The climate impact of knitting

As readers of this blog might know, I knit, sew and occasionally weave and embroider. I love textile handicrafts. I think the love stems from gaining understanding of how something is made, the self-confidence you get from mastering a skill and the joy of being able to customize your wardrobe. But, as other sustainability minded makers, I have been conscious of the environmental footprint of my handicraft practices. After all, you use materials that have an environmental footprint in your handicraft practice and you sometimes tend to overproduce. You occasionally make things you do not like as much as you thought and, more frequently, you make things that you love but, truthfully, do not really need. When summarizing my slow fashion year, I have recurrently told myself that I need to limit my making. Being a slow maker is good, to produce less is a constant ambition.

Lately, I have reconsidered this bad conscious for engaging in handicrafts. A little more than a month ago I spoke on Swedish radio about the climate impact of fashion and had yet again a reason to look into the carbon footprint of fashion production. I was yet again reminded that textile fibers is only a very small part of the fashion carbon footprint. Instead, it is the (fossil) fuels in the textile and clothing production that stand for the majority of the carbon footprint (60 %). Finally, I realised that my knitting practice in fact avoids a big part of this carbon footprint . Indeed, my arm and hand muscles, doing the knitting, are very much fossil free. My hand knitting is pure renewable energy, sourced from the foods I consume. Sure in the process I emit some carbon dioxide, but I would do so anyway, whether knitting or not.

Knitters, at least the sustainably minded ones, tend to worry about the fibers, i.e. the yarn. We avoid yarn made from fossil fuels, such as nylon or acrylic yarns. We do the best we can to buy as sustainable yarn as we can find and afford. I try to only buy organic, such as Gots certified, yarn or yarn directly from the farm. Still, we worry about the environmental footprint.

As for worrying about the fibers, hand knitters mostly use wool. Wool is a side product of sheep farming in Sweden and is often burnt instead of used to make textiles, producing carbon dioxide when incinerated, which in turn negatively affects the climate. By using the wool, for example for knitting clothing, instead of incinerating we thus keep the carbon stored away in our clothes. Moreover, organic farming is more likely to have regenerative farming practices such as grazing and compost use (though of course not always!). Indeed, as I’ve blogged about, there have been successful attempts to make climate positive wool clothes. Wool, as a fiber, does not have to be bad for the climate. For knitters using cotton, there is climate beneficial cotton too.

Looking at climate calculations, textile fibre production is still only 16 % of the textile’s climate impact. See for example climate calculations for Swedish textiles by Sandin et al. (2019) in the diagram. These numbers also include climate unfriendly fibers that we avoid, such as plastic fibers from fossil fuels. This report does not, however, include wool fibers which are most commonly use by hand knitters, but cotton is included,

This diagram can still tell us something about the climate impact of textiles generally. For example that the big carbon footprint is in the fabric (14 %) and clothes production (15,6 %), which hand knitters remove by doing this part ourselves. That is to say that by hand knitting, you remove almost a third of the item’s carbon footprint. Well done knitter.

Thus if we choose climate friendly fibers, based on regenerative farming practice, hand knitters mostly need to worry about the processing of yarns (10 %) and dyeing of the yarn (23 %). This climate footprint is largely an effect of the energy mix in the factories or country of production producing the yarn and doing the dyeing. While the organic Gots certification encourages the use of renewable energy, it does not require it. Hence, the energy mix in the country of production plays a key role (33 %) for the carbon footprint. Imported organic or Gots certified yarns, thus, do not automatically have a low carbon footprint. It depends on where they are imported from and the energy mix used in the factories. Ideally, we want to avoid countries with coal and a large proportion of fossil fuels. In this context, Swedish spun yarn is likely to turn out well in any comparison, considering that we have hardly any fossil fuels in the Swedish energy mix.

Suddenly, the last sweater I knitted sounds quite environmentally friendly: knitted by hand out of undyed organic Swedish wool yarn, spun in Sweden by Stenkyrka Ullspinneri on Gotland. If I apply some of what I have learnt about regenerative farming and the climate impact of the fashion industry, my hand knitted sweater sounds even better. If the carbon stored in the fibers and the grazed lands surpass the carbon released in the production, my grey wool Gotland wool sweater might even be climate positive. Since the Swedish energy mix is almost fossil fuel free (it consists of mainly nuclear and hydropower), it could be.

