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Is It Time to Rethink Those Claims About Fashion’s Dirty Little Secret?

Fact: fashion is the second-most-polluting industry on the planet. Or is it?

On Thursday, The New York Times’s chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman called that claim into question or perhaps debunked it entirely, documenting her fairly fruitless efforts to trace the origins of where that eyebrow-raising accusation started in the first place.

The tidy, oft-repeated assertion might not be completely accurate, based on Friedman’s findings—or lack thereof—but it’s also not wholly inaccurate. From fabric wastage to wastewater mismanagement, fashion undeniably contributes to the rampant pollution fouling land and water and air; what’s unclear is precisely how bad it is relative to other industries. Many apparel factories, textile dyeing plants and other facilities and stakeholders within the value chain sully life-sustaining waterways with chemical effluents and other harmful substances, and release tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, for example.

That’s not to mention the damage done to the workers who breathe in fumes from petrochemical finishing treatments and the other social ills pervasive to an industry reliant on the cheapest labor from the most underprivileged peoples.

And that’s just how clothing gets made. Consider that the average American woman houses 103 pieces of clothing in her closet, according to a 2016 ClosetMaid survey. Even more troubling, she considers 21 percent of those garments to be “unwearable” and has never donned 12 percent. One-third said some of their clothing is too snug while 24 percent lamented the looseness of some of their tops, frocks and bottoms.

All of that contributes to the massive amount of clothing that ends up in landfills every year or gets incinerated. Based on EPA data, the typical American discards roughly 80 pounds of worn and unwanted clothing, a particular challenge when textile recycling capabilities are still maturing and a good number of recyclers cannot handle fabric blends like the incredibly common poly-cotton and Spandex-blends.

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Consumer demand for an endless supply of cheap, trend-right clothing often means cutting corners in the supply chain, with devastating consequences for people and planet. Ocean freight shipping—which brings vast quantities of apparel and other goods into the U.S. from China—“would be ranked between Germany and Japan as the sixth-largest contributor to global CO2 emissions,” if it were a country, according to the I News Essential Daily Briefing.

What Friedman wants to see, and rightly so, is an end to the “fake news” of parroting an unverifiable accusation and instead a return to finger-pointing based on solid data. No one is trying to walk back the pollution claims entirely; in fact, doing so could tap the brakes on sustainability’s momentum among increasingly conscious consumers and destroy the good work some brands are doing to clean up their supply chains.

The takeaway? Fashion’s specific rung on the totem pole of polluters isn’t what matters most—it’s how the industry acts to supply a much more thoughtful and eco-aware future.