Is fashion the second most polluting industry or twenty-second? Do we purchase 80 billion garments a year or 150 billion garments? And where do these figures even come from? Statistics and numbers are thrown around in the fashion industry, but its hard to know whats true or what isn’t. Fake news exists everywhere, especially in an industry like fashion where there isn’t much legal regulation or funded government research to back up claims. What’s more, we’re not all experts! Most of us don’t have the time or resources to go on a fact-checking spree. And since we’re constantly bombarded with waves of information, it’s easy to latch onto any credible-sounding piece of information as gospel.
So, this is where we make your life easier. We’re debunking some statements floating around about the industry, from fast fashion to luxury. Read on for the right facts, figures and references you should know to become a more conscious consumer.
The fashion industry is NOT the second most polluting industry in the world.
About apparel production & supply chain
1. Fact: It takes around 2,000 gallons or 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans, equivalent to the amount of water the average person drinks over a period of seven years.
2. Fact: In Europe, fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011. Some brands offer even more. Zara puts out 24 collections per year, while H&M offers between 12 and 16.
4. Fact: Cotton is one of the most resource-intensive crops out there.
5. Fact: Fast fashion brands like Fashion Nova, Boohoo, Revolve, Pretty Little Thing and Forever 21 all score less than 10% on the Fashion Transparency Index in 2020.
6. Fact: Zara alone churns out roughly 840 million garments every year for its 6,000 stores worldwide, often at sub-poverty wages for its workers.
7. Fact: Over 60% of textiles are used in the clothing industry and a large proportion of clothing manufacturing occurs in China and India, countries which rely on coal-fuelled power plants, increasing the footprint of each garment.
8. Myth: Majority of the fashion industries uses natural fabrics. In reality, 63% of textile fibres are derived from petrochemicals, as synthetic materials are cheaper to source and manufacture than natural fabrics.
9. Fact: Fast fashion companies design clothes that fall apart quickly. They pursue a strategy called ‘Planned obsolescence’. This means to design garments to become unfashionable, wear out, lose shape or fall to pieces easily to force consumers to keep buying new clothes.
10. Myth: The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. We’ve all heard this statement float around, but there is simply no basis on this due to how vague this sentence is. Are we discussing water pollution or carbon emissions affecting air quality? Are we coupling apparel, footwear and textiles? Since textile encompasses more than just clothing… Of course, it is important where fashion is on this global scale of pollution and destruction to know how to prioritise our resources. If fashion is the second most polluting industry, versus the 22nd, we’ll have to direct our resources and political will towards the more-planet-destroying industries first. Which, coincidentally or not, are involved in the fashion supply chain as well. Think cement, agriculture, power for commercial buildings, tourism – all these are interconnected with fashion.
11. Fact: Production of textiles uses about 3500 different chemicals.
12. Fact: By 2030, it is predicted that the fashion industry will use 35% more land for cotton, forest for cellulose fibres, and grassland for livestock.
85% of the 40 million workers in the industry are women.
About the people behind the clothes
13. Fact: Nine out of ten workers interviewed in Bangladesh cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families. Therefore, this forces them to regularly skip meals and eat inadequately, or go into debt.
14. Fact: Paying living wages to garment workers would add just one per cent on average to the retail price of a piece of clothing.
15. Fact: One-in-six people work in the global fashion industry.
17. Fact: 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves in the last 15 years due to the stress of debt they accumulated through buying genetically modified cotton seeds to keep up with demand.
18. Fact: 1,138 people died during the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, and another 2,500 were injured, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. There were five garment factories in Rana Plaza all manufacturing fast fashion for big global brands.
19. Fact: On average, only 2% of the garment’s retail price goes to the workers in Asia who made them. That’s only 50c for a $25 top.
20. Myth: Fast fashion companies adhere to a Code of Conduct that ensures no one can exploit or sexually/physically harass garment workers. It’s quite the opposite – working conditions in the textile industry are quite horrendous. Women garment workers are the most targetted group for extreme discrimination, especially in India and Bangladesh. They are prone to sexual harassment and the payment is very, very low. Even though in Bangladesh the minimum wage increased from about 60 euros to 85 euros (per month) in December, it is not a sufficient living wage and women need to work overtime to survive.
21. Myth: The premium we pay for luxury brands is due to the fine craftsmanship. A Harvard study found that buying luxury products is a form of performance. Luxury brands invest a lot of money in marketing a lifestyle of comfort and good taste. Consumers who buy these products aren’t just buying a physical item – they’re also buying the opportunity to feel like they are acting out this desirable lifestyle. So while there is a degree of fine quality and artisan work, it’s the marketing and brand name you pay for when you buy luxury.
22. Myth: Since luxury items are more expensive, the brand must be paying living wages to their workers and doesn’t exploit them. In reality, wages for production will scarcely exceed 3% of the price you pay in the shop. This percentage could be drastically less for an item from a luxury fashion brand since workers producing high-end garments do not typically earn more than workers producing for high street brands.