To summarise, and as a little check list for us climate conscious hand knitters, we should consider choosing (1) climate friendly fibers for example from regenerative farming, (2) undyed yarn or yarn dyed using renewable energy, (3) yarn spun/processed using renewable energy. If we do so, we might in fact do the climate a service with our hand knitting practice.

Considering that Greta Thunberg, according to Vogue Scandinavia, is a knitter, I guess we should have known all along that hand knitting is good for the climate! 😉

References:

Sandin, Gustav & Roos, Sandra & Spak, Björn & Zamani, Bahareh & Peters, Greg. (2019). Environmental assessment of Swedish clothing consumption – six garments, sustainable futures. 10.13140/RG.2.2.30502.27205.

Why textile recycling is not the answer to reducing the climate impact of fashion

The fashion industry has a big climate impact. As a potential way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint, there are a lot of ongoing initiatives aiming to recycle textile fibers. However, if you study the fashion brands’ carbon accounting closely, you see that virgin textile fibers, which recycling aims to replace, only account for around 10% of the total carbon footprint. This means that virgin fibers have a minor climate impact. Instead, the main impact is fossil fuels used in the textile factories that produce our clothes. You can argue that it is important to address the total carbon footprint, including virgin fibers, and I would agree. However, since textile recycling also has a carbon footprint of its own, the gain from recycling fibers is even less than the 10%. Indeed, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency found that for example chemical recycling of cotton has a worse carbon footprint than incineration of used cotton fibers. I raised this issue in an article in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on the topic of textile recycling and the fashion industry’s climate impact earlier this year.

Needless to say, there may be other environmental gains by recycling textile fibers. By recycling fibers the land used to grow textiles can be used to grow for example food. The water use and biodiversity issue of pesticide use when growing cotton can also be an argument for recycling the fibers. But biodiversity and pesticides can also be an argument to switch to organic practices or, as will discuss here, regenerative agriculture.

An issue that is often overlooked in the fashion and climate debate is that growing fibers such as cotton can be done in a way to sequester carbon dioxide from the air in the soil and fibers. Many of you have probably heard the term regenerative agriculture. It’s a way to use agricultural practices to reverse climate change, or in less bombastic terms, sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. An early example of this, which made me aware of the issue, was the collaboration between American non-profit Fibershed and company The North Face in producing a climate beneficial wool hat. They argue that producing the wool hat had a net positive impact on the climate, i.e. it sequestered more climate gases from the atmosphere than it released. In this case, it was sheep that sequestered more carbon dioxide than they released and in the meantime produced wool for clothing. The North Face has since expanded their climate positive range but seems to be sticking to wool.

In Sweden, a group of fashion companies are looking to use Swedish wool for clothing. Although this wool might not have been farmed using regenerative agricultural practices, it is most likely still a gain for the climate as most Swedish wool is otherwise burned, releasing carbon dioxide. Moreover, many technical garments are nowadays made out of plastic fibers, from fossil fuels, and if existing wool can replace these fibers, it’s a gain for the environment.

However, it is not only wool that can sequester carbon dioxide. Fibershed and farmer Sally Fox shows that also textile fibers such as cotton, hemp and linen have this potential. Lately, luxury fashion has learned about regenerative agriculture and even started sourcing regenerative rubber. In my opinion, such regenerative agriculture appears more promising than recycling cotton, as recycling has a carbon footprint of its own and results in lower quality fibers. Of course, we can question the greenhouse gas calculations. There is indeed an ongoing debate as to when and how you can use the term climate positive but certifications are being developed. Fibershed is working with researchers to develop their calculations. Moreover, regenerative agricultural practices as a means to slow climate change has generated research interest more generally .

Regenerative or climate positive fibers are likely to be more expensive than current conventional fibers. Considering current overconsumption of textiles, buying less and of better quality, keeping the items for longer should be possible for many of us. It may not be everyones’ cup of tea, but at least the more wealthy part of the world could afford to buy less and, when we do buy clothing, go for climate positive fibers. In addition, we need to keep our clothing longer as the easiest way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint is to buy less and reuse our items more.

Is renting clothes more environmentally friendly?

H&M started renting services in 2019, caption from article in Forbes

It is often said that you should lease, rent, commercially share or pool things instead of owning them and that this is more circular. It’s called Product-Service-Systems (PSS) and the idea is that this should keep products in use and thereby lower their environmental footprint. Consumers are told to buy a function or access instead of a product. Products are this way turned into services.

