Fashion Is Not the 2nd Most Polluting Industry After Oil. But What Is It?
- by Alden Wicker
- Jan 17, 2022
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, the fact continued to pop up in articles and panels, 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. 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? (This I’ve experienced first hand on social media at least a few times.)
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 CO2 in 2015, or about 4.8% of global carbon emissions of 35.7 billion tons that same year.
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 CO2e, or 8% of global carbon equivalent emissions. (Note the difference between carbon equivalent (CO2e) and plain ol’ carbon emissions, which is what the Pulse report measured.) Apparel alone was about 6.7%. That would make the pollution of apparel and shoes equal to cement production and tourism. 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.
Some journalists still say the fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, attributing it to the United Nations. The United Nations has never explained to me or anyone else that I know of where it got this number.
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 CO2e 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 larger measurement than tons. McKinsey’s number would be 2.3 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.
In early 2021, the World Economic Forum put out a report outlining how we could bring emissions down to zero for the top eight most polluting industries. On page 12, it says that fashion, at about 5% of global emissions, is tied with Fast Moving Consumer Goods — cheap little things like toothbrushes, cosmetics, and candy — for the third most polluting industry, after construction (10%) and food (25%).
But in late 2021, The World Resources Institute and the Apparel Impact Institute co-released a new report putting fashion’s contribution at 2% of global emissions. They also used Higg and Textile Exchange data to come up with 1.025 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) released as a result of fashion in 2019.
So, should we trust this new report’s estimate? Well, this one is stuffed with background and information about how they got to this number, plus the assumptions they made, and limitations. All the other reports estimating emissions from fashion are pretty much a black box.
The report also is clear that the underlying data kind sucks. For example: Polyester raw material data in the HIGG MSI comes from European production. The largest producer of polyester is China, and it’s likely more carbon-intensive than EU-made polyester. This data is also only good for identifying supply chain hot spots. It can’t help a brand track emissions reductions because it isn’t updated or tracked over time. And even if the industry or some as-yet not identified institution goes all-in on measuring emissions at factories and farms, getting better data will take several years.
Interesting to note: the report excluded emissions from several things because they are difficult to estimate and/or a negligible percentage of apparel’s impact. Corporate offices and other buildings and delivery from the retailer to the consumer are almost negligible. The report says that 96% of emissions come from Scope 3, or the manufacturing supply chain. “Consumer use” like washing and drying hasn’t been researched and also a brand has very little influence over whether a consumer uses a dryer or line dries their clothes. (Though Levi’s has tried to educate consumers on washing their jeans rarely.) And apparently, end-of-life landfill and incineration also contribute a negligible amount, and right now a brand doesn’t have much control over what a consumer does with the product when they are done with it. It all depends on where they live and their personal habits around clothing donation. (Though legislation on extended consumer responsibility could change that!)
Another interesting set of stats from the report: Polyester was the most used fiber in 2019 (52%), then cotton (23%), man-made cellulosic fibers (6.4%), and nylon (5%). The analysis excludes leather — 2020 was the first year that Textile Exchange collected data on it. (Also, the report is on apparel, not shoes and accessories.) Most estimates put the global market share of polyester at 66%, but this estimate is specifically for apparel. Good to know!
Finally, the report said the best way to reduce fashion’s emissions is to increase energy efficiency in the supply chain (a 64 million ton reduction), and switch to renewable energy in the supply chain (424 million tons). They say switching to recycled polyester could save 30 million tons, and maximizing material efficiency would yield 24 million tons savings. The report does briefly mention the importance of reducing consumption, but didn’t put a number on it.
So we’ve decided that fashion is somewhere between 2% and 8% of global carbon emissions.
According to the World Resources Institute 2016 data, the oil and natural gas sector is responsible for 3.9% of global emissions, so it could be more, less, or equal. But fashion is still less than probably a half dozen other sectors, including road transportation (11.9%), residential electricity (10.9%), and tourism (8%). Maybe you should just turn off your lights and take the train instead of fretting over your fashion?
Just to be clear, what I just described are sectors, not industries. That still leaves us wondering how fashion compares to other commercial industries.
So I guess my advice to you is this: Buy fewer cheap things, whether it’s fast fashion or tchotchkes, eat less meat, and shift some of your criticism away from fashion brands and onto real estate developers.
Want to know which brands are truly doing the work? It’s not the ones with fancy materials. It’s the ones at the top of this list, who are trying to decarbonize their supply chain. They’re not doing enough, but they at least are trying?
Mushing All the Numbers Up
What is bizarre about doing this sort of analysis is that the fashion industry involves so many different industries.
Cotton and linen are often planted alongside food crops. Items are shipped by air and sea freight. Polyester is made from plastic, which is a petroleum product. Coal plants power the garment factories (and diesel generators do when the power goes off). Leather is a byproduct of livestock. A large part of tourism’s impact comes from shopping. All those garment factories are built using cement. So this analysis is ripe for double counting… or massaging the numbers to make fashion look worse or better, by making choices about which industry is really responsible for which emissions.
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 several other industries. 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. They can’t force Amazon or UPS to buy a 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. Beef cows are going to be raised whether fashion brands buy the leather or not. Fashion brands are asking certain Southeast countries to stop building in coal plants, but it’s a suggestion, not an order.
So it might be more effective to focus on those industries directly, which would then lower the emissions of the fashion industry in turn. 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, who is now with the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, told me a couple years back that fashion is the second most water polluting industry in one Chinese province, after the chemical industry. It’s the third-largest discharger of wastewater 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 (according to 2008 numbers), 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 freshwater 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. Fun fact: many more microfibers come from tires being worn down than from fashion. 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 supermarket 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 United Nations Environmental Programme, 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 not the second, third, or even perhaps the fifth 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 instead of new whenever possible
- When you have to buy new, buy it from a more sustainable label that has measured its emissions for the company or per product and is striving to reduce and offset its footprint.
- Support political action to limit global carbon emissions from every source. One interesting initiative is the Citizen Climate Lobby’s fashion arm, which pushes for a carbon fee and dividend. Check it out!
*In carbon emissions. Doesn’t include methane, which has a higher global warming potential than carbon and is a large portion of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions.