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Hao Zhang brings an engineer’s edge to fashion sustainability

By Ryan O’Connell, Arts & Features Editor

By Bella Omar, Staff Writer

Students in Rui-Rui Zhang’s fashion and design class listened to a guest lecture from Hao Zhang of James Madison University March 24.

Rui-Rui Zhang, who teaches Case Studies in Fashion Merchandising, introduced Hao Zhang (no relation) as a professor and an accomplished expert in life cycle engineering and sustainability assessment, who provided a new perspective into how fashion and sustainability are intrinsically tied together.

“This is a very paradoxical and challenging topic. So I think his perspective and his approaches to sustainability is going to be very, very helpful for us to get a more diverse perspective to look at the fashion industry,” she said.

Despite Hao Zhang’s lack of familiarity with the fashion industry, his knowledge on product life cycles and their respective assessments allowed him to shine light on the detrimental impact of fashion production.

Hao Zhang then described how his education, work experience, and research led him to explore manufacturing, system design, product design - including textiles, smart manufacturing, robotics, system engineering, and sometimes waste management.

He said his presentation would focus on explaining Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) with the potential to touch on blockchain mechanisms.

Hao Zhang then explained that the purpose of conducting an LCA for any product, especially for garments, is to map out the life cycle and net environmental, economic, and social impact of any functional unit. A functional unit is the product being assessed.

He said product life cycles can usually be condensed into six main phases: material extraction, material processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. He added these six phases follow a product through its entire life and are used to track its impact from factory to landfill.

He then went to explain what a functional unit is, and gave an example of how to define a unit of an LCA.

“If you’re conducting assessment on papers then you have to think about do you want to have the environmental impact of one piece of paper or one package of paper? Then this is how you choose your functional unit,” he said.

Hao Zhang then introduced the process of deciding on the scope of assessment, scope being what particular section of the product’s life cycle is being observed.

He added there are three main scopes of assessment - gate to gate, cradle to gate, and cradle to grave.

Hao Zhang said gate-to-gate assessment is tracking only alterations made within the factory. He said the first gate represents the factory where the product is manufactured and the second gate is where the product is put on the shelf.

He added cradle to gate represents the journey from gathering of raw materials to factory production, and cradle to grave illustrates the entire lifecycle of a garment, from material collection to disposal.

Hao Zhang said that without being aware of the functional unit in an LCA, the carbon footprint emissions figure of a product has no significance.

He demonstrated how to conduct an LCA with a case study on the environmental impact of a cotton T-shirt.

Material breakdown, even of something as simple as a cotton T-shirt, is pertinent to calculating its net environmental impact, Hao Zhang said. The transportation of this T-shirt also must be included in these calculations, he added.

The actual mass of materials, in this case cotton, is important as one of the impact factors of a product, he said. He added impact factors also include water and energy use in production.

In addition to carbon dioxide emissions, the garment industry causes harm to the environment in ways such as acidification and eutrophication.

Acidification is when a body of water’s pH is significantly lowered by production waste, harming the ecosystem and surrounding communities.

Eutrophication is when a body of water contains too many nutrients, in this case induced by garment production pollutants, resulting in algae overgrowth.

Hao Zhang then explained the case study’s results, how to interpret them, and the pros and cons of using blockchain technology in holding factories accountable for treatment of their workers.


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