Oh, journalistic hubris. I had it bad after I published on Racked what I hoped would be the death blow to the oft-cited factoid that “fashion is the second most polluting industry in the planet.” I found no basis for this fact, no research, no compilation of data. Once I shared this with the world, I expected everyone to read my story, and stop using the fact. But of course, during Fashion Revolution week, the fact continued to pop up in every article and panel, to my deep frustration. Instagram is positively soaked with it.
The problem is, I had no fact to replace it with. All I could say was that we had no idea how bad fashion is for the planet, and we desperately needed research to ascertain that figure.
Why, you might ask, do I care?
I’ve heard several people say that it doesn’t matter if fashion is the second or 22nd most polluting industry — clearly it’s bad. So we need to clean it up and anything that will motivate people to do something justifies the means.
But I suspect these are the same people who whinge about fashion not being taken seriously. But why would scientists and policymakers take fashion advocates seriously, when we make up numbers wholesale, and when asked to provide the basis for those numbers, get defensive and say the numbers don’t matter?
Plus, it is important where fashion is on this global scale of pollution and destruction, because we need to prioritize. If fashion is the second most polluting industry, then yes, let’s throw everything we have at it! If it’s the 22nd, well, let’s direct our resources and political will towards some other more-planet-destroying industries first. Which, coincidentally or not, are involved in the fashion supply chain as well.
In 2017, the Global Fashion Agenda, which puts on the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, teamed up with the Boston Consulting Group to do some number crunching and put out the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, the deepest dive yet into fashion’s sustainability metrics. It came up with its numbers for carbon emissions, chemical usage, and water usage by building on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, which provides a framework for brands to measure their own supply chain impact. That data was extrapolated out through expert interviews, plus weighting by company size and price positioning.
Their conclusion? The fashion industry is responsible for the emission of 1.7 billion tons of C02 in 2015, or about 4.3% of global carbon emissions of 39.9 billion U.S. tons that same year. Which, according to this (admittedly rather old) analysis, puts fashion, as an industry, as less polluting than:
Fuel and power for residential buildings (10.2%)
Road transport (10.5%)
Tourism (8%) according to research that came out in May 2018
Oil and gas production (6.4%)
Fuel and power for commercial buildings (6.3%)
Livestock and manure (5.4%)
Agricultural soils (5.2%)
Cement production (5.0%)
That makes fashion the 10th most polluting industry in the world. Ninth, if you put electricity and heat production for the commercial and residential sectors together.
That is still really high, as one industry, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Literally, there is more pollution from the cement industry than fashion.
Of course, this is all back-of-the-napkin math by a journalist, not a climate scientist. Please don’t go to a conference and say, “According to EcoCult…”
Before I move on, remember the “admittedly old analysis” remark I made up above? All those industry numbers are from 2011, not 2015 like the rest of the numbers I’m using here. So depending on whether the fashion industry grew faster or slower than other industries by a lot, it could go up or down in that list according to impact. I asked Linda Greer of the NRDC if she had seen a neat and tidy updated list of industries, and she had not. And burrowing into the 2018 IPCC report didn’t yield any satisfactory numbers – they only discussed transport, land use, and buildings.
There it is! Oh, wait…
Then, in 2018, Quantis and Climate Works put out a report claiming that apparel and shoes together are responsible for 3.9 billion tons of C02e, or 8% of global carbon equivalent emissions. (Note the difference between carbon equivalent (C02e) and plain ol’ carbon emissions, which is what the Pulse report measured.) Apparel alone was about 6.7%. That would make apparel the fifth most polluting industry, equal to tourism. (If you added in accessories to round out the “fashion” sector, that undoubtedly would go higher by the same amount as shoes: 1.4%, and bring the total to about 9.5%.) However, when Quantis was asked to provide a full accounting of how they came to that conclusion — since 8% is a lot higher than the 5% experts had estimated — they retracted the report. Eventually, they put the report back out with the same number, but never provided the full data, so Climate Works had their name removed from the report.
Since then, journalists in the know have used 8% of global emissions, cringing as they do so, because it’s the best we had. Other journalists have used 10%, which comes from the United Nations. The United Nations has never explained where it got this number.
The 2020 Update
In August 2020, yet another consulting company threw its hat in the ring. McKinsey teamed up with the Global Fashion Agenda to come up with their own number: 2.1 billion tonnes of C02e, or 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If you noticed I spelled tons two different ways, good for you! Tonnes is metric, and is a slightly smaller measurement than tons. McKinsey’s number would be 1 billion in tons.
It’s important to note that neither this report or any of the others mentioned so far are peer-reviewed studies in scientific journals. McKinsey says they used proprietary data to come up with their numbers.
