Is low-carbon electricity one of the textile industry’s biggest challenges?

Article published on November 15, 2021

It is perfectly normal if the title of this article surprises you. Seeing the connection between a t-shirt, a wind turbine, and electricity generation it is not easy at first glance.

Yet – and this is the most consternating part of the story to follow – electricity is a critical issue for Picture, the textile industry, and the entire planet in the fight against climate change.

1. Electricity generation (coal, natural gas, and oil-fired power plants) is the world’s leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions (including CO2). Coal, natural gas, and oil-fired power plants generate approximately 65% of the world’s electricity.

2. “Low-carbon” methods are those that emit very little CO2 (lifecycle analysis): nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, etc. Combined, these power-generation techniques produce approximately 35% of the world’s electricity.

3. Electricity is used everywhere and in every society. Everything that surrounds us was made directly or indirectly with machines that need electricity to operate. Our electronics devices, after being made by machines, need electricity to function.

This concludes the introduction.

Now, let’s return to our story about the t-shirt and the wind turbine.

What connection can we make between the two?

The connection between both proves relatively simple and obvious: without electricity, we could not possibly industrialize t-shirt production. All of the machines involved in the supply chain (yarn preparation, fabric preparation, weaving, dyeing, assembly, etc.) require electricity to operate.

Energy intensive machines are used in every step of the textile manufacturing process, and as we just discussed, electricity generation has a pretty significant impact…

In other words, even at the beginning of the supply chain, when the material used to make a garment is “clean,” (from organic cotton fibers to recycled-polyester pellets to name two), the road is still a long energy-consuming one to reach the final, wearable product.

It goes without saying that there are always people involved in the process, and their undeniable expertise is required. Our ancestors did not wait for electricity to be invented to wear clothes. Throughout most of history, artisans made garments.

Then, the Industrial Revolution began (starting in 1850). Electricity’s invention and the advent of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) shaped the world that we know today. Textiles, like every other sector of the economy, industrialized.

If we wanted to be somewhat deceptive, we could simply tell you that impact of energy production, electricity, and the use of machines pales in comparison to specific textile-related issues (especially materials). Unfortunately, this is not the case!

By the end of this article we will have taken a small risk. What you read might very well surprise you as we delve into issues that brands rarely discuss. Nevertheless, in an effort to continuously improve, we need to move forward, and to re-assess what we do and how we do it.

Keep in mind that we are not the only ones affected. As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, this is an issue that affects everyone: Picture, the textile industry, and the entire world in our collective fight against climate change.

1. Where in the process does the textile industry emit greenhouse gases?

According to The Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries, a study published Quantis in 2018,the carbon footprint of your average textile industry product breaks down into the following categories:

On average, 83% of a textile product’s carbon footprint comes from yarn preparation, fabric preparation, dyeing, finishing, and assembly. These average values are valid for the following conventional materials:

  • Cotton,
  • Synthetics (ex.: polyester, nylon, etc.),
  • Cellulose-based materials (viscose, lyocell, etc.),
  • Other natural/animal materials (linen, hemp, wool, leather, etc.).

Note: The data for distribution/shipping take into account transporting finished products from the factory (assembly) to shops. The study used data from another report (The Environmental Potential of Textile, 2014), estimating that 8% of worldwide textile products are shipped by plane, and 92% by road/maritime transport. The study specifies that the impact of shipping would be much bigger if brands used plane transport more often. Let’s not do that!

2. What causes emissions?

Every step in the manufacturing process requires electricity, and generating the electricity used to power machines is the main cause of carbon emissions in the textile industry. Highlights from the study:

– “Most of these impacts are a direct result of apparel’s reliance on hard coal and natural gas to generate electricity and heat in key processing locations (especially in Asia).” Page 21.

– “Geographic location of processing countries directly influences the energy mix and as a result, the environmental impacts (including climate) of energy used in the process.” Page 62.

Some transportation is required from one step of the manufacturing process to another. The subsequent emissions generated (from oil combustion) are relatively insignificant to the textile industry’s overall carbon footprint.

The energy mix in the manufacturing countries is a key factor.

High carbon-based mixes (mostly coal, natural gas, and oil) will generate CO2 emissions. Conversely, if production primarily involves a low-carbon mix (nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, etc.) then good news: CO2 emissions from manufacturing the product will be relatively low, and a large part of the problem “solved”.

There is, however, bad news: countries with a low-carbon electricity mix that ALSO manufacture textiles are few and far between. Further down in the article we will explore other ways to reduce emissions.

This is how electricity, a topic the textile industry seems to have done its best to avoid, has become a priority if we hope to reduce CO2 emissions and develop products compatible with the fight against climate change.

