A product lifecycle approach to sustainable fashion design (LCA)

The pressure on the ecosystem, resources, and human life is outgrowing Earth

Product Life-cycle assessment is the fourth post in a series that aims to discuss the different approaches and framework for sustainable fashion design. The already published posts in the series; How to approach sustainable fashion design (about natural capitalism), Biomimicry as nature builds it and Cradle to cradle, an approach to sustainable fashion design. The main reason is, first of all, the increasing population, an economic model where everything is valuated in measurable standards of physically objects rather than abstract.

These changes have created an increased demand for energy, consumer goods, and services. The world summit has long called for a change in the way that societies consume and produce, through a set of comprehensive programs based on life cycle analysis. Mapping and planning for a sustainable global population to live well and within the limit of the planet was presented by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The WSSD’s “Plan of Approach to Improve Consumer Product” promotes sustainable production and consumption based upon a result of these analyses.

The previous ways of designing, manufacturing and product consumption since the industrial revolution has failed and caused tremendous damage. For 200 years, we have tried to solve earth environmental problems by applying new technology. It’s obvious it hasn’t worked. Now, a radical change in the way we make things is needed, nevertheless, most brand’s willingness to change is mostly at a shallow level. Therefore, another approach is needed whereof well-being is evaluated in a holistic spiritual approach and not in standards of physical objects.

A happy lifestyle

Considerably more emphasis must be focused on spiritual consume (happiness, experience, communication, increased quality time, healthy food, etc.) design for happiness and well-being. Life cycle assessment was born of the realization that there are significant environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of an industrial product.

Making decisions without considering the entire life cycle often lead to sub-optimization. The basic of LCA  is a way of measuring the resources taken from and released into the environment during the product’s lifecycle with the intention of lowering impact and additionally increase earnings. It’s not easy tracing a product in a globalized world, complexity, processes, different manufacturers, distribution, and retail makes transparency sometimes impossible. Therefore, the true cost and impact viewed from an environmental perspective require systematic design approach. Therefore, full LCA  takes time and almost always needs an expert to conduct a respectable assessment.

LCA approach and framework for sustainable fashion design are more a tool of measurement than design as it was not born in the design circles, however, challenge a designer working with several measurable requirements. For this reason, it also has its limits as a tool for designers, nevertheless, it has strong influences on design research. Designing for sustainability involves considering sustainability objectives as early as possible in, and regularly throughout, the design process. In a modern society, mass-production is the norm; all products are designed, and all designs are manufactured.

Each of these steps has an environmental impact. Therefore, to get a design right at the beginning is important. Nearly 70 percent of product costs are decided early in the design stage, this can be extended to environmental impacts, where it can be observed that if getting it right early. Product life cycles are measurable and visible on the bottom line. The typical current targets are to increase product revenues by 30% and decrease product maintenance by 50%.

The growth of product complexity has increased the number of parts per product and more complicated products have more parts as well (see illustration) New-product innovation and change are occurring at a fast pace in design and manufacturing. New technology makes a huge difference, for example, 3D printing can make it possible to produce smaller scale. These innovations will create unknown opportunities for design and new environmental challenges. The illustration below shows the increased complexity of an airplane has led to substantially more parts needed. For example, a Rotary lawnmower has approximately 300 parts, grand piano 12,000, automobile 15,000, C-5A transport plane 4 million and finally, a Boeing 747-400  have 6 million parts (all figures 2000).

Product complexity growth

Globalization has been a key factor for change. Globalization can have many effects on a company, even a small one. Fashion business uses suppliers from many different places, high product turnover with relatively large garments lines make LCA  difficult. However, LCA gives the possibility to concentrate process on the biggest impact’s issues, mapping and investigate largest components, most expensive fabrics, and risk elements. Levi Strauss Co, for example, concentrated their LCA on their famous and best selling Jean, the Levi’s 501.  The first mission of the LCA  does not about focus on the environmental aspect alone; it’s intended to be a more general approach to design (understanding of connected). In addition to the results of an LCA, the process can be used to facilitate business innovation by identifying short, medium and long-term opportunities to contribute to sustainable development, addressing both eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness strategies.

LCA can help

  • Minimize the environmental impact in all steps during the product life cycle (design, manufacture and consume)
  • Reduce costs associated with production, distribution, and end of life management
  • Provide an understanding of connected design (a holistic view of a product across its life cycle not narrow and limited but connected and organic)
  • Assist in shifting production processes from ‘cradle-to-grave’’ to ‘cradle-to-cradle’’
  • Explore product development can lead to new innovations and market opportunities.
  • Increase consumer value and perception of products through better environmental credentials
  • Provide a standardized assessment process for identifying environmental impacts

LCA visual overview framework

  • Objective and boundaries
  • Inventory analysis
  • Impact assessment
  • Interpretation of results

The LCA process maps the full life of a product and can be described as a set of activities and processes whereof every step use energy and resources. These steps are measured and listed in the Inventory analysis phrase. Thereafter, through a methodology called  “impact assessment,”  input and output of materials, chemicals, and substances (what is taken in and released into the environment) is analysed multiple impact’s categories such as toxicity, water, and air pollution. The energy and raw materials of manufacture processes, wastes, and consumer phase produce significant amount variable data; to ensure the worldwide validity of data and conclusions, assessment procedures have been standardized (ISO 14040 series). Finally, interpretation of this phrase a solution to test the choices is using a matrix LCA, such as pre-measured ecological footprint calculators. For easier map out the specific life cycle of a product, each action is normally separated into the following five phases, and in each of these, the product is in a different state.

Product lifecycle five steps

  • Transformation into raw materials fiber for fabric manufactures
  • Transportation production area
  • Assembly
  • Finishing
  • Packaging
  • Transportation
  • Storing
  • Consume, wear, use, product/garment
  • Service
  • A product (clothes) require washing, drying, and repairs
  • It might not be worn for a long time, end up in a closed or the consumer decides it’s ready for landfills
  • A series of the different option at the moment end life of the product, swapping, market, sell or give to charity, remake or last landfill etc.

Strength and Weakness LCA model

  • Designers the most beneficial advantage using an LCA a tool in the design and development is determinate types and amounts of materials that will be used in the product on the early stage
  • Possibilities to concentrate process on the biggest impact’s issues, mapping and investigate largest components, most expensive fabrics, and risk elements
  • The designer can directly receive feedback about the environmental performance of their designs reinforce the design process trial and error cycle
  • Learning stage which designers can begin to gain know ‘learn’ strategies that deliver economic, social and environmental value
  • LCA can help reinforce the ‘trial and error’ cycle of the design process, by making sure designers receive feedback about the environmental performance of their designs.

  • John Stark, Product Lifecycle Management 21st Century Paradigm for Product Realisation, Springer
  • Carlo Vezzoli and Ezio Manzini, Design for Environmental Sustainability. Springer
  • Günther Seliger, Marwan M.K. Khraisheh and I.S. Jawahir, Advances in Sustainable Manufacturing, Springer
  • Get your head life cycle assessment PDF made by
    Design Is the Problem, The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable, Nathan Shedroff, Rosenfeld Media, Brooklyn, New York
  • What are the eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness strategies?
  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The WSSD’s “Plan of Approach to Improve Consumer Product”

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