THE LIFE OF OUR PRODUCTS
Like the rest of the economy, the textile sector must accelerate its ecological transition. But is this compatible with mass production?
Remember. It was 2015, in Paris. Gathered for the COP 21, the countries of the world set a goal that was essential for the survival of the planet: to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The challenge is immense. It implies living differently, and without further delay.
Among the major habits to be changed are the way we consume, of course, but also, upstream, the way we produce. Or how to make the objects that are useful to us without damaging biodiversity, water, air and the climate. This is a vast question, which raises many others. In particular, the question of scale: is it better for the environment to produce small quantities all over the place or many in one place? In other words, have large modern factories become 'anti-environmental'? We try to answer this question here!
To get off to a good start, let's remember the obvious, which is not very pleasing: production pollutes. And this is true on any scale, for any product. Of course, not all production has the same impact. Making a car, a tomato or a book will generate different degrees and types of "negative externalities" (the term used by specialists). But broadly speaking, when you make a consumer good, there is no such thing as zero impact. The textile sector is well placed to know this. According to estimates, it emits 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, and, depending on the estimates, between 4 and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the famous "GHG". It must be said that more than 100 billion items of clothing are sold each year worldwide. Production doubled between 2000 and 2014!
Of all the phases in the life cycle of a garment, it is the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing that emit the most greenhouse gases. For manufacturing in particular, the main source is the energy consumed by the machines. Indeed, few production lines are powered by 100% renewable energy. As a result, coal, gas or oil is still often needed to run all these machines. In fact, according to the results of two major studies on this subject (McKinsey and Quantis).), textile machines account for almost 69% of the sector's total CO2 emissions.
So much for the scale of the challenge...
So the question remains: is it more environmentally friendly to produce on a small or large scale? Let's be honest, the answer is not obvious (it would be too easy!). In fact, there are few or no large-scale studies on the link between production volume and environmental impact.
On the other hand, since the 1990s, a field of research has been focusing on the environmental impact of large-scale production, around a particular concept: industrial ecology. The idea? To conceive of the industrial system as an ecosystem in its own right, with its material and energy flows, and to ensure that it does not come into conflict (or as little as possible) with its natural environment.
In France, the State itself has adopted this concept of industrial ecology, defining it as follows: "It is the voluntary pooling of resources by economic actors in a territory, with a view to saving them or improving their productivity." For example, on a textile production site, it is a matter of sharing infrastructures, equipment, services or resources in order to consume less overall.
This industrial ecology is therefore supposed to open the door to large-scale production with "less ecological impact". In his book Towards an industrial ecology, the Swiss Suren Erkman, a leading specialist in this concept, talks more specifically about four major concrete objectives:
- the recovery of waste - through recycling or reuse,
- minimising waste (of chemical products for example),
- increasing resource productivity (producing more with less),
- decarbonisation of energy (to eliminate GHG emissions).
As we have seen, industrial production can indeed aim for sustainable ecological performance. However, the ecological emergency and the objectives of the Paris Agreement require that the precepts of industrial ecology, as it has been conceived since the 1990s, be supplemented. In short, it is a question of going further... Let us mention here some additional conditions:
- ecodesign. This is an approach upstream of production: it means designing a product in such a way that its entire life cycle generates fewer negative externalities. For example, this means rethinking the design of a bag so that it uses less textile material (minimal waste design), so that its manufacture is simpler and therefore less energy-consuming (e.g. one seam instead of three), so that it can be more easily recycled at the end of its life, etc.
- Quality. A more ecological garment is, first of all, a garment that lasts longer. The idea here is to reconcile quantity and quality: produce a lot, of course, but well. A t-shirt that is worn out after three washes will have a heavy carbon footprint compared to a t-shirt made to last several years.
- distribution. Producing on a large scale, far away, and then dispatching everything by plane is obviously catastrophic. The challenge is therefore to make the distribution chain greener, in particular by transferring air flows to rail flows (by the end of 2021, at DECATHLON, less than 1% of our products are transported by air).
Studies on the impact of the textile industry are unambiguous: in order to meet climate objectives, humanity must consume and produce its clothing differently without further delay. Because, according to McKinsey, if the industry continues its ecological transition at the current rate, its emissions will not peak until 2030, at 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year... That is more than twice the maximum required to stay on track for global warming of +1.5°C.
The important thing, say the researchers, is to consume less AND better: organic fibres, labelled products, recyclable materials, alternative textiles (linen and hemp), etc. All of this on a large scale!