When a garment made from synthetic fibers is washed it’s shedding microfibers. These tiny pieces of plastic make their way into the water stream, and in the end, the ocean, to the tune of 1,900 microfibers per wash. Our wardrobes are literally polluting the planet with plastic.
But while we may have given up water bottles in the name of conservation, many consumers aren’t aware of the costs of their plastic wardrobe. A new bill proposed in the California State Assembly in February aims to change that. Introduced by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D. Santa Monica), if passed, the bill would require any garment made with more than 50% polyester to be labeled with a warning about the polluting effects of microfibers, and would recommend handwashing instead. By 2020, the sale or offering of garments made with 50% or more polyester without the label would be prohibited.
According to the bill, “these small, nondegradable fibers that are less than 5 millimeters in length are a major category of plastic pollution in water, pose a serious threat to the environment, and have been found within fish and shellfish that are consumed by humans.”
The goal of the bill is twofold, educating consumers about the impacts of their clothing choices, which in turn, will help put pressure on companies to make a change in their production processes.
“Companies, even progressive outdoor companies, have known about this for a long time and the fact that they haven’t changed what they’re doing is alarming,” says Stiv Wilson, Director of Campaigns at Story of Stuff, an organization that has been working intently on the issue of microplastics, and now, microfibers. “At the very least we need to warn consumers that washing synthetic fossil fuel-derived clothing is not safe in a washing machine.”
Current options for dealing with the issue of microfibers have been focused on the washing process, encouraging consumers to be more mindful of their washing practices, or even invest in products that aim to capture microfibers, like the Guppy Friend or the Cora Ball. But Wilson, and other plastic pollution advocates, want to shift the focus away from how we’re cleaning synthetic garments and hone in on the production of the products themselves. Part of that is bringing awareness to the issue on a larger level, which labeling would help to do.
Image: Stiv Wilson, Story of Stuff, Quixote Expeditions
“Let’s get it out on the table, let’s force the dialogue because there has been so little action since we discovered the problem,” says Wilson. “We need citizens to be part of that dialogue.”
Unfortunately, plastic production is only scaling up, largely thanks to the boom in fracking. Despite repeated studies of the detriments of plastic pollution, both big and small, in the United States, the oil and gas industry is currently investing $164 billion in additional refining capacity, and by 2025 production capacity is expected to increase by 33-36%. “An ‘American renaissance’ as they’re calling it,” says Wilson.
Apparel companies play a role in the demand for this plastic; 60% of all clothing on earth is made from synthetic materials. That means honing in on alternatives. For performance garments, wool is one of them (in fact, it was the original performance-based textile before polyester entered the game). But wool comes with its own costs.
“Poor animal welfare is common in the production of wool,” says PJ Smith, Senior Manager, Fashion Policy at The Humane Society of the United States. “Mulesing – a procedure in which farmers pull strips of wool-bearing skin off sheep without painkillers – is still widely practiced in wool supply chains, as well as castration and cutting off sheep’s tails without anesthesia. Also, millions of sheep raised for wool are live-exported to the Middle East and Africa to be slaughtered under Halal rules. The trip can take weeks with little regard for traceability or animal welfare, exposing sheep to cramped conditions, high temperatures and immense stress.”
Other natural fibers have their own issues, like cotton comes with a large water footprint and pesticide use. “Agriculture is the most significant contributor to the environmental impact of the apparel sector, so an important thing to consider is how garments are grown: which farms and ranches are used, whether that are tied to deforestation, groundwater depletion or harmful runoff, or whether they are implementing responsible practices that return carbon to the ground while restoring watersheds,” says Leonardo Bonanni, Founder and CEO of Sourcemap, a supply chain mapping software.
Bonanni points out a potential drawback of synthetic garment labeling.
“Natural fibers almost always have a higher environmental impact than synthetic ones: they require a lot of land, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides and feed. This label could lead consumers to reject synthetic fibers outright, but unless there is a sustainable, natural alternative, this could do more harm than good. I think apparel companies should be clear with what they’re doing to make synthetic and natural fibers more sustainable – and use real, hard metrics to measure the impact of
one against another, so the industry as a whole can move to reducing its impact,” says Bonanni.
So what are the alternatives? This is where innovation comes into play, providing a sustainable and ethical path forward.
Image: Abigail Barrows for Story of Stuff
“We keep thinking in terms of substitution,” says Wilson. “We don’t necessarily go back to the drawing board and think how do we deliver food and products differently.”
Instead, the answer lies in creative problem solving.
Natural Fiber Welding Inc. is one company tackling the issue with innovation and bioengineering, using technology to improve upon the capabilities of natural fibers, making them comparable with the performance attributes of synthetics. Not only are these fibers made stronger with the technology, but “you can take natural fiber and start to use it many more times than you ever thought before,” says Luke Haverhals, Founder and CEO of Natural Fiber Welding, Inc.
Image: Natural Fiber Welding’s fiber welded yarn
“We let life’s processes produce natural materials…. [and] we ‘reformat’ nature at the molecular level,” says Haverhals.
He uses the example of cotton, “if you push two cotton fibers up against each other, they’ll come back apart.” Instead, Natural Fiber Welding works at the molecular level to fuse fibers together.
“It’s a chemistry driven process that imparts a physical change,” says Haverhals. Not only that, but “it’s a way to put things together without using petroleum-based glues.”
While the science is complex, the drive behind the work is simple. As Haverhals points out, “if you can avoid synthetic products that don’t break down in a natural way, then why wouldn’t you?”
Alternatives are out there, and there are new ones to come. The challenge now is to put the pressure on companies to make the change, and that begins with us. “More humane products start with the consumer who has the power to influence brands and retailers. Once the companies see that they can do well by doing good, they will,” says Smith. Wilson encourages individuals to “contact the companies and support bills that aim to get at it [the issue of microfibers],” but he also emphasizes that solving the problem will take more than just individual action, encouraging us to “quit saying ‘what can I do’ and start saying ‘what can we do?’”