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Updated April 2021
Oh, journalistic hubris. I had it unhealthy after I published on Racked what I hoped can be the demise blow to the oft-cited factoid that “style is the second most polluting business within the planet.” I discovered no foundation for this reality, no analysis, no compilation of information. Once I shared this with the world, I anticipated everybody to learn my story, and cease utilizing the very fact. But in fact, the very fact continued to pop up in articles and panels, to my deep frustration. Instagram is positively soaked with it.
The drawback is, I had no reality to switch it with. All I might say was that we had no thought how unhealthy style is for the planet, and we desperately wanted analysis to determine that determine.
Why, you may ask, do I care?
I’ve heard a number of folks say that it doesn’t matter if style is the second or twenty second most polluting business — clearly it’s unhealthy. So we have to clear it up and something that can encourage folks to do one thing justifies the means.
But I think these are the identical individuals who bitch about style not being taken severely. But why would scientists and policymakers take style advocates severely, after we make up numbers wholesale and when requested to supply the idea for these numbers, get defensive and say the numbers don’t matter? (This I’ve skilled first hand on social media not less than a number of occasions.)
Plus, it is vital the place style is on this world scale of air pollution and destruction, as a result of we have to prioritize. If style is the second most polluting business, then sure, let’s throw the whole lot we have now at it! If it’s the twenty second, properly, let’s direct our sources and political will in the direction of another more-planet-destroying industries first. Which, coincidentally or not, are concerned within the style provide chain as properly.
In 2017, the Global Fashion Agenda, which places on the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, teamed up with the Boston Consulting Group to do some quantity crunching and put out the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, the deepest dive but into style’s sustainability metrics. It got here up with its numbers for carbon emissions, chemical utilization, and water utilization by constructing on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, which offers a framework for manufacturers to measure their very own provide chain affect. That information was extrapolated out by professional interviews, plus weighting by firm dimension and value positioning. Their conclusion? The style business is answerable for the emission of 1.7 billion tons of CO2 in 2015, or about 4.8% of worldwide carbon emissions of 35.7 billion tons that same year.
Then, in 2018, Quantis and Climate Works put out a report claiming that attire and sneakers collectively are answerable for 3.9 billion tons of CO2e, or 8% of worldwide carbon equal emissions. (Note the distinction between carbon equal (CO2e) and plain ol’ carbon emissions, which is what the Pulse report measured.) Apparel alone was about 6.7%. That would make the air pollution of attire and sneakers equal to cement production and tourism. However, when Quantis was requested to supply a full accounting of how they got here to that conclusion — since 8% is so much greater than the 5% consultants had estimated — they retracted the report. Eventually, they put the report back out with the identical quantity, however by no means offered the complete information, so Climate Works had their title faraway from the report.
Since then, journalists within the know have used 8% of worldwide emissions, cringing as they accomplish that, as a result of it’s the perfect we had. Other journalists have used 10%, which comes from the United Nations. The United Nations has by no means defined to me or anybody else that I do know of the place it bought this quantity.
In August 2020, one more consulting firm threw its hat within the ring. McKinsey teamed up with the Global Fashion Agenda to return up with their own number: 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2e or 4% of the world’s greenhouse fuel emissions. If you seen I spelled tons two other ways, good for you! Tonnes is metric, and is a barely bigger measurement than tons. McKinsey’s quantity can be 2.3 billion in tons.
It’s essential to notice that neither this report or any of the others talked about to date are peer-reviewed research in scientific journals. McKinsey says they used proprietary information to provide you with their numbers.
Ok, so we’ve determined that style is someplace between 4% and eight% of worldwide carbon emissions. According to the World Resources Institute 2016 data, the oil and pure fuel sector is answerable for 3.9% of worldwide emission, making the style business extra polluting. But! It’s nonetheless lower than anyplace from (relying on what estimate you consider) two to a half dozen different sources of emissions, together with highway transportation (11.9%), residential electrical energy (10.9%). Maybe it’s best to simply flip of your lights and take the prepare as an alternative of fretting over your style?
Just to be clear, what I simply described are sectors, not industries. That nonetheless leaves us questioning how style compares to different business industries.
In 2021, we lastly bought what we had been on the lookout for. The World Economic Forum put out a report outlining how we might deliver emissions right down to zero for the highest eight most polluting industries. On web page 12, it says that style, at about 5% of worldwide emissions, is tied with Fast Moving Consumer Goods — low-cost little issues like toothbrushes, cosmetics, and sweet — for the third most polluting business, after development (10%) and meals (25%).
So I assume my recommendation to you is that this: Buy fewer low-cost issues, whether or not it’s quick style or tchotchkes, eat much less meat, and shift a few of your criticism away from style manufacturers and onto actual property builders.
Mushing All the Numbers Up
What is weird about doing this kind of evaluation is that the style business includes so many alternative industries.
Cotton and linen are sometimes planted alongside meals crops. Items are shipped by air and sea freight. Polyester is created from plastic, which is a petroleum product. Coal crops energy the garment factories (and diesel mills do when the facility goes off). Leather is a byproduct of livestock. A big a part of tourism’s affect comes from shopping. All these garment factories are constructed utilizing cement. So this evaluation is ripe for double counting…or massaging the numbers to make style look worse or higher, by making decisions about which business is actually answerable for which emissions.
This mushy overlap both reaffirms the facility of style… or factors to how powerless style is. On the one hand, when you might repair style’s provide chain and decrease its emissions, you’d be reducing the emissions of a number of different industries. On the opposite hand, maybe the style business is however a small participant within the scheme of issues. Fashion corporations can’t even appear to stop slave labor of their provide chains. They definitely can’t power cement corporations to decrease the emissions of cement produced to construct a garment manufacturing unit that they don’t personal. They can’t power Amazon or UPS to purchase a fleet of electrical vans, or management whether or not an individual who’s shopping for their clothes is doing so whereas on trip or on staycation in their very own metropolis. Beef cows are going to be raised whether or not style manufacturers purchase the leather-based or not. Fashion manufacturers are asking certain Southeast countries to stop building in coal plants, however it’s a suggestion, not an order.
So it is perhaps simpler to concentrate on these industries straight, which might then decrease the emissions of the style business in flip. Honestly, I don’t know which is the higher technique. Could be each.
What about water?
Sometimes I see the air pollution reality as associated to water air pollution.
In reality, Linda Greer, who is now with the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, instructed me a pair years again that style is the second most water polluting business in a single Chinese province, after the chemical business. It’s the third-largest discharger of wastewater in China, and the second-largest shopper of chemical compounds.
So, not globally, and never after oil.
Unfortunately, the Copenhagen report didn’t speak about water air pollution, however water consumption. So let’s begin with that. In 2015, based on the report, the worldwide style business consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water, which is a gigantic quantity, more than electricity production (based on 2008 numbers), and is threatened by water shortages in cotton-growing international locations. But that represents solely .87% of the world’s 9,087 billion cubic meters of water used per yr. Seventy % of worldwide freshwater utilization goes towards agriculture, which incorporates cotton, but additionally meals manufacturing. (Meat consumption accounts for 30% of the common American’s water footprint.) About 20% goes to business. Twelve percent goes towards family and municipal use.
What can we take away from this as customers? Perhaps that the business does want to deal with style’s water consumption on a broad scale. But as a shopper, you’re higher off lowering your meat consumption, especially red meat, if you’re involved about water, relatively than fretting over your cotton clothes.
But to deal with the water air pollution aspect, style just isn’t probably the second most polluting business. Agriculture is at the top. (I’m excluding insufficient sanitation, as a result of I’m undecided if one would think about pooping an business. But that absolutely is a large supply.) Then there’s mining, which is one other large contributor. Also, the collective runoff from ground transportation. That’s to not say this isn’t essential to deal with, because the documentary RiverBlue, makes clear. Fashion manufacturing is extremely poisonous, from the processing of fibers, to the dying, and the leather-based tanning. But this isn’t the place that reality comes from.
OK, then, waste manufacturing?
According to the report, style is answerable for 92 million tons of stable waste per yr globally, representing 4% of the 2.12 billion tons of waste we dump globally annually. That is more than toxic e-waste and supermarket waste. Much of it comes from the cut-and-sew course of, the place the form of a t-shirt is lower out of a sq. material, and the remainder is discarded. In NYC, for instance, the quantity of business textile waste is 40 times larger than shopper textile waste. It’s most likely orders of magnitude bigger in Asian international locations by which garment exports dwarf different exports. Clearly, then, style waste is an issue.
I’ve been scouring the web on the lookout for any dependable figures on world stable waste era by business so I can evaluate style, however have come up empty handed. Even mining, the business that blows the tops off of mountains, I discovered, has no world figures. One factor I did be taught is that solid waste generation rises with an increasing urban population and wealth. In different phrases, globally, as we transfer to cities, go to work at factories and different jobs that aren’t agrarian, and devour extra issues, our waste output rises. Fashion is in there, together with handy packaging and disposables.
In any case, 4% of worldwide stable waste is a large quantity, even when it doesn’t make style the second largest supply. And it factors to the dire want for the style business to determine a option to recycle textile waste not simply when customers are achieved with their garments, however on the manufacturing unit stage as properly.
Maybe It’s Plastic Pollution!
Fashion is the second at one thing, in actual fact. According to the 2014 Valuing Plastic report by the United Nations Environmental Programme, clothes and accessories is the second largest business after non-durable family items when it comes to pure capital price of plastic within the ocean. I do know that’s not very clear, however it primarily signifies that clothes and accessories is the second most damaging business relating to placing plastic within the ocean. Still not second to grease, although.
So, the place does that depart us?
Now that we all know that style is perhaps the third most polluting business relating to carbon emissions, that shouldn’t make us really feel complacent. Instead, it ought to spur us to additional motion.
- Consume much less new, typical style.
- Buy secondhand as an alternative of recent each time potential
- When it’s important to purchase new, purchase it from a extra sustainable label that has measured its emissions for the corporate or per product and is striving to reduce and offset its footprint.
- Support political motion to restrict world carbon emissions from each supply. One fascinating initiative is the Citizen Climate Lobby’s style arm, which pushes for a carbon charge and dividend. Check it out!
*In carbon emissions. Doesn’t embody methane, which has a better world warming potential than carbon and is a big portion of livestock’s greenhouse fuel emissions.