23. Myth: Garment factory workers have a fixed number of working hours that comply with a Code of Conduct. In reality, 80% of workers work until 8 pm or 10 pm, after starting at 8 am – in excess of the legal limit on working hours.
24. Myth: Garment factories allow workers to unionise. Unfortunately, the government’s law and specific regulations in export zones where factories are established often restrict the creation of unions. Hence, in Bangladesh, only 10% of the 4,500 garment factories have a registered union. Meanwhile, factories also threaten and physically attack unions members or fire them with total impunity, which discourages employees to form unions.
25. Myth: Garment factory workers work under safe conditions. Employees usually work with no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances, inhaling fibre dust or blasted sand in unsafe buildings. Accidents, fires, injuries, and disease also are frequent occurrences on textile production sites.
26. Myth: All garment factory workers are over 18 years of age. Child labour is particularly rampant in the fast-fashion supply chain, where children work in slave-like conditions to satisfy consumer demand in developed countries.
When you return an online order, the company most likely incinerates them or sends them to landfills, untouched.
About consumer habits and e-commerce
27. Fact: One in three young women, the biggest segment of consumers, consider garments worn once or twice to be old.
28. Fact: The average person is buying 60 per cent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago. However, they are only keeping them as half as long as they used to.
29. Fact: A Huffington Post Survey finds that the average woman has $550 of unworn clothing in her closet having never worn at least 20 per cent of the items in their wardrobes.
30. Fact: Fast fashion garments, which we wear less than 5 times and keep for 35 days, produce over 400% more carbon emissions per item per year than garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year.
31. Myth: When you return an online order, the company will resell those items. Most often than not, your returns end up incinerated or in landfills. Additionally, it’s considerably cheaper for companies to dispose of the returns than inspect and repackage them.
5% of total global emissions come from the fashion industry.
About fashion’s environmental impact
33. Fact: Clothing and footwear production is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
34. Fact: Three out of five fast fashion items end up in a landfill. In other words, we send one garbage truck full of clothes into a landfill or an incinerator every second.
35. Fact: 85% of the plastic pollution in oceans is attributed to the microfibres released from synthetic clothing.
36. Fact: Half a million tons of microfibres, which is the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil, is now being dumped into the ocean every year.
37. Fact: 93 billion cubic metres of water, enough for 5 million people to survive, is used by the fashion industry every year.
39. Fact: Textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping.
40. Fact: It has been stated that around 5% of total global emissions come from the fashion industry. The fashion industry is also responsible for 8% of carbon emissions.
41. Fact: Washing, solvents, and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution.
42. Fact: Less than 1 per cent of clothes on the market are currently made using natural dyes. On the other hand, this practice is slowly starting to gain mass appeal.
Recycling is NOT the ultimate solution to fix fast fashion’s overproduction – circularity and closed-loop systems are.
About circularity and recycling
43. Fact: It has been estimated that less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled within the clothing industry.
45. Fact: Less than 11% of brands are implementing recycling strategies for their items.
46. Myth: Recycling facilities 100% recycles the clothing we send them. Only about 1% of textile waste is truly recycled. Moreover, these companies often downcycle these textiles into insulation for the automotive industry.
47. Myth: We can infinitely recycle synthetics such as polyester. Recycled fabric manufacturers obtain recycled polyester, also known as rPET, by melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fibre. However, recycling has its limitations. Most fast-fashion garment producers don’t manufacture garments from polyester alone, but rather from a blend of polyester and other materials. Even companies cannot recycle clothes that are 100 per cent polyester forever. They obtain rPET mostly through mechanical recycling, as it is cheaper and requires no chemicals other than the detergents needed to clean the input materials. However, this process diminishes the strength of the fibre, which means the company will have to mix in virgin fibre as well.
48. Myth: Recycling is a solution to fix fast fashion’s overproduction. Recycling textiles is a complicated process. We don’t have mainstream, fully-automated, large-scale use recycling infrastructure in place. It is neither a convenient nor cheap process too. So, the idea that we can easily recycle our old textiles when we stuff them into a special clothing recycling bin is quite farfetched. Therefore, instead of believing recycling as the first option to your pre-loved items, consider it to be your last resort as long as you can find textile recycling centres doing this in your city. Upcycling is a great option to keep your item in use for longer!
49. Myth: Donating old clothes is a sustainable way to clean out your closet. While charities and thrift stores do give away or sell a portion of the clothes they receive, your donated clothes are more likely to be shipped overseas to resale markets in developing countries. Therefore, this negatively impacts their local industries, and potentially end up in foreign landfills. Thrift stores or charities are only able to sell 10% of the clothes donated, while the rest go to landfills. Africa receives over 70% of global secondhand clothes.
50. Fact: With current technologies, it would take 12 years to recycle what the fast fashion industry creates in 48 hours.
All linked references have conducted their research between 2018 and 2020.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.