Is fashion very polluting? How many greenhouse gases are emitted each year by the sector? It’s hard to find a precise answer to this question when you ask the search engines.
Indeed, we find all the figures and all the emphases: fashion would be the most polluting industry in the world according to some, it would emit 10% of the greenhouse gases on the planet according to others, fashion would pollute twice as much as the air and maritime sectors combined… But then what is it really?
Fashion’s carbon impact: a mishmash of figures
The first observation we can make is that it is difficult to find reliable resources on this subject. Either the figures we find are not sourced, or, when they are, we don’t really understand how they were calculated. For example, many media outlets claim that fashion is the most polluting industry in the world (or the second). Where does this idea come from? No one really knows. It seems to have come from a communication emanating from a trade show dedicated to sustainable fashion… or from a documentary film about the impact of fashion… or from a report written by the now defunct consulting firm Deloitte. It doesn’t matter. The claim continues to circulate, but it is false. When you look at the distribution of CO2 emissions by sector in the world, it seems obvious that fashion cannot be the second most polluting industry in the world, if “polluting” here refers to CO2. Energy production, transport or food production are far ahead.
Similarly, we often read that the fashion industry represents 10% of CO2 emissions. This figure comes from a report co-constructed by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published in 2017. This figure of 10% can be found on the French website of the UNEP… But not on the English website, which indicates 2-8%. As for the report, we do not find this percentage, but an evaluation of 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year, which in fact represents rather 2 to 3% of global emissions (depending on the scope considered). On the other hand, we read that this represents more than aviation and maritime transport, based on data from a report by the International Energy Agency, dating from 2014, but using figures that are now largely obsolete, since aviation emits a little more than one billion tons of CO2 per year in direct emissions (not counting the climatic effect of condensation trails).
A lack of reliable data
In fact, it is generally quite difficult to assess the carbon impact of an economic sector accurately, as it all depends on the scope of the calculation used. When we talk about the fashion industry, do we include the greenhouse gas emissions linked to the transportation of clothes? Don’t these emissions belong to the transport sector? And if so, what sense does the comparison with the air and maritime transport sector make? How can we include the emissions linked to the production of the raw material (cotton, polyester, linen…)? What do we take into account, and how far do we go? This type of calculation requires a methodology and data that are not always available.
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