What the Industry Needs Now for Accurate Waste and Water Calculations

Understand what the industry currently needs for precise waste and water calculations and how to meet those needs.
Updated on
September 13, 2023
Industry Requirements for Waste and Water Calculations
Table of Contents

Welcome back to our blog post on waste and water metrics. In part one, we explored what carbon emissions metrics are, why we focus on them, and the complexities of waste and water calculations that often get ignored. Now in part two, we outline the three main roadblocks to calculating water and waste and our recommendations for the industry.  

Roadblocks to Estimating Water and Waste Impact

1. A Lack of Standardization

In a round table discussion for Business of Fashion’s VOICE 2022, Tariq Fancy, the former Chief Investment Officer of Sustainable Investing at Blackrock, didn't hold back when stating that businesses in the fashion industry are well past the point where self-regulation is acceptable.

“Many companies are playing dirty,” said Fancy, “it’s time we called in the refs.”

There needs to be a standardized way to calculate and communicate these metrics across businesses; however, proposed standardized metrics are all currently in experimental stages. Without an industry-wide accepted way to calculate, there is too much room for varying results. Head to our byline for Apparel Insider, “It’s all about the data,” where we explain our approach and get into the LCA vs. PEF debate.

Similarly, when it comes to water usage calculations, there’s no standard way to account for all water used in manufacturing processes (e.g., clean water vs wastewater). For example, what should you report if you produce a pair of jeans that uses 100 litres of fresh water and 50 litres of wastewater in its production process? How is the water used during manufacturing and disposed of at the end? Can it be reused in another phase of the manufacturing cycle? How can the mix be accurately measured?

2. Lack of Site-Specific Data

Waste treatment activities and disposal vary greatly across industries and regions, and where these processes occur significantly impacts calculations. There are some guidelines for textile waste (such as % waste created). Still, with the treatment of textile waste, we have to revert to worst-case assumptions for waste treatment as there are no guidelines or standardized data for those assumptions. As for water, let's return to our denim example above. Just like the variance of how wastewater and freshwater are used, there is a lot of variation in how humans are affected, the impact on biodiversity, and the overall ecology of the surrounding environment. These variables leave too much room for error to give an accurate water calculation.

3. Poor Quality Data and the Reliance on Global Averages

The biggest issue with most impact measurement tools is that they often rely on global averages when calculating impacts. This approach fails to take into account region-specific components of the supply chain, such as transportation, energy grids, and hotspots. Moreover, all currently used methodologies for waste and water calculations are based on global averages built on poor-quality data. As we have seen with crackdowns from consumer protection agencies and regulations from the EU, global averages aren’t accurate enough for a reliable estimation. This is one of the main reasons the Norwegian Consumer Protection Agency called out H&M, who used global averages in their product comparisons and showcased misleading results on their website.

The geographical specificity of our methodologies is one of our most significant differentiating factors. “Arbor's technology is built to aggregate all [CO2e] calculations based on regional activities and their impact," says Abdullah Choudhry, Arbor’s Chief Impact Officer and co-founder,  “As far as CO2 and CO2e are concerned, these areas have fewer fluctuations across the industry for the same activities. Energy usage/efficiency can be linked to any region's electricity or their own energy source." This is precisely why we don’t limit our scope to global averages and have partners like REN Energy who help businesses transition to site-specific clean energy sources throughout their supply chains. The more we focus on increasing data availability at the source, the better we can identify pain points in supply chains and make more sustainable energy choices.

What the Industry Needs Now, Not in the Future

Waste and water quantities are not easily measured, and the impact of their production footprint is still a big unknown. The good news is that there is some regulatory activity that we are hoping will push companies to measure and report better.

By 2025, the European Union's Waste Directive Framework will require EU countries to separate all textile waste. Some nations have established extended producer responsibility programs to hit this 2025 target. These programs make brands and retailers responsible for post-consumer waste and require financial contributions to collect, recycle, and reuse products.

“The polluter should pay. That is an important part of European law, but fashion brands have escaped. They don’t pay for the mountains of clothing that are burned or buried or dumped in developing countries.”

- Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director, Changing Markets, said to Ecotextile News.

In 2017, France implemented an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework to address textile waste. The framework aims to collect waste from 50% of the annual clothing and footwear sales, and the ultimate goal is to achieve 95% recovery for all collected textiles. More recently, France has passed new green legislation for the textile industry. The new legislation is valued at approximately 13 billion euros per year and is subject to new EU regulations. You can read much more on this directive coming out of France in our post, “Climate Impact Labels Are Launching in France: Is Your Brand Ready?

Every step in the supply chain creates waste, some more harmful than others. Industrialized countries usually have ways to deal with post-consumer waste, but what about every other step in the supply chain that creates waste? That tends to be left for pre-industrialized countries to tackle when they are done pulling themselves out of poverty. This is why we will continue to push for governing bodies to standardize waste and water impact calculations.

Arbor’s Recommendations for the Industry

Developing International Standards and Guidelines: By developing sector-specific international standards and guidelines for measuring waste and water impact, we can ensure data collection, analysis, and reporting is consistent. This would also improve the comparability of data across different regions and countries.

Improving Data Quality: At Arbor, we always say, ‘You can’t improve what you can’t measure.’ Improving the quality and availability of data is critical to standardizing waste and water impact calculations. This can be achieved by increasing investment in data collection and analysis, improving data management systems, and promoting transparency in data reporting. At Arbor, we are working on collaborations to collect and analyze site-specific activities across different regions.

Enhancing Collaboration: Encouraging collaboration between different sectors, including government, academia, and industry, can improve data sharing and get us all on the right track to standardizing waste and water impact calculations. This can include partnerships to develop joint research projects, data exchange programs, and knowledge-sharing initiatives like webinars, podcasts, and the tech world’s favourite: a fireside talk.

Incorporating Environmental Impact Assessments: Incorporating environmental impact assessments into waste and water management policies and plans can help standardize how the impact is measured. This can include considering the full lifecycle of waste and water, from production and use to disposal and treatment. Currently, these assessments are done post-manufacturing, and most supply chain actors have been failing to maintain a record of activities concerning waste, water use, and disposal.

Education and Awareness: Providing education and raising awareness about the importance of standardizing waste and water impact calculations can help build a more informed and engaged public. This can include providing information and resources on the methods used to measure impact and the importance of high-quality data. The current focus is on carbon, and we hope that a similar focus can be brought to waste and water impacts.

If you have made it this far, we are sure you have noted that standardization is a big theme for us. And getting to a standard for waste and water impact calculations will require a coordinated effort across different sectors and a commitment to improving data quality, collaboration, and environmental impact assessments.

At Arbor, we stand by our transparency and commitment to keep pushing for not just a data standard but a standard for transparency.

Thanks for reading!
What the Industry Needs Now for Accurate Waste and Water Calculations