Mushing All the Numbers Up
What is bizarre about doing this sort of analysis is that the fashion industry involves almost all the industries I just mentioned. Cotton is an agricultural product. A small portion of clothing’s journey is done by road transportation. Polyester is made from plastic, which is a petroleum product. Electricity (often from dirty sources like coal and diesel generators) powers the garment factories. Leather is a byproduct of livestock. A large part of tourism’s impact comes from shopping. All those garment factories are built using cement, even.
So even if I could get every industry broken neatly out into a list, it would add up to way more than 100%, because of all the overlap.
This mushy overlap either reaffirms the power of fashion, or points to how powerless fashion is. On the one hand, if you could fix fashion’s supply chain and lower its emissions, you would be lowering the emissions of the nine of the most polluting industries on the planet.
On the other hand, perhaps the fashion industry is but a small player in the scheme of things. Fashion companies can’t even seem to prevent slave labor in their supply chains. They certainly can’t force cement companies to lower the emissions of cement produced to build a garment factory that they don’t own, buy their own fleet of electric trucks, or control whether a person who is buying their clothing is doing so while on vacation or on staycation in their own city. It might be more effective to focus on those industries directly, which would then lower the emissions of the fashion industry in turn, plus all the other consumer-facing industries, like beauty, electronics, etc.
Honestly, I don’t know which is the better strategy. Could be both.
What about water?
Sometimes I see the pollution fact as related to water pollution.
In fact, Linda Greer of the NRDC told me earlier this year that fashion is the second most water polluting industry in one Chinese province, after the chemical industry. It’s the third largest discharger of waste water in China, and the second largest consumer of chemicals. So, not globally, and not after oil.
Unfortunately, the Copenhagen report did not talk about water pollution, but water consumption. So let’s start with that. In 2015, according to the report, the global fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water, which is an enormous amount, more than electricity production, and is threatened by water shortages in cotton-growing countries. But that represents only .87% of the world’s 9,087 billion cubic meters of water used per year. Seventy percent of global water usage goes toward agriculture, which includes cotton, but also food production. (Meat consumption accounts for 30% of the average American’s water footprint.) About 20% goes to industry. Twelve percent goes toward household and municipal use.
What can we take away from this as consumers? Perhaps that the industry does need to address fashion’s water consumption on a broad scale. But as a consumer, you’re better off reducing your meat consumption, especially red meat, if you are concerned about water, rather than fretting over your cotton garments.
But to address the water pollution facet, fashion is not likely the second most polluting industry. Agriculture is at the top. (I’m excluding inadequate sanitation, because I’m not sure if one would consider pooping an industry. But that surely is a huge source.) Then there’s mining, which is another huge contributor. Also, the collective runoff from ground transportation. So that puts fashion in at least fourth place. That’s not to say this isn’t important to address, as the documentary RiverBlue, makes clear. Fashion production is incredibly toxic, from the processing of fibers, to the dying, and the leather tanning. But this is not where that fact comes from.
OK, then, waste production?
According to the report, fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste per year globally, representing 4% of the 2.12 billion tons of waste we dump globally each year. That is more than toxic e-waste, and more than twice as much as supermarkets toss in food waste. Much of it comes from the cut-and-sew process, where the shape of a t-shirt is cut out of a square cloth, and the rest is discarded. In NYC, for example, the amount of commercial textile waste is 40 times larger than consumer textile waste. It’s probably orders of magnitude larger in Asian countries in which garment exports dwarf other exports. Clearly, then, fashion waste is a problem.
I have been scouring the internet looking for any reliable figures on global solid waste generation by industry so I can compare fashion, but have come up empty handed. Even mining, the industry that blows the tops off of mountains, I found, has no global figures. One thing I did learn is that solid waste generation rises with an increasing urban population and wealth. In other words, globally, as we move to cities, go to work at factories and other jobs that are not agrarian, and consume more things, our waste output rises. Fashion is in there, along with convenient packaging and disposables.
In any case, 4% of global solid waste is a huge amount, even if it doesn’t make fashion the second largest source. And it points to the dire need for the fashion industry to figure out a way to recycle textile waste not just when consumers are done with their clothes, but at the factory level as well.
Maybe It’s Plastic Pollution!
Fashion is the second at something, in fact. According to the 2014 Valuing Plastic report by the UNEP, clothing and accessories is the second largest industry after non-durable household goods in terms of natural capital cost of plastic in the ocean. I know that’s not very clear, but it essentially means that clothing and accessories is the second most damaging industry when it comes to putting plastic in the ocean. Still not second to oil, though.
So, where does that leave us?
Now that we know that fashion is probably the 10th most polluting industry when it comes to carbon emissions, that shouldn’t make us feel complacent. Instead, it should spur us to further action.
- Consume less new, conventional fashion.
- Buy secondhand whenever you can.
- When you have to buy new, buy it from a more sustainable label that uses organic or recycled fibers and has science-based emissions targets.
- Support political action to limit global carbon emissions from every source.
*In carbon emissions. Doesn’t include methane, which is more potent than carbon and is a large portion of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions.