No, The Fashion Industry Isn't the World's 2nd Largest Polluter

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

This week, The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman wrote an important and damning article on one of conscious fashion’s most-circulated myths: That fashion is the 2nd most polluting industry in the world, only after oil. The fact is unverified, as Friedman details, and most of those who work in the ethical fashion space are unsure where it originated. Some say the myth came from the landmark documentary The True Cost, or trace it back to a report circulated at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a corporate-attended sustainable fashion meet-up. Most everyone in the ethical fashion space, including myself, have used the stat, although I started taking it out of my presentations when I couldn’t find the origins of it. Conscious brands, such as Eileen Fisher, report to Friedman that they’re trying to phase out its usage.

Journalist Alden Wicker was the first to bring the myth to light in a 2017 Racked article. She’s continued the investigation on her own blog, EcoCult, where she calculates that the fashion industry ranks somewhere around the 10th most polluting industry. But she also admits what the rest of us should — that no one really knows if fashion is the 2nd largest polluter. Considering that fashion is so globalized and its supply chains complex and connected to the oil, petrochemical, agriculture, manufacturing, retail and shipping industries, we know that its impacts are massive. No one denies that fashion is an enormous, colossal polluter. But it might be almost impossible to calculate the specifics.

When I think back to writing Overdressed, I remember how little credible research was available on the fashion industry’s impacts. I did my own fact-finding and made very measured, conservative pronouncements about the growth of fast fashion and the toll the industry was taking on people and the environment. I often wondered if I was being a stick-in-the-mud as everyone started to race to accuse fashion of a 400% growth rate or to declare that most fast fashion ends up in a landfill or incinerator within a year of being made. Both unverified! My concern as a journalist is with some of the reports that have come out since Overdressed that have attempted to measure fashion’s impacts. As Friedman and Wicker point out, one report from Quantis and one from Deloitte have been retracted or released with incorrect information in them. They are often privately funded, sometimes partially by brands themselves.

Perhaps this is the issue? There isn’t a lot of original journalism going on about fashion and environment, save for Wicker and now Friedman’s efforts. I also blame myself—as one of the handful of journalists writing on this subject—for not helping in fill in the information void. But we can’t ignore a lack of facts or make our own ones up. Yesterday, I was listening to the Fresh Air With Terry Gross episode about Russian disinformation campaigns. The guest, Adam Ellick, said something that shook me: “A lie never truly dies.”