Sustainable and toxin-free living

Sustainable and toxin-free living


Shocking (but Accurate!) Statistics About Fashion’s Environmental Impact

Hey, welcome! You might be here because you’ve been looking for trustworthy statistics to prove your point that the fashion industry is an environmental disaster. Well, you’re in the right place.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there, in NGO and government reports (ugh, UN, stop breaking my heart), poor quality news sites (looking at you, Forbes), brand marketing, and blogs.

I’ve been writing about sustainable fashion — and getting my articles at big publications fact-checked — for 11 years now. And it is high time I gather up all the crazy but true information on fashion’s climate, waste, chemical, and water impact, and put it in one place. I’ve linked to sources for every one, so you can verify it yourself and get some context. A lot of this is sourced from my own articles on the topic, so if any pique your interest, dive in the back catalogue to learn more.

So whether you need correct information for a school report, a news article, or a memo for your boss, I got you. I’ll be popping interesting new stats in as I find them!

The Fashion Industry’s Profits

Fashion Consumption and Waste

  • Clothing consumption globally almost doubled from 2000 to 2015. This comes from a 2016 Ellen MacArthur report, which in turn cites a 2016 Euromonitor International Apparel & Footwear report and 2017 world development indicators from World Bank.
  • Fiber production has doubled in the past 20 years, while the world’s population has grown by only 25 percent.
  • It used to be that almost all fashion arrived in shipping containers. But in 2023, over 1 billion individual packages arrived to the United States, up from 685 million the year before, according to US Customers and Border Protection. Nearly a third of those packages are from Shein and Temu alone. The low prices of these products are made possible by exploitative and forced labor in China and elsewhere, and the fact that any shipment to the US worth under $800 is not subject to tarrifs under de minimis law.
  • According to WRAP, the average UK household owns around £4,000 ($3,000) worth of clothes – but around 30% of clothing in the average UK wardrobe has not been worn for at least a year. £140 million worth of clothing goes to landfill every year.
  • Extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a five to 10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints. Extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months of active use would reduce impact by around 20-30%.
  • Fashion brands are economically incentivized to produce more than they can sell, and send much of what they don’t sell to the landfill or incinerator, rather than donate it and see the perceived value of their brand decline. A 50% full-price sell-through rate is considered good in luxury apparel. In 2023, LVMH had €3.2 billion worth of stock it designated as obsolete and not likely to sell, up from €2.7 billion the year before, while Kering had €1.5 billion, up from €1.3 billion.
  • On average, 62% of the volume of clothing that comes to market each year in six Western European countries ends up in landfills or incinerators, according to a study by Fashion for Good. Just 2% of collected textiles — pure wool, pure cotton and acrylic — are mechanically recycled into new textiles. Combined with the low collection rates, that means less than 1% of clothing sold in Western Europe is recycled into new fibers.
  • The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report extrapolated from WRAP data to estimate that the fashion industry is responsible for 4% of global waste.
  • According to California’s 2014 Waste Characterization Study, over 1.2 million tons of textiles were discarded in California, contributing to 4% of the CA waste stream, not including other fiber products, like carpet. Textiles are the sixth most prevalent material type in the overall disposed waste stream. In multi-family buildings, textiles make up 7% of the building’s trash, it’s the second biggest non-diverted waste stream. (Note that textiles includes non-fashion items, such as towels, rugs, carpet, upholstery, curtains, and more.)
  • According to New York City’s 2017 waste characterization study, 6% of its curbside waste is textiles that could have been donated or recycled, up from 4.8% in 2005. The average household discarded 120 pounds of textiles in 2017. With the average household having 2.63 people, that’s almost 46 pounds per person. (Again, this includes non-fashion home textiles.)
  • About 40 percent of the secondhand fashion the Western world ships to one of the largest resale markets in Accra, Ghana, leaves the market as waste within a week, according to the Or Foundation.
  • The returns process in the UK alone generated 750,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 and about 23 million returned garments were sent to landfill or incinerated, according to a report by the British Fashion Council. Most returns were due to poor fit. In the US, emissions from fashion returns alone matching those of 3 million cars each year. The fashion industry is the largest contributor to returns — customers return up to 40% of online garment purchases.
  • One experiment showed that shoppers will give themselves moral license — once they have chosen a product with one moral attribute such as an organic cotton towel — to forgo other relevant moral attributes of a product — such as made in a Fair Trade factory. They even will be less likely to donate to charity later on if they paid a bit more for that organic cotton or fair trade product.
  • Discounting is rampant in fashion. Pre-pandemic, only 60 percent of garments were sold at full price.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Fashion

