Are fake fashion “facts” hurting the sustainability movement?

They are popular on Instagram and the homepage of nonprofit websites: short, catchy, and usually shocking statistics disguised as "facts" used as calls to action for their audience. Well, it turns out almost none of those statistics are based in reality. The fashion industry simply doesn't have a developed research operation that produces reliable, peer-reviewed data. So, as it turns out, the same sources accusing brands of greenwashing are themselves putting out misleading and downright false information about sustainable fashion. The only thing real is the consequence of spreading those fake fashion "facts."

No, the fashion industry is not the second biggest polluter after oil and gas.

This fake "fact" indirectly came from Dr. Linda Greer. She studied the sources of water pollution in the Jiangsu province of China and found that in that specific area, the textile industry was the second most polluting after the chemical industry. She used that information in an NRDC report. From there, it was taken out of context and widely spread by sources like the popular documentary The True Cost and the United Nations Environment Programme. The statistic has been shared repeatedly by nonprofits, activists, and influencers in the past five years. Despite being widely debunked by many sources, including The New York Times and Vox, the "fact" is shocking and catchy, and the sharing of it has outpaced the sharing of its context.

It's not just one statement; made-up statistics are common throughout the whole sustainable fashion movement.

Maxine Bédat started the New Standard Institute to collect and verify information about the fashion industry and make it more sustainable. As she started digging into the widely shared statistics, she found none of them were sufficiently supported with evidence. More frequently, the statistics appeared like from a game of telephone where trusted nonprofits cited their source as another nonprofit and so forth with no one actually sure where the stat came from or whether it was true. As Alden Wicker of Vox put it, "One organization puts out a fact, and four other organizations link to it, and then nobody remembers or cares who first made the claim." Even reporting from the same source yields conflicting reports. The World Bank released two reports saying that the percentage of women working in Bangladesh's fashion industry is either 80% or 54%, or neither. While sustainable fashion activists try to use the shock factor of unproven claims to persuade consumers to change their shopping habits, in reality, it is leading to slower action from brands and regulatory bodies.

Without accurate statistics about the fashion industry’s impact, government and corporate intervention will be almost impossible.

Dr. Greer argues that before asking for government legislation or funding from big brands, the fashion industry needs real, peer-reviewed research. Without out it, legislation won't survive courtroom challenges, and brands won't be able to calculate progress. She says, "We need a landscape assessment of the data and an analysis of the gaps and inconsistencies that's crisp. And then a call for funding the research to fill those gaps. Then we'd be making progress." Getting that reliable data requires government and corporate intervention and funding, though. The result is a cycle where the fashion industry needs money for data and data for more money.

The solution is more public research, but getting that won’t be easy.

The good news is that, very slowly, the fashion industry is starting to wake up and realize that it has a "fact deficit." Private brands and startups are putting up their own funding to get reliable and measurable statistics that will hopefully lead to real change. The concern is the lack of public funding. Private sources can keep their data to themselves or circulate it only among other private entities without broader academia and scientists having access to it. To ensure that all sustainable fashion data collected from here on out is trustworthy, public access and peer-review from respected researchers are vital. Getting that won't be easy, say experts.

The Bottom Line:

The fashion industry has a data deficit that has been temporarily filled with untraceable "facts" and misleading statistics. As long as this fake information keeps spreading and public funding for peer-reviewed data remains elusive, the sustainable fashion movement will not move forward at the speed necessary.

Keep Reading:

Fashion has a misinformation problem. That is bad for the environment. (Vox)

The biggest fake news in fashion (The New York Times)

Beware of fake news! Debunking lies around sustainable fashion (Outlandish)