A lot of research money, both corporate and public, is put into realizing these ideas in practice. The problem, as I have written about before, is that research already indicates that it is not as simple. As Tukker (2004) writes, the idea that PSS will automatically result in an environmental-economic win-win situation is a myth. In the following, I list some reasons why leasing, renting and pooling might not be more environmentally friendly than owning.

The first issue is transport. When you switch products, for example when participating in a fashion library, you need transport to pick up the new rented items and this transport and its environmental impact may off-set any benefit. Zamani et al (2017) included customer transport into their life-cycle analysis and showed that for clothing libraries transport has a higher climate impact than for example washing. The authors conclude that few customers and keeping the clothing for a long time was the most environmentally friendly. However, this is rarely the idea with such libraries or renting services.

One reason why for example renting is supposed to reduce environmental impact is because access to the product is complicated, which should reduce its use (Tukker, 2004). Renting, leasing and pooling models are most likely to have a positive environmental impact if they reduce consumption (Tunn et al. 2019). Thus because you have to take the detour and arrive within the fashion library’s opening hours you will use the service less and rent fewer new clothes. If companies knew this, however, they might be less inclined to try a PSS model. Moreover, there are many ways, apart from PSS models, to discourage from consumption.

An issue with the above argument, that renting should decrease consumption, is the rebound effect. This means that any leased, shared or rented item has to replace something you would otherwise buy to have a positive environmental impact. In the case of fashion, there is a significant risk that customers both buy what they want and then on top rent clothes or subscribe to a fashion library. Maybe you buy the basic and classic items as you have always done but then also start to rent the fun and trendy items that you never would have bought. In such cases, the rented items increase fashion consumption instead of replacing existing consumption. This is simply an increased environmental impact, there are no savings here.

There is also a risk that you treat the rented or shared items less carefully since they are not yours. Michelini et al. (2017) and Tukker (2004) argue that use-oriented business models can hinder the products from circulating longer due to careless use by the users. In such cases, less responsible user behavior increases environmental impact. The e-scooters on town are a prime example of such reckless treatment of rented products. If users paid the full price and owned the scooter, they might treat it more carefully.

The products best suited for leasing and rental are durable ones, usually sold at high prices, which also makes leasing or renting more appealing to customers who might lack the funds to buy the product (Lacy & Rutqvist, 2015). The issue here is that second hand markets have traditionally been a solution for such situations. Many of us already buy durable, rarely used and pricey items second hand and then, when we don’t need them, pass them on to someone else through second hand markets.

Susanna Alexius och Staffan Furusten addressed this issue well in a recent article in Organisation & Samhälle . Just as second hand markets, sharing or pooling is nothing new. What’s new in the sharing/circular economy debate is that this sharing and pooling should be commercialized. While traditionally you maybe shared clothes, cars, summer houses or tools with friends and acquaintances, what’s new is that you should share your belongings with strangers and that a commercial actor should earn a share every time you do so. And even this is not entirely new, holiday rentals have worked this way for a long time.

In the circular economy and PSS debate, the idea is that the producer should keep ownership of products and sell them to the customer as a service. This provides the producer with incentives to produce long lived, durable and repairable products (although this is yet be proven in practice). The risk here, as Alexius and Furusten note, is that companies will own even more and their customers less. Traditionally, owning has been a form of capital. And isn’t the sharing economy precisely evidence that owning is capital when you can easily rent your house and earn a profit. Thus ownership is in fact not all bad and – in the case of sharing, renting or pooling – someone will own the product that is to be shared.

As I see it, the risk here is that we are simply commercializing something that would take place anyway – the sharing of products we rarely or hardly use. And, at the end of the day, if you cannot recycle the product into new products, is it really circular anyway? In my opinion we should put more focus on turning waste into new products and less attention to the ownership issue.

Last spring, I reviewed a student thesis dealing with the issues of renting and leasing specifically clothing. Frida Oscarson studied the case of technical garments and interviewed representatives within the industry. To learn about what the industry thinks, you can read her findings here.

References

Lacy, P & Rutqvist, J., (2015) Waste to wealth: the circular economy advantage. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michelini, G., Moraes, R., Cunha, R., Costa, J. & Ometto A., (2017) From linear to circular economy: PSS conducting the transition, Procedia CIRP, vol. 64, pp. 2-6 

Tukker, A., (2004) Eight types of product–service system: eight ways to sustainability? Experiences from SusProNet. Business Strategy and the Environment, vol. 13 (4), pp. 246-260. 