  • The fashion industry accounts for between 2% and 4% of global carbon emissions — about as much as the combined emissions of France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
  • Fashion does not account for 20% of global water pollution, as is often reported. In 2011, the textile industry was responsible for a rough estimate of one-fifth of industrial water pollution in China. But, textile production includes home and industrial textiles, such as carpeting and tenting fabrics, so fashion is a portion of that. China is the largest producer of textiles in the world, so it’s not representative of the rest of the world. And this statistic is only for industrial pollution. In China, more water pollution comes from sewage, agriculture, chemical production, and paper production. We do not have an accurate statistic for how much fashion production pollutes the water in China, much less the rest of the world. But we do know that textile production is on par with paper and chemical production when it comes to water pollution.
  • According to a 2021 report by the World Resource Institute, 96 percent of a fashion brand’s footprint is in its manufacturing supply chain. More than half of fashion’s emissions come from processing, dying and manufacturing trims; and about a quarter come from the cultivation and extraction of raw materials.
  • A 2021 study from The Climate Board found no correlation between “bold” climate commitments from brands and actual carbon reductions in their supply chain.

 

Chemicals and Plastics in Fashion

  • ​​Polyester, a type of plastic, makes up about half of all fashion textiles today.
  • Polyester is created by refining crude oil into the petrochemical ingredients terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Those monomers are transformed by a chemical company into PET plastic. That is then formed into little pellets and shipped to a polyester mill, where the pellets are melted back down to be formed into fiber.
  • Polyester production accounts for 98 million tons of CO2 emissions a year. However, a 2013 peer-reviewed lifecycle analysis comparing fabrics showed that polyester and acrylic had the lowest impact on the environment, and cotton the highest, when looking at emissions, energy usage, pollution, and eco toxicity. LCAs do not include plastic’s impact on wildlife or microfibers.
  • Used polyester fabric — except for factory leftovers — is not recyclable. It is too contaminated with dyes, finishes, and trims, and too complicated to sort effectively for recycling with current technology.
  • The Center for Environmental Health in California has found high levels of the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA in polyester-spandex socks and sports bras by dozens of large brands, including Nike, Athleta, Hanes, Champion, New Balance, and Fruit of the Loom, at up to 19 times California’s safety limit.
  • PET/polyester production always creates a carcinogenic byproduct called 1,4-dioxane, which is almost never treated before being output into local waterways outside factories. The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory data shows that in 2019, the top four industrial producers of 1,4-dioxane in the U.S. were PET plastic or polyester factories; in 2022, it was five out of the top 10. There is no 1,4-dioxane in polyester products themselves. But like so-called “forever chemicals,” 1,4-dioxane dissolves quickly and completely into water, making it almost impossible to remove once it gets into a river or reservoir. It is a problem wherever polyester is produced.
  • According to 2014 research out of Norway​​, there are around 16,000 identifiable chemicals used in plastic. A quarter of them are classified as hazardous in some way, while almost 11,000 haven’t been assessed for safety at all.
  • When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had 38 pieces of children’s clothing tested from the ultra-​fast-​fashion brands Zaful, AliExpress, and Shein, it found that one in five had elevated levels of toxic chemicals such as lead, PFAS, and phthalates.
  • Cheap vegan leather and clear plastic clothing and shoes are often made of PVC, the world’s third-most-produced plastic. An estimated 90% of all phthalates are used to soften vinyl plastic, and up to 40% of the weight of a plastic product can be phthalates. Phthalates, potent endocrine disruptors, have been linked to genital birth defects, infertility, behavior problems in children and other reproductive and developmental harms. Vinyl chloride — the VC in PVC — is linked to an increased risk of liver, brain and lung cancers, plus lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Read more.)
  • A 2022 study estimated that on average, children wearing stain-resistant school uniforms would be exposed to 1.03 parts per billion of PFAS per kilogram of their body weight per day through their skin. PFAS have been connected to several cancers, fetal abnormalities, reproductive disorders, obesity, and reduced immune system function. When in the blood, PFAS are considered toxic at the parts-per-billion level.
  • In the US, there are no federal standards for what can be put on clothing and sold to adults. Only three chemicals — some phthalates, lead, and cadmium — are banned for use in children’s products.
  • The EU has banned more than 30 substances for use in fashion.
  • A 2022 study showed that people who have Irritable Bowel Syndrome have higher concentrations of PET (polyester) and polyamide (nylon) microfibers in their poop.

