Do you worry that the clothes you buy pose an environmental hazard? The idea never crossed my mind until serious news sources started talking about it. The central claim was that the fashion industry is the world’s second biggest source of pollution, the first being oil.
The story circulated so widely because few of us imagine that our T-shirts and track shoes could be hurting the environment big time. We’ll get to the scientific consensus on its accuracy shortly.
But one of the more fascinating aspects is how this No. 2-polluter rap against clothes began. No one seems to know. It seems to have become a “truth” through the magic of internet laundering.
Fashion websites bounced the story back and forth, providing links to supposedly authoritative voices. And where did their links lead? To one another.
Passed around enough, the idea that clothes are the second biggest polluter became a “fact.” Fashion designer Eileen Fisher, known for her environmentalism, got sucked in. She began making a big thing of clothes pollution, citing the above assertion.
When asked for her source of information, she referred to websites that referred to other websites. And she quoted the 2015 documentary about the fashion industry The True Cost, which turned out to be not as dependable a font of knowledge as one might believe.
The documentary-maker said he found the claim through people running the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a respected conference on sustainability. The fashion summit people said they believed it came from a report by the Deloitte consulting firm. Guess what? No one can find the report.
When professional journalists jumped on the matter, they swatted away some of the more exaggerated assertions. The global clothing industry is not the No. 2 offender, they concluded, but it is highly dirty.
What makes it polluting? Here are some of the factors:
— Nearly 60 percent of all clothing is discarded within a year of being made. This astonishing revelation is not a reflection of flighty consumer behavior. It’s not that you and I throw out 60 percent of the new clothes we buy. Rather, it’s that mass producers get rid of wares that don’t leave the racks right away. The fast fashion retailer H&M, for one, reported last year that it had $4.3 billion of unsold merchandise and had started incinerating it to provide energy.
Fast fashion is definitely a villain here. Its business model relies on women buying lots of clothes at low prices, wearing them a few times and then throwing them out or giving them away. No one has to go naked, but the environmentally conscientious know not to run wild at Target and H&M.
— Up to 25 percent of the world’s chemical compounds are used in textile dying and finishing. Fashion plays a big part here, but bear in mind that textiles are not just clothes. They are bedsheets, curtains, napkins, upholstery, and toys.
— About 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the clothing and footwear industries. This came from the United Nations secretariat on climate change. The reasons are long supply chains and energy-intensive production.
How polluting your clothes consumption is depends, of course, on how many clothes you buy and how long you wear them. “Sustainable fashion” is an interesting concept, because it can include sturdy, inexpensive jeans or high-priced designer clothes. What’s most important is that the clothes don’t have to be replaced often.
One last amazing statistic that seems to have stuck: Over the past two decades, Americans have doubled the amount of clothing they discard every year. It’s now about 80 pounds a person. Is that possible?
Don’t look at me.