Is Viscose the Way to a Greener Future?

The New York Times reports on the eco-issue of "fast clothes" and today's practically disposable clothing. This phenomenon of buying cheap clothes that only last a season or two, as Rosenthal reports, is pioneered by stores like H&M;, Old Navy and Target, to name but a few. "In many places, cheap, readily disposable clothes have displaced hand-me-downs as a mainstay of dressing." The article covers the Cambridge University Institute of Manufacturing study led by Dr. Julian Allwood entitled, "Well Dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom." In addition to pages of interesting information on the topic, the study carried out LCAs on a cotton t-shirt and a viscose blouse.

The results for the t-shirt and blouse are interesting, if not surprising for some, and the report's suggestions for impact reduction are definitely worth sharing. Bottom line — the LCAs conclude that cotton clothing are actually more energy intensive than viscose due to their care requirements during the use phase.The study assumes that cotton shirts are washed at 60ºC (140ºF) compared to only 40ºC (104ºF) for the viscose. As well, it is assumed that cotton T's are tumble dried and later ironed, whereas viscose can be hang dried and there is no need for ironing. On one hand this is a fair assumption, on the other hand it made me think that perhaps I am laundering my cotton clothes incorrectly! I wash my cotton clothing at 40ºC or less, I never tumble dry (since I don't own a dryer) and I never ever iron (don't own one either). Perhaps all this time I have been running around dirty and nobody had the heart to tell me? The study shows that 60% of the energy use for the cotton T comes from its care, while for the viscose blouse only 14% of the energy use comes cleaning. Other interesting results are that the purchase of "a 250g cotton T-shirt implies purchasing 1,700g of fossil fuel, depositing 450g of waste to landfill and emitting 4kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. These figures are largely driven by the energy required to launder and dry the T-shirt during its life cycle."

Some key points regarding the LCA as highlighted in the study are these:

  • The main environmental impact is in the washing of cotton clothes.
  • Washing at a lower temperature reduces all environmental impacts by about 10%.
  • Eliminating tumble drying leads to around 50% reduction in the global climate change impact of the garment.
  • Recycling of both viscose and cotton has a significant environmental benefit by reducing the need for more primary production.
  • The energy use for transportation of the products is relatively small in the overall picture, so changing the location of the production has little immediate environmental impact.
  • Using eco-friendly detergents is not more expensive and is just as effective as regular ones.

What can you do to reduce the impact of your clothing without stock piling your wardrobe with viscose or other man-made materials? It's pretty straightforward. Extend the life of your clothes, don't buy and throw away. Purchase pieces that will last longer than 25 washes (as is assumed in the study). Shop at second-hand clothing stores or give your unwanted clothes to places that will re-sell them or give them to people that need them. Or have an unwanted clothing party with your friends. Invite people over with their "old" clothes and exchange. Repair your clothes instead of getting rid of them the moment a button falls off or they get a small hole. Wash your cotton clothes in cold water, hang dry and don't iron if you don't have to. Mother Watson's trick if you must dry — throw your clothes in the dryer for 5 minutes and then hang them up. That gets rid of most of the wrinkles. The rest fall out while hanging and you save lots of energy. Don't fear — viscose is not the way of the future, we simply need to change our consumer habits and our garment care ways to keep our clothing as green as our lifestyles. Download the report here. You can find more tips on greening your wardrobe here.

Tags: Clothing | Cotton | Life Cycle Analysis