Picture is guilty as charged; until now we also failed to talk about this all too important topic…

Now the title we came up with for the article makes more sense: “Is low-carbon electricity the textile industry’s biggest challenge?”

However, if the electricity generated to power the machines used to make textile products results in CO2 emissions, there is a root cause: demand from the brands. Viewing the problem (and the solution) purely in terms of energy and technology would be a huge mistake.

We also need to question our need as a society to produce and consume so much.

Aiming for greater moderation and restraint (reducing our energy needs) is critical.

3. Materials and distribution (shipping and transportation) seem secondary

You were probably surprised to see the low percentages that these two steps represent. Yet both are what we usually think of first:

  • Brands more often than not place an emphasis on materials (organic, recycled, etc.).
  • Shipping and transport are “naturally” counterintuitive topics since we all have a tendency to associate CO2 emissions with a product shipped from far away.

We are not saying that these steps are not important. They are. However, when it comes to carbon emissions, they are clearly less important relative to the issue of energy/electricity use, which amounts to 83% of the textile industry’s overall impact. Take a look at the most relevant climate actions from another study below : Fashion On Climate

So how do we explain the discrepancy between reality, communications, and counter intuition?

We think that the industry as a whole has a poor understanding of the climate-energy issue. Plus, no one really talks about it.

Instead, for years, textile industry professionals have focused on materials, durability/repairs, the circular economy, recycling, polybags, toxic chemicals, and shipping/transport. these issues are all important and most of the brands have shown some progress in these areas. The improvements made are real, brands talk about them, and this is perfectly normal. However, there is clearly a major issue missing from the discussion (two in fact that we will discuss later) and rarely addressed in the projects implemented to reduce the industry’s impact.

Even French brands (who benefit from a low-carbon electricity mix in France) and those that manufacture their goods in Portugal (a country with relatively low-carbon mix as well) seem to avoid talking about the climate-energy issue!

Neverthless, awareness has started to build among a few brands, including ours. Add to the situation a great deal of inertia (and dealing with a very complex topic) plus a reticence by brands to discuss subjects where they perform poorly, and you have most of your explanation.

In fact, the carbon metric (climate change) is not necessarily the most important issue to tackle for every brand. Some choose to focus their efforts on other causes (biodiversity, reshoring production, the circular economy, gender equality), which prompt different discussions and actions.

4. So, what do Picture’s carbon emissions look like?

We finished calculating our carbon footprint in the fall of 2020, conducting a full assessment of business operations for the entire 2019 year. Given that our two main supply chains are located in high carbon emitting countries (Turkey and Taiwan), we encountered more or less the same ratios as the Quantis study.

(Full disclosure: Quantis conducted our carbon footprint assessment).

84% of our carbon footprint comes from our supply chains, where fabric preparation (knitting and weaving) and dyeing/finishing are the two biggest emitters.

Logistics (we sell our products in 40 countries) represent only 3,6% of our overall emissions. Even though we mostly use maritime transport (a low-emitting mode of transport) the data surprised us, but actually make sense relative the results published in the Quantis study.

There is one small difference in methodology with their study: the results from our carbon footprint assessment take into consideration use of our products by consumers (washing, ironing). This projection (we do not know exactly what you plan to do with our products) is worth making, and represents 7% of Picture’s overall emissions.

In total for 2019, Picture emitted approximately 15,000 tons of CO2, equal to the annual emissions of 2100 Europeans. It is an average of about 20kg CO2e per product (calculation being refined with Sweep, our measurement tool, because we make very different products).

Since we do not have access to the carbon footprint assessments of other outdoor apparel brands, it is difficult to “compare”. However, we do know that Patagonia has roughly the same ratios as we do. 86% of their impact comes from their supply chains.

5. What do we plan to do with the results? What options do we have?

The message is loud and clear: we need to improve in this area. The energy mixes in Turkey and Taiwan are not great and still rely too heavily on coal and natural gas. We decided to focus on these two countries since the supply chains we have in each count for approximately 80% of our total production volume.

Simply put, there are two main actions possible to start our energy transition.

  • “Energy reshoring”

This means moving production to countries with low-carbon (to no-carbon) electricity. France, Portugal, Vietnam (lesser degree), and certain Eastern European countries are examples of where low-carbon textile manufacturing exists. Click here for a detailed explanation as to why bringing production back to France is not that simple, especially since our distribution model (which is not set in stone) adds a middle person (shops) between you and Picture.

To date, for the majority of our products, we are not in favor of reshoring production, which would mean abandoning the close relationships that we have developed since the very beginning (2009) in Turkey and Taiwan. We produce a high volume of very specific products with them. As you can imagine, these decisions are not easy to make. We will continue to explore the possibility of “energy reshoring” production of other lower-volume products and accessories. This is what we have already done with socks (Portugal) and neck gaiters (France/Italy).

