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Hey, Quick Question: Why Are We Still Claiming Fashion Is the World's 2nd Most Polluting Industry?

This piece of misinformation has long been discredited by solid reporting, but it still gets repeated all the time.
Waste from a dyeing factory in Bangladesh ends up in the Buriganga river.

Waste from a dyeing factory in Bangladesh ends up in the Buriganga river.

Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!

Earlier this month, I attended a conference in Paris that billed itself as the largest sustainability convening in the world. There were so many great exhibitors, speakers and experts represented, but much of that was overshadowed by a simple misstep: misinformation being trumpeted from the mainstage.

The unverifiable "fact" in question was the claim that fashion is the second-most polluting industry in the world. It was repeated at least twice in the course of a few hours — once by a French government official and once by a representative from a group that consults with brands to help them calculate and minimize their carbon footprints. The moderator onstage, tasked with providing listeners expert guidance through the world of sustainability, didn't challenge the claim either time.

I found this experience jarring, but not unusual. 

During New York Fashion Week a few days later, I attended a slate of sustainability-centric events. At least one of them, which featured high-profile panelists from across the industry, opened with a claim that "fashion might be the third most polluting industry in the world." 

A couple years prior to that, I was hosting a panel of my own on sustainability in fashion, and I emailed all the participants ahead of time to explicitly ask that they refrain from making that particular claim, since I knew it to be oft-repeated but unsubstantiated. Imagine my horror, then, when the sponsor of the event stood up and read opening remarks that included — what else? — the same old bit of misinformation.

The problem with repeating this claim or some version of it isn't that it's so many miles off from the truth. The problem is that we don't know exactly what the truth is. There simply aren't many verifiable claims that can be made about the fashion industry's impact on the environment. That doesn't mean the impact isn't huge; there are very good reasons to believe that fashion is a dirty, highly polluting industry in desperate need of reform. But that doesn't justify repeating a "fact" that simply can't be verified.

I've been asked, when I've spoken about this problem, why I don't write a piece debunking the claim. The reason is simple: That's already been done, multiple times, by savvy reporters at respected publications. Rather than pretending to add to the conversation, then, let me admonish you to read the excellent pieces written by those who have already done the digging.

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First, there was a piece that ran in Racked in 2017. Here's an excerpt:

"The report [this fact] was associated with has been pulled by its authors and the Danish Fashion Institute has been trying to walk this back since it accidentally used it in a press release," Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told me in an email. "It's often quoted, and could theoretically be true, but at this point, I don't have any credible facts to assess where the fashion industry would rank."

Next, there was a piece in the New York Times in 2018, which essentially echoed the findings of the Racked piece. Here's a snippet of that one:

...We should have suspected from the beginning that this was too pat a formulation. The fashion industry is full of intricate, sometimes impossible-to-trace supply chains, and the data is too sparse to come up with a number like that.

Then in January, there was a piece in Vox that challenged not just the claim that fashion is the second most polluting industry, but also a number of other common claims used to demonstrate how bad fashion is for the environment:

...Only one out of the dozen or so most commonly cited facts about the fashion industry's huge footprint is based on any sort of science, data collection, or peer-reviewed research. The rest are based on gut feelings, broken links, marketing and something someone said in 2003. If we're serious about recruiting the fashion industry into the fight to save our world from burning, these bad facts do us all a disservice. They make fashion activists look silly. They allow brands to wave vaguely at reducing their impact without taking meaningful action. And they stymie the ability to implement meaningful regulation, which needs to be undergirded by solid data.

Since many of the claims in question have been repeated by reliable-sounding entities, from the United Nations to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there's no shame in having believed or repeated them at some point. (I'm sure I did, possibly somewhere on this very site, before I'd read the above pieces.) 

But once we know better, there's no good excuse to keep repeating them. And the information to help us know better has now been available for years. 

So if it's a surprise to you to hear that we can't actually prove that fashion is the most polluting industry in the world after oil, please go read the pieces of reportage linked above in full — and the next time you hear any form of this particular bit of misinformation quoted at a panel, feel free to raise your hand and challenge the speaker. Real progress demands real data, and admitting what we don't know is an important first step.

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