Tunn, V. S. C., Bocken, N. M. P., van den Hende, E. A. & Schoormans, J. P. L., (2019) Business models for sustainable consumption in the circular economy: An expert study. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 212, pp. 324-333.

Zamani, B., Sandin, G. and Peters, G., (2017) Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion?. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 162, pp. 1368-1375. 

Sustainability news of the week

There are so many interesting sustainability-related things happening so this post will summarise some of the ‘sustainability news’ from this week:

Swedish radio started a discussion about researchers’ flying habits. Apparently, Swedish universities (especially Karolinska Institutet, Uppsala and Lund) stand for a large part of the flight related CO2 emissions  from  public  authorities. Students at Lund university have called for professors to practice what they preach i.e. to reduce the climate impact of universities. It was also noted that research funders currently do not encourage environmental friendly travels.

Some positive news: the worlds first 100% recycled nylon stockings was launched today by Swedish Stockings. Previously, the stockings contained a small amount of new material.

Also very promising: Swedish researchers at Chalmers are working on constructing batteries with common and ready available metals such as steel. The switch from fossil fuels to electric batteries will, as batteries are designed today, require lots of rare earth metals. New battery design could make us less dependent on these rare metals. This is a good thing because, as you might know, there are lots of social problems around the mining of some of these rare metals such as cobalt.

Lively discussion of the week: researchers debating the climate impact of meat. A large group of researchers at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) wrote that ruminants, such as cows, have an important role in food production in Sweden and criticized the life-cycle analyses the climate calculations often are based on. Today Chalmers researchers responded. The SLU researchers study animal husbandry, whereas the Chalmers researchers belong to a space, geoscience and environment department at Chalmers. Despite this fact, the engineers accused the agricultural researchers for speaking about things “outside of their expertise” when discussing food and climate impact. The engineer researchers, one of them a former animal rights activist, also called the SLU researchers “animal researchers”. The debate is getting heated.

Swedish sustainability manager of the year was awarded yesterday to Anna Denell at Vasakronan. My researcher colleague Tommy Borglund was part of the jury.

While Tommy was handing out prices, I attended the release of SB Insight report of the Nordic market for circular economy. The report shows some interesting trends, for example that the awareness of what circular economy is is much greater in Finland than in Sweden.

Yet other researchers at Örebro University spend their days studying microplastics in Swedish lakes. There were higher concentrations in the inflows to the lakes, for example in Stockholm and Mälaren, than elsewhere. We often think of microplastics in the sea, however, they are also present in our lakes.

Other water news came from Water aid that released the report “Beneath the surface” highlighting how our imported foods, clothes and other products contribute to water scarcity in other countries.

Pink ribbon month and carcinogens in products

It’s October and breast cancer awareness month. And every year some of us wish that there would be a discussion about carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances in products instead of selling these products under the pink ribbon label. I can’t find a word on the Swedish site about carcinogenic substances. In contrast, I think we need to discuss this issue much more. Such a discussion would benefit the companies that face out harmful substances proactively, before regulation forces them to do so.

Because even in the EU we have carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances in products. Sometimes it’s because we just recently found out the substances were harmful, for example parabens in cosmetics involved in breast cancer. And, after we have found out,  regulating them takes several years, as in the case of phtalates. Other times the substances are already forbidden but are still used repeatedly by companies. Yet other substances, such as BPA, are forbidden through REACH regulation but still allowed in food packaging, such as take away cups, because these are not regulated by REACH  but by EFSA.

Overall, EU might do a better job than the US in regulating harmful substances but is still far from perfect. Sometimes the replacements are not necessarily better than the original substance, as these researchers discuss. Interestingly, the researchers found that people eating out are more exposed to the harmful substances because for example restaurants use packaging not allowed for individual customers.

What else can we do? Be careful about personal care products. Avoid packaging when possible. Here I see the zero waste movement as an inspiration. Using refillable mugs, you avoid the BPA in paper cups. Shopping at the farmers market, you get your vegetables in paper bags instead of individually wrapped plastic. And obviously, not buying new stuff, when you don’t really need to, is not only cheap but reduces your chemical exposure too.