Untangling the origins of a myth repeated so often that no one thought to question it.
Over and over again, in articles and conferences and interviews, authoritative industry members declare it with absolute certainty. It appears as gospel in outlets as varied as Fast Company and The Guardian. It played a prominent part in a feature-length documentary.
What is it?
The definitive, and damning, pronouncement that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. It’s so shocking, so catchy and so easy to believe. There’s only one problem.
“It is not factually true,” said Jason Kibbey, the chief executive of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
At the close of a year when lies and so-called alternative facts have dominated the conversation; when “misinformation” was chosen as the word of the year by Dictionary.com; and when the reduction of difficult issues to the most tweet-able black-and-white assertions has distorted perception, it’s time to put an end to this particular eco-myth once and for all. Only then can we really grapple with the actual problem in all its complicated, multifaceted reality.
There is no question that there are major issues around sustainability and clothes. That fashion brands bear enormous responsibility for carbon emissions and chemical runoff and landfill gluts in different parts of the world. That mea culpas are absolutely merited.
There is no question that designers and executives need to think systematically about their place in the natural and human supply chain, and how they can do the least harm.
And there’s no question that it is simpler and more attention grabbing to call yourself out for being the second greatest polluter in the world than to label the textile dyeing and finishing industry “the No. 1 polluter of clean water (after agriculture),” as a report in the journal Natural Science did in 2012.
But wait, that’s more than just fashion; it could include home wares and bedding, among other things. How, then, to parse fashion’s share of that and what it could mean?
There is no credible, verifiable source that will accept responsibility for the whole “second biggest” idea. To trace the claim back to its origin is to play a game of telephone, hopping from link to link to quotation and never arriving. Which is perhaps why most of the people who first popularized the claim have finally started, with somewhat less fanfare, to try to take it back.
An article on the OneGreenPlanet site, for example, asserts that “the $3 trillion fashion industry is the second most polluting industry, just behind oil,” and then links to a piece on the EcoWatch site, which then quotes Eileen Fisher, the designer who made sustainability part of the platform for her namesake brand and who has been given awards for her work in this space.
When queried, Ms. Fisher said she believed she originally got her information from “The True Cost,” a 2015 film by Andrew Morgan, and that she believed it was also discussed by the Glasgow Caledonian Fair Fashion Center.
When Cara Smyth, the vice president of Glasgow Caledonian New York College, was asked, she also said she thought the claim derived from the film. But when I asked Mr. Morgan, the director, where he got the fact back in 2015, he referred me to the organizers of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a conference on sustainable fashion, started in 2008. (I have been a speaker at the event.)
Jonas Eder-Hansen, the public affairs director of the Global Fashion Agenda, a forum on sustainability issues and fashion, which grew out of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, said he believed the original fact, oft repeated by Eva Kruse, the founder of G.F.A., had come from a report from the Deloitte consulting firm. That report surfaced in Denmark around 2012 but has since disappeared; when contacted, Deloitte was unclear about the identity of the report.
“I had my moment of fear that it came from me,” said Linda Greer, a former senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “About a decade ago, I was looking at industries that polluted in China, and fashion came up in regards to water. But it really depends what you are looking at.”
That is in part why Ms. Fisher has recently started to recant. “I’ve been trying to stop saying it because my team has been saying internally that we can’t confirm it,” she said. “I think it’s been about six months.”
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit founders have also been backpedaling, shifting “to more vague statements like ‘one of the most resource-intensive industries,’” Mr. Eder-Hansen said.
In 2017, the G.F.A. published a report called the Pulse of Fashion that read, right at the beginning: “In fact, there is a lack of reliable facts to guide action. It is not enough to respond to unsubstantiated statements such as ‘The global fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world.’ Data and agreed-upon links between cause and effect are what spark ideas, create conviction, and sponsor action.”
“But we still hear it,” Mr. Eder-Hansen said. And each time they hear it, he said, “we try to say it’s not accurate.”
Alden Wicker, a journalist and the founder of the Ecocult blog, and one of the first to try to debunk the claim in a 2017 article on Racked, has been doing the same thing.
“I went on an emailing spree a month ago, emailing the first 10 websites that came up when I Googled ‘fashion is the second most polluting industry.’” Ms. Wicker said. “One person responded.”
Does it really matter if this exaggeration still stands? After all, as Ms. Greer said, “whether it’s No. 2 or No. 5, the point is not totally bogus.” If extremeness is what propels necessary action, does the end justify the means? Or does this push us further down the slippery slope of alternative facts on which we are currently sliding?
“We need some drama, otherwise we’re just going down on the Titanic,” Ms. Fisher said. Then she sighed. “But untruths are not O.K.”
The problem being, Mr. Eder-Hansen said, “we lose our credibility if we go around spreading hearsay, which is why having accurate data is so important.”
Mr. Kibbey said that the sheer scale of “second largest” also tends to mask the need for more granular data-gathering efforts — efforts that are key to quantifying fashion’s impact in order to come up with ways to ameliorate it. “I wish it would disappear,” he said.
The truth is, 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.
So why did so many people fall for it, and why haven’t the denials penetrated?
In part, for the same reason that so many people fall other untruths: the gorgeous simplicity of the accusation; the way it plays into all the prejudices that exist around an industry often associated with indulgence and the culture of disposability; the way it pushes all the right buttons.
“Fashion is a consumer-facing industry,” Ms. Greer said. “Cement and steel have two of the largest industrial carbon footprints, but most people don’t buy steel and cement.” They can’t relate.
And unlike many of the distortions floating around in social media, this one didn’t arise from malice aforethought, or result from anyone trying to perpetrate a scam or manipulate reality. It very likely comes from a good place: a desire to wake a global industry to the need to do better.
That is partly why, “whenever someone says it at a panel or conference, it’s nearly impossible to challenge them,” Ms. Wicker said. If you do, she added, you are “accused of negativity, or of apologizing for the fashion industry.”
Yet what we do know should be bad enough on its own. Consider the following:
Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced.
More than 8 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries.
And, around 20 to 25 percent of globally produced chemical compounds are utilized in the textile-finishing industry.
That’s pretty damning, as well as sourced. The first two pieces of data come from reports by McKinsey and Qantis; Ms. Greer passed on the third, via a textbook called the “Handbook of Textile Effluent Remediation,” edited by Mohd Yusuf.
Although admittedly, if you’re trying to capture the public imagination, that title could use a little work.