What Are The Most Polluting Industries? The Answer Is Complicated



You’ve probably read somewhere that Fashion is the world’s second-worst industry (after oil) when it comes to pollution. And the reasons it is and the reason it isn’t are what makes this topic so complex.

How Do We Rank The Biggest Polluters by Industry?


When we rank industries by their negative contribution to the environment, there’s no real agreed upon way of doing it. We have to consider the waste created directly by that industry but also where it overlaps with other industries. For example, in analyzing the Fashion Industry we have to look not only at their direct carbon emissions, chemical usage, and water usage of product production but also trucking and transport, metal smelting, leather tanning (and livestock for that matter), fabric dying etc. Knowing when to stop is enough to make your head spin. So where do we start? Perhaps with the biggest contributor to Global Warming and most straight forward pollutant to measure. Carbon Emissions.


Which Industry Releases The Most Carbon Emissions?


The Earth releases its own natural carbon, from plants, oceans and living things in the natural carbon cycle. These carbon emissions are easily absorbed back into the Earth.  But after humans started extracting fossil fuels, we upped the amount of carbon in our atmosphere and only 40% of it can be reabsorbed. The rest of it is just hanging out, trapping heat and causing a little thing you may have heard of, called Global Warming.


Ok, so who are the main culprits when it comes to producing these extra, un-absorbable carbon emissions? Here’s what the EPA has to say.


1. Energy

No big surprise that the production of energy makes up one of the biggest industrial contributions to carbon emissions. Collectively making up 28% of the United States Greenhouse Gas contributions. With approximately 68% of electricity coming from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas (sorry Trump, ‘Clean Coal’ isn’t actually a real thing!)

2. Transportation

Coming in tied with Energy is Transport. This includes trucks, cars, boats, planes, and trains. Pretty much any non-human powered or electric mode of getting from point A to point B, with emissions from cars and ‘light duty’ vehicles making up 60% of the contributions. These statistics are only considering the fuel burned to power the vehicles and not the actual production of them. Which brings us to….

3. Industry

Coming in a close 3rd, making up 22% of Greenhouse emissions is Industry & Production. This is an incredibly broad industry (hello Fashion, we see you) but in general, it’s referring to the fossil fuels burned to convert raw materials into pretty much anything. Whether that be metal, plastic, textiles or otherwise.


So with the Big Three out of the way, that leaves us with...

4. Residential, Commercial and Institutional Sectors

This is the energy used in heating, cooling, general electricity, and waste management in homes, businesses, hospitals, schools etc. It makes up a solid 9% of Greenhouse emissions and is a place where we can really make some individual impacts as homeowners, designers, architects, city planners, and community activists.

5. Agriculture

If you’ve been looking for a reason to switch up your eating habits, this just might be it. While the farming of livestock contributes considerably to global carbon dioxide emissions, the animals themselves also contribute large amounts of methane, which at 10% of the overall emissions, is the second largest Greenhouse Gas.

6. Forestry and Land Management


This is a ‘win some/lose some’ Industry. Like we mentioned at the beginning, the Earth has the ability to reabsorb up to 40% of the human-created carbon we’re contributing. This tends to happen within the land used in Forestry and ‘Land Management’, so while the industry is a huge contributor, it can be argued that it is creating a net carbon impact through managed forests reabsorbing CO2.

As you can see, there are countless ways to categorize ‘pollution’ with regards to industry and this is just one. We can look at which industries create the most plastic, most waste, most run-off, most air pollution but one thing is clear; there’s a whole lot going on, beyond what we can see.

What changes to legislation would you like to see enforced on these industries?

plastic pollution

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  • I been trying to change my life completely, firstly I started from food intake, and now I’m working on no plastic in my house, maybe industrial companies should start looking into using glass and paper bags all the micro fibre plastics and use the great stuff we have naturally to make/ sustainable materials for clothes and everything else we can do it , before plastic was invented we used all organic and sustainability in everything.

    Carla Moiteiro on
  • I’m not disagreeing with your conclusions. However, I know there are studies about drastic climate change in the not so distant past. E.g: in the 1700’s for a period of about 10 plus years, , the UK had a run of great growing weather. It played a large part in creating wealth, health and had a role in bringing goods to market; hence the beginnings of the industrial revolution. And many centuries prior to that the Sahara desert moved its boundaries – N or S I can’t say, As far as I know there have been major changes in climate (the end of the ice age) for one and over centuries without comets or intruders from space. I’m not disagreeing that the human factor is playing a major role today; but, why is there so little study about previous changes excluding humans. I think a study of past change might help to understand what is happening today and even help to find workable solutions: that is between what is our responsibility and what is what might be called natural. There is a subtle arrogance among humans that we are responsible for everything. Not so. The earth and its climate changed many times after it came into what be called the current area, but without humans to cause it. Surely a study of those periods might shed some light on what we face today.

    JOhn REble on
  • Perhaps it can’t be classified as an “Industry”, but the U.S. Military is the single greatest polluter in the world and produces more hazardous waste then the five largest chemical companies combined. Check: https://www.projectcensored.org/2-us-department-of-defense-is-the-worst-polluter-on-the-planet

    And war is a huge contributor to environmental degradation, fossil fuel use and wars for fossil fuels.

    PS Love your products.

    Alan Mytty on
  • Over the last few years my family and I have tried to reduce our carbon footprint. In many ways we have been successful, however, we have a long way to go. I would love to see retailers moving more towards the use of glass containers, less plastic packaging, etc. I know it costs more, however I am willing to pay more. I do understand that it may be very difficult for some people to pay more.

    Gretchen White-Streuli on

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