We Have No Idea How Bad Fashion Actually Is for the Environment – Racked

My journey down the rabbit hole started with this fact: “The global fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world.” You’ll hear this repeated at panels, on blogs and news sites, and anywhere else sustainable fashion is being discussed.

Intuitively, it sounds true. We’ll start with the fact that an estimated 50 million tons of polyester — a petroleum product — were produced in 2015. Growing cotton, especially if it involves pesticides, herbicides, and oil-powered machinery, is also a large carbon emitter (though not as large as polyester). And then there is the journey the multiple components of one garment take around the world on oil-gulping ships to be spun in one country, then sewn in another factory powered by coal and generators, then finished in yet another, buttons and zippers from another continent, packaged, and shipped to stores, briefly worn, tossed into the landfill (which emits the potent greenhouse gas methane), or shipped back around the world to secondhand markets.

But when I searched for the source, I couldn’t find it. No study, no official report. I asked every sustainable fashion industry expert I knew. Several said they would get back to me. A couple of experts pointed me to the Danish Fashion Institute, which in turn disavowed the fact.

Pollution from a tannery in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

“The report it 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.”

“We don’t believe the statement to be accurate either, but we are aware that it has become a popular misconception,” the Danish Fashion Institute said in an email. “We can, however, tell you that fashion is one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world, both in terms of natural resources and human resources.” They said they would be announcing a report in May attempting to clarify its impact.

Another fact floating around says that fashion accounts for 10 percent of global emissions. That was pulled from a 2010 Textile World article, written by an Italian salesman of textile equipment. But it is actually referencing the entire textile industry, not just fashion, which could include rugs, bed linens, engine belts, automotive carpets, and all manner of other very unfashionable things. And there’s no way to know if it’s true — when Textile World changed management, the fact-checking binders were lost, and the author of this article didn’t respond to my messages.

To put this in context, the fashion industry globally generates $620 billion in revenue, which is about equal to the combined revenues of the top three global automotive manufacturers. We currently have a multinational auto company reeling from a scandal in which they fudged the numbers for the emissions from the tailpipe of their cars. Shame! And yet we have no solid numbers on emissions in the fashion industry. None.

“There are gaping holes in research,” says Maxine Bédat, a former human rights attorney and co-founder and CEO of Zady, the sustainable fashion retailer with a popular in-house brand that is a favorite of Emma Watson. “There’s enough hard research out there to connect the dots [to see] that this is a massively significant area of negative impact that hasn’t been addressed.”

Dr. Melody LeHew, professor of apparel and textiles at Kansas State University, has been building a case to educators and students for why they should care about sustainability with a website called Athenas. It’s been a slog. “You’ll notice that we don’t have a lot of facts and data on there because it really is hard to find the numbers to support what we’re saying,” she says.

Greenpeace activists put on a fashion show to pressure fashion companies to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains in Indonesia and address water pollution.

Photo: Romeo Gacad/Getty Images

In this vacuum of research, the few unproven but legitimate-sounding “facts” get seized upon by well-meaning advocates, wrested out of context, and splashed across the internet, creating a circular feedback loop of bad information. Journalists and advocates cite that fact in a publication, and experts turn around and cite that publication as a basis for that fact, and so on, ad infinitum.

If climate change is truly the most pressing challenge humanity faces, then this is bad.

One reason for this ignorance might be that scientists and advocates tend to look down on fashion.

“They see it just as encouraging people to consume more and more,” says Lucy Shea, CEO of Futerra, a sustainability consultancy that has worked with fashion brands like H&M and Kering. “It supports and rewards people for being outside-directed rather than being focused on inner values, so there is less activity and focus around it. Which I think is a total disaster.”

And the pretty world of fashion being a dirty polluter is not as obvious a connection as, say, an oil slick spreading across water. “When policy experts think about climate change, what they have in mind is a big coal-fired power plant or cars we drive or the freight that moves our Amazon purchases around,” says Abigail Dillen, vice president of litigation for climate and energy at environmental-law nonprofit Earthjustice. “And I think that obscures the huge role that fashion and other [consumerist activity] plays in the climate problem.”

When LeHew decided to bring academic climate and environmental scientists to the table to talk about apparel and textiles, she was struck by their ignorance. “They were confused about why we even wanted to talk about climate change,” she says. “And then when started talking about the supply chain, they looked at us like ‘Oh, yeah.’ It hadn’t even really occurred to them — and they get up and put their clothing on, too — that it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s not that activists have been ignoring fashion; it’s just that they’ve been pressuring brands on other more visible issues, such as chemicals and dyes that turn rivers in China the trendy color of the season. The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals program (ZDHC), which challenges fashion brands to reduce the amount of chemicals discharged untreated from factories into waterways down to zero, was born out of the Greenpeace’s Detox campaign. And, of course, sweatshops are a big thing.

“Labor rights and waste are so much more tangible and visible; I think they draw the lion’s share of the attention,” says Freya Williams, CEO of Futerra North America. “It feels more urgent to deal with labor rights and worker rights when you have Rana Plaza, whereas, as we all know, climate is a more existential and long-term problem.”

The site of the Rana Plaza collapse.

Photo: Palash Khan/Getty Images

“That’s really the next frontier,” Bédat says. “I think it had to start with the food industry first because it’s a much more straightforward supply chain. But now it’s clear to me that apparel is next, because it has such a massive impact, and it’s also an area whose outcome we as consumers totally control. It’s ripe for advocacy.”

