with balancing performance and cost. As resource availability and water scarcity concerns increase, the textile supply chain now has the additional challenge of environmental accountability. From fiber sourcing to final product and disposal, stakeholders and consumers alike are demanding methods of measuring and reducing the environmental impact of textile products. Tools such as Life Cycle Inventories (LCI) and Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) can aid in environmental decision-making by identifying key impact areas and benchmarking success over time. To better direct research areas, and to better inform decisions along the cotton textile supply chain, the U.S. cotton industry undertook the most comprehensive assessment of cotton product life cycles to date—The Life Cycle Inventory & Life Cycle Assessment of Cotton Fiber & Fabric.

The cotton LCA examines the life cycles of a knit golf shirt and a pair of woven cotton trousers from fiber production (farm) to fabric (manufacturing), and from cut-and-sew through to consumer use and disposal.

The study is a holistic and comprehensive view of the life cycle of cotton textile products. The LCI is a collection of data sets that quantify relevant energy and material inputs and environmental release data associated with the production of cotton from cradleto- gate (fiber), and manufacturing from gate-to-gate (fabric). The associated LCA draws on the LCI data to model the environmental impact of representative cotton apparel (a knit golf shirt and woven cotton trousers) from the field through to consumer care, use and disposal (cradle-to-grave). 

Data for the cradle-to-gate segment were collected from the three largest cotton-producing countries (China, India, and the United States) and reported as a global average. Similarly, the data for the textile processing phase was culled from surveys among representative mills in the four largest textile processing areas (Turkey, India, China, and Latin America) and are also presented as a global average.  Data for the cut-and-sew and consumer use phase were supplemented by a range of credible secondary sources. 

The LCA model focuses on cotton and is not designed or intended to compare the environmental impact of cotton to competitive fibers. The research and analysis presented within the LCA is the first phase of ongoing LCI and LCA research. The LCI is being made available to widely-used databases such as Ecoinvent and the U.S. Digital Commons, and will be expanded upon and updated over time. In addition, an interactive environmental assessment tool, slated for completion in early 2012, will enhance environmental decision-making by users of cotton by enabling attributes specific to their products to be evaluated. 

The topline results have already helped shape strategic initiatives for the cotton industry including: 

1) Expanding research initiatives in water and nitrogen use efficiencies; 

2) Working with the LCA community to develop a more accurate model of agricultural toxicity impacts, including the incorporation of textile chemical profiles; 

3) Continuing support of wastewater reduction research in textile manufacturing; and 

4) Educating consumers on sustainable garment care.


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