Manufacturing is the Largest Contributor to the Carbon Footprint of the Textile Sector; Industry 4.0 Presents a Plethora of Solutions, but How Can Process-Wide Techniques Move from Conceptual to Practical?

Industry 4.0 and the technological innovations it brings are proven to provide functional solutions in the textile industry, but the gap between theory and practice for process-wide implementation remains large, is upskilling the key?
September 2, 2022
Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

The climate impact of the textiles sector

Higg, the Sustainable Garment Coalition (SAC), and Textile Exchange data show that around 2% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, or 1.025 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), were produced by the apparel industry in 2019.[i] Over 50% of these emissions are caused by the creation of materials, including knitting, weaving, dyeing, and finishing. A further 25% of emissions are caused by the exploitation of raw materials, including cotton cultivation and the extraction of oil and gas for synthetic materials.

Source: WRI

Manufacturing provides by far the largest contribution to the textile industry’s carbon footprint, accounting for more than double the 2nd largest contributor and accounting for more than the three other tiers combined. In a conversation with McKinsey, Edwin Keh, the CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, said:

“If you look at the manufacturing part of the supply chain, that is where the opportunity is. That is where what type of materials we choose, how we process the materials, how we manufacture the materials, how we transport the products—that’s where the biggest chunk of any fashion brand supply chain carbon footprint, that’s where that sits.”

An academic study from the Central University of Ecuador reviewed the scientific literature using the Scopus database and data found in the International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Renewable Energy Agency databases (IRENA).[ii] The study concluded that one of the major cost drivers in the textile sector is energy. In light of recent developments in the energy market (driven by the price rises of fossil fuels arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine), it is likely that energy has only grown in significance. The research suggested that increasing energy efficiency should be one of the top priorities for textile mills, particularly in times of significant energy price volatility. There are numerous economic ways to adopt effective energy management in textile factories. Given that the majority of textile mills are categorised as SMEs, however, even cost-effective choices are frequently not implemented in textile mills due to a lack of knowledge about how to do so.[iii]

Industry 4.0 in the textiles sector

The fourth industrial revolution, commonly known as Industry 4.0, is now underway. With the use of smart machines and factories, informed data enables the production of goods to be more productive and efficient throughout the value chain. Increased flexibility enables producers to use mass customisation to better satisfy client requests, eventually aiming to maximise efficiency.[iv] A smart factory can achieve information transparency and better judgments by gathering more data from the production floor and merging it with other company operational data.

The UK Fashion & Textile Association presented research at the Design 2022 conference highlighting industry 4.0 technologies that could be used to advance sustainability goals within the textile industry.

Industry 4.0 technologies & their applications in textile manufacturing

Source: International Design Conference 2022

Energy management, efficiency monitoring & predictive maintenance all present opportunities for a reduction in energy use which could not only reduce what has been identified as the biggest cost driver but also lower the related emissions.[v] What each of these applications has in common is that they require data. The practical functionality of these solutions has been recorded, for example, the design of a cyber-physical energy system (CPES) for a dyeing and finishing plant. The CPES collects and analyses “big data” (a term that describes large, hard-to-manage volumes of data – both structured and unstructured) from across the manufacturing process that presented researchers with replacement processes for invalid and ineffective steps in the traditional work process derived from operator’s experience.[vi] The end result of the CPES implementation was a recorded 10.69% reduction in energy use across the dyeing process; empirical proof of the utility of big data for energy reduction also presents a more cost-effective solution for textile industry professionals than replacing equipment.[vii] This solution, however, is considered emblematic, by the UK fashion & textile association (UKFTA), of an issue of isolation in implementation. The UKFTA state that ‘practical implementations mainly focus on a specific process within a textile manufacturing segment and rarely within multiple processes. Enterprise-wide implementations are observed only on a conceptual level.’.[viii] Enterprise-wide collaboration is not new to the textile industry; the development of circular economy practises primarily to promote sustainability to counter fast fashion by their very nature requires whole process collaboration and data acquisition.

Challenges to an industry 4.0 approach to the textile sector

Bansi International, a textile exporter, based in Surat, has outlined five key challenges that they believe will hamper the development of smart factories in the textile industry.

  1. Initial investment cost: Big data infrastructures, robots, virtual reality, 3D product design, wireless sensor networks, and cyber-physical systems are all highly expensive.
  2. Privacy and security: Despite the fact that there are several studies investigating the privacy and security of digital data in the literature, it is still a crucial concern for many organisations.
  3. Technical Challenges: Because the proposed technologies in the area of Apparel 4.0 are relatively new, there is a severe labour shortage in these fields.
  4. Absence of a worldwide standard: The garment industry has a significant challenge because there is no global standard produced for industry 4.0.
  5. Social challenges: As a result of Industry 4.0, fewer low-skilled workers will be needed for complicated, high-skilled positions that demand a sharper focus on new technology. Unemployment is a significant social issue as a result.

While Bansi International describes the “social challenge” of a “low-skilled workforce”, the EU pact for skills appears to recognise that retention and upskilling is an opportunity for the sector. EU members reached a consensus on specific goals, such as increasing apprenticeship offers in the sector by 20% and assisting 10,000 SMEs with their digitalisation efforts.[ix] They also agreed to support gender and age diversity, develop new educational procedures to support the TCLF industry, and make other commitments for the workforce's upskilling and reskilling in the upcoming years. Commissioner for Jobs and Social rights, Nicolas Schmit, said:

“This new skills partnership in the textile industry will play a crucial role in responding to the needs of companies and workers. It will help them adapt to the fast-changing manufacturing requirements and help workers meet the labour and skills demand in this ecosystem”

What the EU initiative highlights is that workers in the textile industry should not be underestimated and could play a pivotal role in the pursuit of net zero in the industry, as well as engendering a unity within the workforce that could help foster collaboration in the implementation of process-wide solutions.

But it’s not just the EU that recognises the power of upskilling; if you feel you or anyone at your business could benefit from honing their net zero knowhow then why not dive into the Zero Carbon Academy’s upcoming inaugural online course “Net Zero: How to Get Started”.

Industry 4.0 and the environment

Industry 4.0 will have a huge impact on production since operations may be automatically optimised to achieve higher profit margins. The application of AI and smart manufacturing, however, can also be advantageous for the environment. Always start with comprehension if you want to reduce emissions. Any enterprise must first be aware of its emissions in order to reduce them during a production process. Consequently, it is crucial to quantify a baseline for GHG emissions. By automatically gathering utility data, such as power, natural gas, and water usage, smart manufacturing and industry 4.0 can simplify this procedure.


[i] WRI- A Roadmap to Net-zero Emissions for the Apparel Sector

[ii] Open Journal of Business & Management- Energy Efficiency in the Competitiveness of the Textile Industry

[iii] Ibid

[iv] IBM- What is Industry 4.0?

[v] International design conference 2022- Towards Sustainable Manufacturing with Industry 4.0: A Framework for the Textile Industry

[vi] International Journal of Precision Engineering and Manufacturing-Green Technology- Cyber Physical Energy System for Saving Energy of the Dyeing Process with Industrial Internet of Things and Manufacturing Big Data

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] EU- Commission mobilises the textile ecosystem to upskill and reskill workforce

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