Fashion’s true environmental scope is astounding. It touches agriculture (cotton, flax, hemp), animal agriculture (leather, fur, wool, cashmere), petroleum (polyester and other synthetics), forestry (rayon), mining (metal and stones), construction (retail stores), shipping, and, of course, manufacturing. And this complex and multilayered supply chain provides both a challenge and an opportunity for climate advocates.

Typically, a company will quantify the emissions it has direct control over (Scope 1), such as the gas used by delivery trucks, plus the emissions associated with the type of energy used to power its stores and corporate headquarters (Scope 2). But the real bulk of emissions for fashion companies comes from the Scope 3 emissions associated with its supply chain and consumer use. According to a 2009 report by Business for Social Responsibility, 18 percent of carbon emissions in a typical garment comes from fiber production, 16 percent from yarn production, and 39 percent from consumer use, which includes washing and drying and disposing.

For obvious reasons, these emissions are difficult to quantify. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition teamed up with the European Commission on a pilot that attempted to quantify a given garment’s footprint, but it was an expensive and long process that can’t be scaled across the industry. The SAC will try again later this year with a simplified version that incorporates public data sets and calculators.

But looked at from another angle, fashion presents an ideal way to address climate change on a grand, beautiful scale. “If we tried to clean up every stage of that process we’d be totally transforming a lot of our most entrenched environmental problems,” Dillen says.

Kibbey agrees. “If the fashion industry can demonstrate it can reduce emissions, it will be a powerful message to all industries with outsourced supply chains,” he says, “showing reductions are possible even in one of the most disaggregated industries on the planet.”

For example, Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental programs and communication, speaks with excitement about research the company is doing on regenerative agriculture techniques: how rice and bison can actually sequester carbon, drawing it out of the atmosphere and back into ground. “And we’re working with sheep ranchers in the US around those kinds of management programs right now,” he says. Perhaps someday you could have a wool sweater or a cotton T-shirt that actually took carbon out of the atmosphere.

French Greenpeace activists protest Zara.

Photo: Valery Hache/Getty Images

“Fashion is so entangled in so many other industries,” says Maggie Kervick of the Fair Fashion Center at Glasgow Caledonian University’s New York campus, which quietly works to get designers and fashion brands on board with the sustainability conversation. “[Considering] fashion’s scale, its cultural influence, and the fact that we are unlike any industry in that we are comfortable with change and constantly reinventing ourselves, it is astounding that we are largely left out of conversations. Fashion actually is not only perfectly positioned to take on climate change, but eager and interested.”

Fashion is a conversation leader. If it can make McDonald’s french fries trendy, what’s to say it can’t do the same for hemp-blend natural textiles? “The fashion industry has a terrific role to play in raising consciousness about climate change as well as leading investment in solutions that are now finally available,” Dillen says.

Behind the scenes, there’s good work being done. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Chinese NGO in Beijing, monitors the water and air pollution of factories in China, makes that information available for consumers, and pressures brands to clean up their supply chain. It also partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for the third time last year to rank multinational corporations according to their environmental impact. (Adidas and Levi Strauss were ranked best in terms of minimizing their impact.)

The NRDC also has Clean by Design, a program that focuses on reducing waste and emissions from fabric dyeing and finishing. The program, which has partnered with Target, Gap, Levi, H&M, and Stella McCartney/Kering, claimed in 2015 to have saved 61 thousand tons of coal and an average of 4 percent of energy in the hundreds of mills that went through the program.

The NRDC will bequeath the Clean by Design program to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the fashion industry’s banner coalition. It’s a multi-stakeholder initiative involving universities, the United States EPA, manufacturers, retailers, and nonprofits. The SAC’s ambitious scheme to overhaul the fashion industry includes the Higg Index, a standardized self-assessment tool that manufacturers and brands can use to measure their environmental impact.

Plus you’ll find fashion companies in Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) and We Mean Business, two business coalitions that supported the Paris Climate Agreement and advocate for a transition to a low-carbon economy. You’ll notice, though, that the same brands tend to appear in all these coalitions and initiatives: Patagonia, Nike, Levi Strauss, H&M, Adidas, Target, G-Star, Kering and Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, and Marks & Spencer. “There are still only a relatively small number of clothing and fashion companies that have made commitments to science-based targets for emissions reductions,” Kibbey says. These commitments, memberships, and measurements are all completely voluntary, based on long-term, altruistic thinking that much of the fashion industry won’t engage in.

A worker displays colorful yarn in a garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.

Photo: Shafiqul Alam/Getty Images

The hope is that as governments move to hit the targets delineated in the Paris accord, those policy decision will force all fashion companies to reckon with their impact. “Implementation of the Paris Agreement goals will become the law of the land for all of the signatory countries, so companies will have to align their corporate goals and policies with the Paris goals to be compliant nearly wherever they operate,” Kibbey says.

Patagonia, for one, is a big supporter of cap and trade or a carbon tax, which would encourage energy efficiency in factories and make recycled polyester, which has a much lower carbon footprint but is more expensive than virgin polyester, the default choice.

Bédat would like to see the “Made in” label replaced by a detailed consumer label speaking to water, climate, and social impact, so consumers could easily make smarter decisions without having to spend all their time researching these issues.

It might take all three: government regulation, a forward-thinking business community, and consumer demand. “That’s where it’s challenging,” LeHew says. “How do you get all three working in harmony, moving us in the direction we want to go?”

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