Followers of fashion may not realise that their clothes are contributing to the world’s plastic pollution problem. Tiny plastic fibres in the fabrics used to make garments will shed into the washing machine, before eventually finding their way into the ocean.
Although individually, these minute microfibres are invisible, when you multiply them by the millions of people wearing the fabrics including acrylic, polyester, nylon and polyamide, they are collectively worsening the pollution problem.
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Environmental group Friends of the Earth says around 64% of modern materials contain plastic microfibres. These pass from our washing machines to wastewater treatment plants, going right through because they are so tiny. From there, they escape directly into the sea.
Fibres are eaten by marine creatures and they may then work their way up through the food chain and turn up in seafood, such as mussels.
Can we combat the problem?
Polyester production has increased tenfold in the past 40 years to 53.7 tonnes per annum – making it increasingly difficult to change the fashion industry as a whole. So what can be done to combat the problem of plastic fibres in materials?
The fashion industry is aware of the issues and some brands are trying to make sustainable garments – most notably the US company, Everlane. The brand has pledged to stop using all non-recycled plastic by 2021. What’s more, it’s even banning it from its offices too.
The company started changing its policy five years ago, when a lot of suppliers didn’t stock recycled fabrics. Today, the industry is waking up to the problems with microfibres. Suppliers now show them to Everlane’s buyers as a matter of course.
Everlane has also released an eco-friendly range called Renew, which is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. It includes fleeces and other outerwear.
First recycled garment
Surprisingly, the first fleece made from recycled polyester was produced in 1993 by the US outdoor fashion brand, Patagonia. Technology required to produce sustainable clothing came into existence in the 1990s, but the problem was persuading companies to use it.
Patagonia had no qualms about creating environmentally-responsible clothing 26 years ago. Their recycled fleece was a pale green colour. The original garment has been kept for posterity by the company. Sadly, it isn’t in good shape today. Early technology was very basic and the fleece’s texture became “crispy” over the decades.
Today, there are no such issues and Patagonia is well-known for its sustainable fashion. More than 80% of its garments are made from recycled material and the company is aiming to increase this to 90% over the next year.
The fashion industry worldwide is starting to wake up to the importance of sustainable garments. In Sweden, Stockholm-based Bite Studio has been launched by a number of forward-thinking co-founders, who are passionate about sustainability.
The name “Bite” is an acronym for “By Independent Thinkers for Environmental Progress”. The brand uses certified organic fabrics to create 20 seasonal styles, promoting the idea of well-cut, elegant clothes that are made to last.
Tretorn is a Scandinavian brand producing sustainable, functional garments. It makes clothing from recycled PET bottles and discarded fishing nets. Its most popular items are parkas, jackets, rainwear and training shoes.
Sustainable footwear brand Allbirds has opened a store in the UK, in Covent Garden, London, after selling more than a million pairs of trainers in America. The brand offers comfortable and understated style using sustainable materials. The range includes soles made from sugarcane and uppers made from either eucalyptus trees, or natural merino wool.
Designer Stella McCartney says her range will phase out virgin nylon by 2020 and polyester by 2025. Adidas aims to use recycled polyester in all suitable garments by 2024, while Asos and Boohoo have also pledged to support recycled fabrics.
Asos has be making a sustainable fashion range, Eco Edit, since 2010, using 50% sustainable fibres. Boohoo recently revealed its first recycled range, For the Future, and has pledged to prove people can dress well, while also doing their bit for the planet.
Plastic bottle recycling
American company, Unifi, has been processing shreds and chips of used plastic for more than ten years. The resulting material is spun into yarn, to make a fabric called Repreve. More than 16 billion plastic bottles have been recycled in this way since 2008!
The company’s goal is to have recycled 30 billion plastic bottles by 2022 to make fabric. Unifi is one of Patagonia’s suppliers and it also supplies seat covers for Ford vehicles. There’s a never-ending supply of waste plastic and the company says it will never run out of the materials to recycle.
The only hurdle is to persuade more of the fashion industry’s major brands to start using recycled materials. Fashion designers have expressed concerns that the current fabrics aren’t of a high enough quality to do their garments justice. Another concern is that the recycled fabrics are expensive and will increase the cost of the clothing.
What are consumers’ views?
It has also been reported that there’s a lack of demand from the bottom of the chain. Retailers have declined to stock garments made from recycled fabric, because of a lack of interest from customers.
As a customer, would you buy clothes made from recycled materials to help the environment? Would it influence your decision if the sustainable fashions were more expensive? Are there any particular brands you favour because of their environmental stance?
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