  • Low-carbon electricity produced on site by our partners

This means, for example, encouraging our partners (yarn and fabric preparation, dyeing and finishing, etc.) to invest in solar panels to produce a portion of their own electricity needs, reducing their dependence on their country’s national electric system, which uses a high-carbon mix (coal and natural gas) for energy production.

As of now (November 2021), two solar projects are in place within our supply chain. The first is in Taiwan (lamination factory) and the second in Turkey (Ucak, yarn and knitting factory for approximately 35% of their electricity needs). For Turkey, the calculations need to be refined, but the cumulative reduction over the first 4 months of operation is about 2000 tons of CO2.

One thing is certain: brands much bigger than ours need to contribute, otherwise not much will happen. We represent a very small volume of production (and revenues) for our targeted partners relative to the changes that we would like to encourage them to make! To date, we have very little influence.

This can change by working with the industry’s big brands. While on the surface this may look like we are “joining forces with the bad guys,” reality requires us to be much more pragmatic. The big companies that are a major part of the problem are also a major part of the solution, and based on the condition that they actually want to focus their efforts in the right place and not doing greenwashing.

There is also another way to view the situation. Our business automatically increases the energy needs in certain countries, which makes their transition to low-carbon energy more complicated and costly. We are directly responsible. Financial investments, providing direct assistance, and working with other brands in the industry offers a more than fair return for everyone: while the CO2 emissions are local, their impact on the climate is global.

6. A call to collaborate

  • If you have the same issues as us in countries with high CO2 emissions, please contact us.
  • If you have already found one or several solutions, please contact us.
  • If you are an expert in electricity generation in Turkey or Asia, please contact us.
  • If you know an expert of this type, please contact them for us!
  • If you represent a lobby pushing hard to speed up the energy transition in countries with high CO2 emissions, please contact us.
  • In short, all contacts are worthwhile; we need to work together to move forward. Thank you.

P.S. This looks like a distress call but rest assured, we are doing well and have already starting working on our own on a few potential solutions!

Within this framework, the French initiative “En Mode Climat” provides a great example. We need more regulations and government intervention to speed up the transition. There is talk about putting a price on carbon emissions for all imports in an effort to steer companies towards manufacturing in countries with low CO2 emissions. This initiative, included in the European Commission’s Energy and Climate Package, will contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by 55% between now and 2030. However, for the moment the textile industry is not affected. Only those industries directly emitting CO2 are currently targeted: this includes electricity generation, as well as iron, steel, aluminum, cement, and fertilizer production.

Without regulations of this type to “force” brands to improve and “reshore electricity,” any progress made will likely be slow and marginal.

7. Final thoughts

Regarding energy efficiency

Every option is worth exploring, but we do not really believe in such improvements as “energy efficiency for existing processes.” For one, the sources of energy creating the problem will not necessarily change, they will simply be used a bit less. Using “a bit less” fossil fuels is not nearly enough to solve the problem.

In addition, several rebound effects are always possible. In general, when efficiency increases, we as a society have a tendency to produce more. Click here (in French) for a few real-world examples. In general, energy efficiency plays a key role in reducing our impact on the environment only when production volume/use remains constant.

Regarding the energy transition and moderation

A successful energy transition that focuses on low-carbon power will never occur if the world maintains the same level of production and consumption. As oil expert Matthieu Auzanneau puts it, “Energy abundance was teenage angst, now we can either let society collapse or grow up and act like adults.”

Acting like adults means accepting the fact that we need to switch to “moderation” (or even reduction) mode. For the textile industry, this means reducing production and consumption. No more, no less.

What about the issues surrounding nuclear, solar, wind, and hydro power?

No source of energy is perfect. This is why we never use the term “green” or “clean” energy in this article. However, low-carbon sources of energy offer the advantage of little to no C02 emissions. They do not cause global warming, so we should give credit where credit is due.

For electricity geeks, click here and turn to page 1335 in the appendix of the 2014 IPCC report if you would like to learn which sources of energy produce the most carbon emissions (spoiler, it’s coal) and which produce the least.

What about alternatives to new products?

We did not discuss alternatives to new products since the starting point of the article was reducing the impact of production. However, as part of an overall approach focused on moderation, we wholeheartedly encourage repairs, second hand, rentals, making durable products that last, etc. This is directly connected to the notion of consuming less, which by the transitive property means producing less.

Click here to learn more about our lifetime repair warranty.

Stay tuned, you will hear more from us very soon about rental and refurbished products.