What do these facts have in common? Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. It takes 1,800 gallons of water to create a pair of blue jeans. 20% of global industrial water pollution is from the fashion industry. The answer: they’re all false.
Inaccurate statistics have been swirling around the internet for years, used liberally for their shock value by those trying to communicate the scale of fashion’s impact on the environment.
Attempts to verify these statistics have been unsuccessful. Journalist Alden Wicker debunked these facts in 2017 for Racked, then others in 2020 for Vox after seeing false statistics continue to be shared far and wide despite being proved incorrect. “If we’re serious about recruiting the fashion industry into the fight to save our world from burning, these bad facts do us all a disservice,” she wrote. “They allow brands to wave vaguely at reducing their impact without taking meaningful action. And they stymie the ability to implement meaningful regulation, which needs to be undergirded by solid data.”
Proliferating misinformation leads to misconceptions that pose a serious threat to progress, embedding ill-informed assumptions into the consumer’s mind. In 2021, e-commerce platform Lyst recorded a spike of 178% in searches for vegan leather, as many consumers assume that “vegan” or “animal-free” leather is a more sustainable, ethical alternative. What consumers aren’t told is that most vegan leathers on the market are polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), both made from toxic chemicals that are dangerous for the planet and to human health throughout not only the production, but also for use-phase, and end-of-life stage too.
There are many material misconceptions about cotton, and one of the biggest is that it’s a water-thirsty crop. In 2021, Transformers Foundation published Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation with the aim of debunking four common beliefs about the fiber. The report found that while it is true that cotton is often grown in water-stressed regions of the world, the term “thirsty crop” is an oversimplification of the issue. “The relationship between farming, cotton, and sustainable water management is complex,” reads the report. “Calling cotton — a plant that’s grown in arid regions because it's drought-tolerant — water-thirsty is misleading and can lead consumers to villainize a crop or a fiber rather than open up a conversation about water stewardship and sustainability in the cotton sector.”
Considering the prevalence of misconceptions about materials, and no clear answer as to which materials are “good” or “bad”, how will the industry know the right way forward? The key is to test different paths while gathering data to understand which solutions provide less impact and enable longer useability. Collaborating as an industry to continuously innovate will be paramount. The good news is there’s a lot happening in this space, as you will learn about in the next section on traceability innovation.
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