Garment Workers and Pay

  • I’ve never found support for the figure that 80% of garment workers are female. According to the 2017 World Bank Jobs Diagnostic (page 69) 54% of garment workers in Bangladesh are female. Anecdotally, this is a lower number than before, as more men have entered the garment industry as the minimum wage has gone up.
  • The world’s lowest-paid garment workers are in Ethiopia, at $26 a month for base pay, not including small bonuses for good attendance, etc.  The minimum monthly living wage in Ethiopia is about $110, according to Ayele Gelan, a research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. At Hawassa Park, a large fashion-producing industrial park, over 90% of the garment workers are female, according to researcher Dorothee Baumann-Pauly, who visited the park.

Cotton fields in Gujarat

Cotton Environmental Statistics

  • Cotton supports the livelihoods of more than 100 million people in 29 million households.
  • The “fact” that cotton is a particularly water-thirsty crop has been challenged by experts for over a decade. Fifty-six percent of the world’s cotton area is purely rainfed and doesn’t require irrigation. Cotton in irrigated farms requires on average 1,214 liters of irrigation water to produce one kilogram of lint, according to the International Cotton Advisory Council.
  • Because cotton is native to arid areas, it can grow in arid conditions without irrigation; a plant will just produce less lint. On average, Dr. Keshav Kranthi of ICAC calculates that a farmer would have to pull 500 additional liters of water from a local water source to increase his yield by enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s less than one-fifth of the 2,700 liters figure commonly cited.
  • Cotton uses less than its fair share of water. According to Kranthi, cotton is grown in 2.4% of the global arable land area, while twenty-nine trillion liters of water are withdrawn for cotton cultivation, which is only 1.5% of the irrigation water used in agriculture.
  • However, cotton is the fourth largest user of pesticides after corn, soybean, and wheat. Today, according to the Pesticide Action Network, cotton covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land and uses 16% of insecticides and 6% of the world’s pesticides, mainly because of heavy use in Brazil, while Australia uses much less chemical inputs.
  • An estimated half to four-fifths of what is certified as organic out of India, the world’s largest producer of organic cotton, is thought to be fraudulent.
  • The Aral Sea disaster is often blamed on cotton. However, the true culprit is the former Soviet Union, who diverted water through badly constructed and leaky infrastructure to develop agriculture in general.

Garment Care

Author

  • Alden Wicker

    Alden Wicker is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick — and How We Can Fight Back (Putnam). She splits her time between managing her internationally recognized platform on safe and sustainable fashion, EcoCult.com, and contributing to publications such as The New York Times, Vox, Wired, Vogue, and more. She’s made expert appearances on NPR’s Fresh Air, the BBC, and Al Jazeera to speak on consumer sustainability and the fashion system’s effect on people and the planet.

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