A Spotlight on The Clothing Industry and Its Impact on Our Oceans

June 26, 2018

By Meghan Stirpe, an environmental advocacy researcher within the fashion and textile industry

Much of the global public is aware that plastic is an enemy to our oceans. We’ve heard about the dangers of exfoliating microbeads — in fact, the United States enacted federal legislation to ban microbeads in 2015. And more and more people are skipping straws to help save the turtles.

However, as Plymouth University PhD student Imogen Napper points out, “Not many people know that lots of our clothes are made of plastic.” In a recent lab study, Napper and Professor Richard Thompson found that polyester and acrylic clothing essentially shed thousands of plastic fibers whenever they’re washed, meaning these microplastic materials travel through the drains and end up in our oceans. These microfibers are less than a fifth of an inch long, which allows them to slip through the filters in treatment plants.

In fact, an average load of approximately 13 pounds can release nearly half a million fibers from polyester; more than 700,000 fibers from acrylic; and 140,000 fibers from a polyester-cotton blend. According to a 2016 study commissioned by Patagonia, more than 64,000 pounds of these fibers may be making their way into oceans every day from the US alone.

A magnified image of microfibers Bren School of Environmental Science and Management

“When we sample, we find plastic fibres less than the width of a human hair – in fish, in deep sea sediments, as well as [floating] at the surface,” says Thompson.

3 Actions: What Consumers Can Do

Currently, there are few if any governmental efforts put in place to regulate the use of these synthetic fibers in clothes, and experts say the clothing industry has been relatively slow to make necessary changes. In fact, demand for clothing that uses these synthetic fibers is on the rise.

Mind Your Fabrics & Retailers

The demand is high from both a design and consumer perspective because the properties that come with man-made fibers are attractive: they’re strong, elastic, lightweight, washable, soft, cost-effective, wrinkle- and moisture-resistant, etc.

However, as consumers, we have the power to force companies to change and to stop perpetuating a problem we know exists. If you see any of the aforementioned terms on a clothing’s marketing materials, it’s a red flag that they’re made with synthetic fibers and chemicals that will be washed into the oceans.

There are alternatives, we just need to demand more and better so that safer fabrics are brought into the mainstream. Some examples of “bio-synthetic” fabrics that may be a better alternative include:

  • Lyocell — made from trees
  • PLA — made from fermented food waste
  • Vegan leather — made from pineapple
  • Casein fibers — made from milk

 

There are also fibers made from fermented food waste and fruit skins, such as Poly lactic acid fiber (PLA). Of course, more research still needs to be conducted to fully understand the environmental impact of these alternatives.

When shopping, stay mindful of clothing labels and try to invest more in non-synthetic fabrics. But don’t assume you can just start buying 100% cotton clothing. In comparison with cotton’s environmental footprint, synthetics are seen as quite clean. Instead, seek out clothing companies who use safer, more sustainable fibers including organic cotton, linen, and hemp. Companies include:

  • PACT: organic cotton clothing — The company’s CEO and founder Brendan Synnott wants to “fix the industry by shining a light on how things are made.”
  • Jungmaven: hemp clothing — Founder Robert Jungmann’s mission is to raise awareness about deforestation.
  • Shift to Nature: linen, bamboo, hemp, and organic cotton — Curates brands who are committed to the sustainable and ethical production of clothing.

Further research continues to put pressure on clothing manufacturers to make big changes, and you can add to that pressure by using your money to create demand where we need it most.

Avoid Fast Fashion

The fashion has recently undergone a shameful shift towards more disposable garments, bringing with it a host of disastrous and wasteful consequences, including an increase of oceanic plastic pollution.

According to Professor Thompson, we need longer-lasting, less disposable clothing because “[…] some garments wear out much more quickly than others, [causing] unnecessary emissions of plastic.”

Historically, fast fashion brands have included Zara, Forever 21, and H&M, though some of these companies have made strides in more sustainable directions given the rise of eco-conscious consumer demand.

Generally speaking, simply investing in clothes that will last longer will come with great benefits to our oceans.

Buy, Launder, and Toss Less

As it stands today, there are no regulations that limit the textile pollution the general public can release into the oceans from their own homes. To make an immediate impact, simply buy and dispose of clothes less often, and wash your clothing only when it absolutely needs it. Using lint filters can also help prevent some non-biodegradable materials from getting sent to the ocean.

And when you do want or need to get rid of various clothing items, dispose of them responsibly.

I cannot emphasise enough how much of a step-change it would be for sustainability if we bought fewer items of clothing per year, wore them for longer and threw them away less often.

— Richard Blackburn, Sustainable Materials Expert

The textile wastes in a landfill around Damascus, Syria
Photo by Mohammad J. Taherzadeh

As consumers, the quickest way to advocate for change is to use the power of the money in our pockets. Of course, you can always get involved with local or national organizations and campaigns working hard to protect our oceans. At AltaSea, our vision is an ocean that will sustain future generations, and you can help us get there.

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