FAQ: The Fashion Industry and Biomass

January 18, 2024
Answering frequently asked questions around biomass and the fashion's industry use of it

What is biomass?

  • Biomass is non-fossilized and biodegradable organic materials originating from plants, animals, and microorganisms. Derived from sources such as wood pellets, crop residues, rice husks, straw, bagasse, and palm shells, biomass is incinerated to produce thermal energy and electricity. Our research shows, however, that the vast majority used to produce electricity is from forests.

*See more on forest biomass

Isn’t biomass renewable energy?

  • Biomass is touted as renewable energy due to the fact it is made from organic material such as palm shells, wood pellets etc, but it is not as efficient or sustainable as solar or wind renewable energy. The process of making biomass, transporting biomass, and burning biomass releases huge amounts of carbon emissions and toxic pollutants. The increased interest in biomass energy from the fashion sector is also causing unsustainable practices for producing biomass such as competing for food and land resources in East and Southeast Asia.

Is biofuel and biomass the same thing?

  • Biofuels are plant-based liquids such as oils and alcohols, derived from plants, such as palm oil and sugar cane respectively. Biomass is solid plant-based materials such as wood pellets. Both are burnt to produce energy and emit carbon as a bi-product. These are classified as ‘renewable’ energy as they can be regrown, whereas wind and solar energy are examples of sustainable energy sources. This is an important distinction since sustainable energy sources do not emit additional carbon into the atmosphere.

How are fashion companies using biomass?

  • Biomass is incinerated to produce heat and steam generation (thermal energy) in garment production. As many brands look to phase out coal, the adoption of biomass-fueled boilers is viewed by the industry as a quick and low-cost transformation plan. According to Fashion Takes Action, wood pellets are the major source of biomass in the fashion industry; this material has been proven to endanger forest biodiversity.

Isn’t biomass better than coal and other fossil fuels?

  • Biomass energy generates as much or more carbon dioxide emissions at the smokestack as coal. A great volume of scientific research and evidence from manufacturing countries has shown that burning biomass in the production and processing of apparel and shoes has caused a trilogy of threats to climate, ecosystems, and human health. For details, please see Biomass Burning: The Fashion Industry’s False Phase-Out report.

Are fashion companies using biomass?

  • Fashion brands which are part of the UN Fashion Charter committed to phase out coal-fired boilers by 2030 and many of them are using biomass as a transition fuel instead of coal. The problem is none of these brands have a transition plan to move away from biomass to more sustainable renewable energy like solar or wind. Additionally, the investment in biomass is draining resources that could be sent of alternatives and prolonging the use of coal boilers.
  • Even though biomass is not always available in these manufacturing countries and raises production costs for suppliers, brands are putting pressure on suppliers to use biomass as an alternative to coal. According to a shared supplier of PUMA and Nike, to produce the same heat, the transition from coal to biomass leads to a 2 to 3 times increase in direct energy costs. Nevertheless, fashion brands are the main promoters of biomass boilers.

Why is a biomass boiler not a good solution for the fashion industry?

  • Energy security for communities servicing the fashion industry, particularly in the Global South is paramount, as is local health and air quality. That is why we would like to see the fashion industry investing in truly renewable off-grid technologies like wind, and solar, rather than biomass. The transition fuel is dirtier than coal at the smokestack, impacting the climate, degrading and deforesting natural ecosystems and harming human health.
  • In addition, the use of biomass boilers is delaying a shift to greener energy sources in Asian countries. Biomass boilers usually have a lifespan of approximately two decades. Those manufacturers installing new boilers will be unable to source renewable energy until 2040. Therefore, the adoption of biomass boilers will lock the fashion sector into a counterproductive strategy, impeding urgent climate action and the shift to renewable energy in this sector.
  • Research has found that the demand for wood pellets and chips from garment factories of some international fashion brands fuels the illegal cutting, transporting and selling of timber in Cambodia. This has been proven to exacerbate forest degradation, destroy the local ecological environment and threaten the survival of wild animals. Biomass co-firing has shown the potential to damage Indonesian natural forests.

Textile manufacturing requires more thermal energy than electrical energy, and renewable energy sources can’t power those processes sufficiently

  • According to a field investigation conducted by Mapped in Bangladesh, many textile factories have the conditions to deploy on-site solar panels. Some factories have already turned to solar energy. Recently, BESTSELLER and H&M Group have pledged to invest in offshore wind projects in Bangladesh. In addition, wind and solar energy are available in Taiwan and China. It is expected to experience exponential growth across manufacturing countries in Asia by 2030, as shown by the digraph from EMBER. In the long term, Asia will have more renewable energy available by 2050, as IRENA shows.

What are other viable transition energy sources for biomass?

  • The viability of electric boilers has been proven. And the industry is adopting this technology. A big Tier 2 supplier, called Makalot, has reported that they are “gradually phasing out diesel boilers and coal-fired boilers and converting all boilers to electric boilers from 2025 to 2030”. So it is unfair to say that the only alternative to coal or gas is biomass”

Why is Stand.earth focusing on brands, when it’s suppliers in the manufacturing countries using biomass boilers?

  • In a petition letter calling for stopping the usage of biomass in the fashion industry, 29 civil society organizations, including environmental organizations all over the world and civil society groups in Asia, expressed the same demands.
  • In addition, in September 2023, 16 civil society organizations based in Indonesia signed an open letter to the fashion industry to express concerns about the use of biomass energy in the supply chains. In a letter from an environmental organization, concerns around how burning biomass is harming the environment and the health of communities. Additionally, residents in the Sukabumi district and Indramayu district of West Java Province strongly reject for use of biomass for co-firing a coal-fired power plant.
  • Apart from that, the potential for damage to forest areas will be worse if our government carries out these activity plans in Indonesia, the impact that will arise in the future from deforestation and the threat of disasters will become increasingly real.”

What role do brands play in the energy transition?

  • The fashion industry is responsible for between 2-8% of global greenhouse gas emissions with more than 90% of its emissions originating from the supply chain. The supply chain is comprised of a network of manufacturing and processing suppliers and transportation of raw materials to shipping goods around the world. As more and more fashion brands position themselves as sustainable brands or brands with sustainable options, they have largely left out of cleaning up their supply chain. As a trillion-dollar industry with worldwide impacts on communities, the planet, and biodiversity, the fashion industry is a key player in reducing the global carbon footprint and staying below the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal.
  • In contrast to their green claims, most fashion brands have seen an increase in their emissions, so to meet some of their climate targets, they are turning to seemingly quick “fixes” like biomass that turn out to be false climate solutions.
  • Fashion brands must put some of that immense profit, and their huge influence and purchasing power in manufacturing countries to push for policies that ensure a just transition to renewable energy, rather than quick fixes that won’t help people or the planet in the long run. This includes advocating for a renewable energy transition with governments, as well as working with suppliers to ensure their transition off coal keeps workers safe. Without tackling its supply chain emissions by supporting suppliers and advocating for manufacturing countries to cut out fossil fuels and move beyond burning, fashion won’t be able to cut its ballooning emissions.