The fashion industry relies heavily on synthetic materials. In 2000 polyester production exceeded the volume of globally produced natural fibres. 20 Years later this volume doubled again and is predicted to become 6 times the volume of cotton on 2028.
There are so many problems related to the extraction of oil and the manufacturing of cheap clothes made from crude oil. But I would like to concentrate on the very end of the lifecycle: the use-phase.
When I folded a T-Shirt and a pair of socks of my husband some month ago, it really hit me in the face. He excessively wears his garments until they fall apart. I normally don’t get see clothes that worn
down. These garments were transparent, most of the fibres were gone. The T-Shirt had many holes and was very very thin and the socks showed a skeleton of knit, but no pile in-between these fibres anymore.
So where do these fibres go? And where is the link to the addiction of fashion to PES fabrics?
Fibres are the primary source of microplastics pollution. In recent years, plastic pollution in the ocean has rallied global attention. Governments have banned plastic bags and Q-Tips. But the problem caused by our clothes is another thing. @5gyres coined the term “plastic smog” to help us picture the result of fibres shedding during wear and wash and infusing our oceans and air with microplastic-particles.
How are microfibers released?
1. Fibres shed during wash, due to friction and mechanical movement in the washing machine. These microfibers released during wash end up in our rivers, oceans and finally find their way into our food chains. According to Fibreshed 74% of the microplastic in the San Francisco Bay Area comes from fibres. 53% of that microfibre was identified as plastic (PES, Acrylic, etc), while 47% were identified as unspecified man-made material. Eventhough there are many microfibre capturing solutions on the market, or on the horizon like bags, filters, balls etc. this remains a huge problem.
2. Fibres shed during wear. These fibres are then released into the air. This aspect has been overlook in many of the conversations but could be an even bigger concern for human health according to fibreshed. A publication on micro plastics in Table Salt, Drinking Water, and Air reveals that the intake of microplastics via inhalation could be an overlooked thread to human’s respiratory and digestive systems (https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.9b04535)
This feels overwhelming and a huge proportion of the materials used by the fashion industries are synthetics.
What about recycled Polyester?
One of the materials marketed as a sustainable solution to virgin polyester ist recycled polyester. There is a huge trend towards ‚circularity‘ in fashion right now, with big brands investing in recycling technologies.
But did you know that recycled polyester sheds 2x the amount of microplastics of virgin polyester? (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00405000.2020.1741760)
This means that even though the production of recycled polyester might save some energy (figures I found reached from 23-59%), recycled polyester is not a solution if we want to design out waste.
In recent years, there was the trend on recycled ocean waste. Initiatives that recycle ocean plastics are great because they raise awareness and connect different stakeholders to advance a common goal: Cleaning up the oceans. But I am skeptical about the products, as they release more microfibers then their virgin counter parts. Plus these products are then marketed against the background of such an initiative, I have the feeling that the story told to consumers is misleading.
Furthermore we should ask the question: Do we really need this product? According to the waste hierarchy, which by the way is also a part of the Green Deal, avoiding waste is the top priority. For me, that means avoiding plastic waste and the creation of microplastics by no longer using plastic. Recycling only comes relatively far down the priority hierarchy. Why the industry still focusses on recycling synthetics so much is worth another article on the topics capitalism, consumerism and speed.
So how do you as a brand deal with this topic ideally?
Here is what you can do:
1. KNOW THE FACTS: To sum it up here: PES is made from Fossil Fuels. If they are extracted as virgin material this creates Carbon emissions & methane leakage. Manufacturing new textiles accounts for the biggest percentage of energy and water use during the entire upstream supply chain. Wear & wash of textiles create microfibres and thus microplastics. These infuse our environments, food chains and bodies and do not biodegrade. Shockingly Recycled Polyester sheds 2X the amount of virgin polyester.
2. CREATE YOUR VISION AND FEEL THE DIFFERENCE IT CAN MAKE: I believe that change has to start from the inside out. Therefore I recommend to take the time to answer these questions before getting into action. It gives you grit to and perseverence to tackle these challenges:
How do I imagine the future of our planet?
What would be written about our brand in an article in 10-20 years?
What is required to become good ancestors for future generations?
What if all our clothes biodegraded?
Imagine a world with no microplastics, no Atacama desert full of unwanted clothes, no waste colonialism. Instead: Healthy oceans, beautiful and wild landscapes, flourishing textile industries in countries of the global south.
3. SET THE TARGET:
Set a time bound target to reduce/ phase out fossil fuels
Where are your quick wins?
What are your longterm goals?
4. TAKE ACTION:
investigate fibre alternatives
set-up a fibre strategy
introduce new styles in natural materials
If you are still using virgin or recycled Polyester, be transparent about it! Name the source, the composition, and the advantages and disadvantages of the materials.
Educate your consumers on care and repair.
Intentionally use PES for products that are exposed to little friction and are rarely washed like bags or outdoor jackets.
communicate the topic to your customers
talk to other brands
support legislative frameworks
What do you think about the topic and where are your biggest challenges?
Leave me a comment to dive deeper into the conversation on microplastics in your collections.