Life Cycle Assessment
The Life Cycle Assessment (“LCA”) is a tool used to ascertain the environmental impact of a product, process or activity throughout its life cycle – from the extraction of raw materials through to processing, transport, use and disposal with an ultimate goal of developing sustainable policies and programs.
As such, in 2010, Gildan partnered with– an independent organization providing businesses and governments with tools, guidance and knowledge for achieving sustainability by mastering their life cycle and reducing their environmental impact – to conduct its first LCA. The goal of this exercise was to identify the most significant environmental impact stemming from the manufacturing of an average size white Style 2000 T-shirt made with 100% USA cotton, assembled in Central America and sold into the commerce of the United States. The LCA enabled us to identify and quantify the environmental impact of the “hotspots” (i.e. most significant contributors) over the entire life cycle — from agriculture through manufacturing and customer use to final disposal.
This assessment model evaluated dimensions such as human health, ecosystem quality, resource consumption, climate change, and water consumption. The information gained from the LCA further enabled us to better understand our processes and impacts, validate improvements to processes or products and identify new ones, manage current risks and anticipate future needs (e.g. market or regulatory).
The LCA is a rigorous and holistic method for which ISO 14040:2006 describes the principles and framework towards the assessment of the environmental impact of a product or activity (a system of products) over its entire life cycle (see Figure below). The LCA consists of four distinct phases:
- Goals and scope definition (study model which defines the methodological framework which all other LCA phases must comply with)
- Inventory of all the inputs and outputs related to the product system
- Assessment of the potential impacts associated with these inputs and outputs
- Interpretation of the inventory data and impact assessment results related to the goal and scope of the study
Key LCA findings
The LCA showed that, due primarily to electricity generation for washing and drying, the “product use” phase was the main contributor to overall environmental impact on human health, climate change, and resource depletion. Excluding the product use phase, the biggest impact on ecosystems quality stems from the cotton fiber agricultural production, primarily through land use, water consumption and emissions related to fertilizers.
Land occupation measures the reduction of biodiversity caused by the land use. Agriculture, cotton fiber agricultural production in Gildan’s case, is the main contributor to this category. Water consumption is mainly linked to the field irrigation, while emissions related to fertilizers refer to the fertilizer use during cotton cultivation, which generates extensive greenhouse gases emissions (CO2 and N2O).
Gildan mostly mitigates this impact by sourcing the vast majority of the cotton used in its own manufacturing sites from the United States, where cotton is grown and harvested using conservation agricultural practices which have lower environmental impact compared to conventional agriculture methods due to the use of integrated pest management, conservation tillage and water efficiency methods. Moreover, as with all U.S. agricultural crops, cotton falls under the monitoring of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cotton farmers are constantly monitored against stringent regulations for chemical application concentrations and frequency.
Within the direct manufacturing, the largest impact relates to energy consumption, particularly during the dyeing and bleaching processes. Over the past years, we have been able to reduce this impact by investing in renewable energy sources, such as biomass. Water consumption and waste represents challenging factors within the manufacturing process. As such, Gildan has initiated a fiber and corrugated recycling program as well as reduced its customer packaging. Lastly, Gildan is committed to resource-efficiency in the design and manufacture of its products with a goal of reducing water and energy consumption.
In order to mitigate the environmental impact associated with the consumer use throughout the lifetime of the garment, Gildan has undertaken to modify the care labeling instructions to encourage customer engagement in the use of cold water and air drying.
For Gildan, this information strongly validated our own understanding and approach to mitigating key impacts. This is especially true for the areas in our supply chain and manufacturing process we influence or control directly. The initial LCA findings are currently being integrated into our overall environmental management system.