The Organic advantage through the lenses of the Eco-Index
In my previous blog I spoke of the opportunity for organic cotton to shine through the lenses of the OIA’s Eco-index and the SAC’s Sustainable Apparel Index. Over the next few weeks we will begin to explore the organic advantage a little further - starting today with a closer look at water and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Let’s start by looking at where the impacts of cotton growing might rank in terms of a textile product’s overall environmental impact. Most analysts agree that, if we make a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of a garment, the impacts during the production and manufacturing rank well below that of consumer use. Following further behind are distribution and end of life (although obviously all phases deserve consideration). Note: Some LCAs lump raw materials and manufacturing within the same lifecycle phase and others separate them out.
The focus of this blog will be the production of cotton fibre. But it’s interesting to take a short detour into the biggest impact phase of a textile product...
Product use has the biggest environmental impact
Plenty of studies agree that the biggest environmental impact of a garment’s lifecycle is during the consumer use phase (see references at the end of this blog). Researchers estimate that between 60 and 80 percent of all greenhouse emissions are associated with consumer ‘care’. This means that the everyday washing, tumble drying, and ironing of our clothes – particularly of frequently used items such as tops and pants – uses the most of our earth’s resources (energy and water) and emits the most carbon back to the atmosphere. Not to mention the impact of dry cleaning!
So whether your T-shirts are organic or not probably won’t make much difference here. I say probably because there is the theory that if a consumer was going to select an organic garment there is a chance their personal eco-credentials are higher than an everyday consumer’s and their resource conservation measures extend into other areas of their life – such as how they wash their clothes; choice of laundry detergent, washing machine settings, hanging clothes to dry, and so on.
What do we know about LCA, carbon, and organic cotton clothing?
There has been some work done on comparing the lifecycle of an organic cotton garment to conventional cotton clothing. For instance, Anvil commissioned Camco (a leading climate change company) to undertake an LCA of a number of their textile products. Anvil organic come in at just 3.09kg carbon emissions per Tee. Compare this against conventional Tees which are reported to be anywhere between 5.2 and 6.6 kg.
Research by the Carbon Trust suggests that if you were to combine 100% organic cotton with 100% renewable energy in the manufacturing you would be on to a real winner at just 671 grams per Tee– that’s a 90 percent CO2 saving!
Along with Anvil there are many companies, including Remei, Switcher, and Continental Clothing, working at producing a climate-neutral product by combining the use of organic cotton with alternative renewable energy or energy efficiency schemes, and off setting or compensation through social projects (see references below).
Zooming into the cotton field
Among the biggest environmental impacts associated with cotton growing are the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and water for irrigation.
The organic advantage – less is more
The closed-loop nature of organic farming and the focus on using local on-farm inputs, such as farmyard manure and green manure, reduces the resource burden of cotton production. The use of natural inputs removes the need for industrially produced agrichemical inputs (pesticides and fertilisers) which are manufactured in factories and shipped to the point of end use; this aspect of organic cotton production results in a smaller water and carbon footprint based on less moisture loss, less nitrogen leaching, less fossil fuel consumption, and lower carbon / greenhouse gas emissions.
A closer look at...
Water The impact of agriculture on both the quality and availability of the world’s water resources is already worrying. There is probably no need to mention the state of the Aral Sea due to the double jeopardy of pesticide use and over-irrigation. But you may be less familiar with the impacts of climate change on cotton production and the reduced availability of water for irrigation, in particular in Xinjiang (China), Pakistan, Australia and the western United States (International Trade Centre).
According to PAN UK, it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans. From our research at Textile Exchange we estimate that globally between 80-85 percent of the organic cotton is grown under rainfed condition compared to an estimated 52-60 percent of conventional cotton.
Growing cotton organically can improve soil fertility and stability which improves water efficiency. Research proves that organically managed soils can result in higher organic matter content, higher biomass, higher enzyme activity, better aggregate stability, improved water infiltration and retention capacities and less water and wind erosion, when compared with conventionally managed ones (TP Organics). Published data reveals that where the percentage of organic matter content increased in the soil, the volume of water held at field capacity increased at a much greater rate (Hudson, 1996).
Greenhouse Gas Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation has calculated the amount of GHG produced under organic (low input) farming conditions as approximately 0.3 kgCO2eq per kg lint. This is 18 times less emissions compared to conventional (high input) farming at 5.2 kgCO2eq per kg lint. Nitrous oxides from soil are the most significant contributing factor to GHG emissions from rainfed, manually operated organic cotton farming, and according to Helvetas these only contribute 0.3 kgCO2eq per kg lint.
Research into carbon sequestration, carbon locking capacities, and climate adaptation qualities of organically managed cropping systems is currently underway (particularly by the European research organisation FiBL and federation of organic movements IFOAM). Equipped with only a mere applied science degree, I can hardly begin to understand the scientific complexities at stake. However, I can say, it’s the inter-related nature of organic agricultural systems that mean organic has so much to offer, and so much we can learn from. As I said in my previous blog we need to examine these inter-related components under the lenses of the eco-index and see how organic measures up. But it will remain the ‘whole being greater than the sum of the parts’ that will always make organic an extraordinarily successful process.
See you next week when we look at organic cotton through the lenses of toxicity, waste, biodiversity, and landuse intensity.
References for today’s blog
Bio Intelligence Services, 2011, Environmental Improvements Potential of Textiles (IMPRO Textiles), EUROPEAN COMMISSION, Joint Research Centre – Institute for Prospective Technological Studies
Business Social Responsibility http://www.bsr.org/reports/BSR_Apparel_Supply_Chain_Carbon_Report.pdf
Texworld , July/August 2010 http://www.textileworld.com/Articles/2010/July/July_August_issue/Features/Climate_Change_Carbon_Mitigation_In_Textiles.html
Switcher Climate Project: CO2-neutral T-Shirt Switcher ecos.ch
Remei AG http://www.remei.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/PDF/Downloads_Englisch/Ready_to_wear_fashion_RemeiAG_Jan2012.pdf
Continental Clothing http://www.continentalclothing.jp/pdf/EarthPositive%20Apparel%202011.pdf
Cotton and climate change; Impacts and options to mitigate and adapt, International Trade Association, 2011 http://www.intracen.org/Cotton-and-Climate-Change-Impacts-and-options-to-mitigate-and-adapt/
Berman D. Hudson, Soil organic matter and available water capacity’, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 1994 49(2):189-194
TP Organics; Vision for an Organic Food and Farming Research Agenda to 2025: Organic Knowledge for the Future http://www.tporganics.eu/upload/TPOrganics_VisionResearchAgenda.pdf
Helvetas, Jens Soth research and presentation on organic cotton and climate change, 2009