Microplastics in Fashion: A Design Challenge

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Reducing the number of harmful particles that clothing sheds can be greatly influenced by material selection, garment construction, and manufacturing techniques. Microparticle pollution is becoming more and more of an issue because it may be discovered in food and even in people’s bloodstreams. Instead of addressing the design choices that led to the issue in the first place, the majority of efforts to address it in the fashion industry have concentrated on what consumers can do to prevent shedding. Selecting lower-impact dyeing and industrial laundry processes, as well as the fabric and garment construction, can all have a significant impact. From Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest ocean trench on Earth, microplastic pollution from synthetic fabrics may be found everywhere.

The question for environmentally concerned fashion designers, retailers, and brands is how to address the microplastic issue, from the materials used to the standard of the clothing to the quantity produced. The issue with microplastic in the fashion industry is due to the widespread usage of synthetic materials, including polyester, acrylic, and nylon. The majority of textile fibers—69% of all fibers—are made of such petroleum-based, man-made compounds. BBVA’s OpenMind research estimates that 342 million barrels of oil are required annually to make synthetic fibres. Because 85 percent of textile waste is disposed of in landfills, the microfibers from these petroleum-based garments are released into the environment during production, use, and even end-of-life. Petroleum-based clothing won’t disintegrate for many decades, if not hundreds of years, allowing the microfibers to blow through the air and get into the soil, air, and water. This is in contrast to natural fibres, which biodegrade over time and return to the earth. Additionally, the fibres from synthetic clothing may release pollutants into the sky if they are burned with garbage in a landfill. “It is technically possible for the fashion industry to combat the global microplastic problem by switching to natural fibres,” according to Timo Rissanen, a fashion and textiles researcher and associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. The challenges, however, lie in changing the business mindset and the value systems that underpin fashion.

According to Rissanen in an interview with the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle MonitorTM, “petrochemical-derived fibres have created the idea that there are no real limits to the volumes of garments we make today, and that’s a terrible illusion.” “Limitless growth is a suicidal fantasy. Also, the problem with petrochemical-based fibres is two-fold: it is a problem of extraction and a problem of plastic pollution, including microplastic pollution. Show me a site of oil or gas extraction that is somehow “ethical” or “neutral.” “We in fashion are complicit.” With consumers becoming more worried about the environment, this close connection to clothing made from petroleum could become more and more of a problem. According to the 2022 Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle MonitorTM Survey, 66 percent of consumers who are aware of microplastic contamination are aware that washing clothes made of synthetic fibres is a major contributor to it. And 65% of shoppers who are aware of microfiber pollution said that knowledge will influence their future clothing choices. Furthermore, 63 percent of consumers are troubled by garment manufacturers’ and retailers’ use of synthetic fibres due to microfiber pollution from plastic.

According to the MonitorTM study, three-fourths of consumers (75%) say they are interested in clothes recycling as a sustainability project for the fashion industry. Additionally, 34% of shoppers said they would be willing to pay more for apparel made from recycled materials. Additionally, roughly a third of respondents state that they are interested in garment recycling initiatives that turn used clothing into new clothing (34 percent). Nikki Clay, head of men’s worldwide sales at DL 1961, said in an interview with the MonitorTM at a PROJECT New York trade exhibition, “Working with Recover is another step in our pursuit of better, and that’s what we stand for when it comes to sustainability and being open.” According to Clay, brands must do their research when it comes to preventing microplastic pollution. Do they actually comprehend what they’re doing, and are they supporting the practices they claim to care about? Any chance you have right now to create a safer product should be investigated. People will be more likely to make wise decisions if they are informed about pricing and the reasons why your product is more expensive.

According to MonitorTM research, 49% of consumers think sustainability or environmental friendliness is important to them when choosing the items they intend to buy. In addition, nearly half of all consumers (47%) say that the phrase “sustainable clothing” refers to clothing that is long-lasting or durable, followed by ecologically friendly (23%) and natural or safe (18%) terms (7 percent). Most people (76%) agree that cotton clothing is more environmentally friendly than clothes made of other materials and is also the highest-quality (71%) and longest-lasting (59%) option.

Photo: James Santiago

Esteban Saba, co-founder and CEO of Southampton, New York-based clothing firm Hndvaerk, claimed that his business, which solely employs natural fibres, is the “poster child for slow fashion.” In an interview with the MonitorTM at a Man/Woman trade show in New York, Saba stated, “I think making fewer garments, making things that are less seasonal, making clothes that are meant to last… this is the long-term answer.” “I think there’s a very young consumer that’s very ideological in what they talk about, but there might be a money obstacle, so they’re going to these fast fashion brands.” For us, our consumer is the working professional who can invest in something that’s meant to last and who likes quality. “He’s not looking for the next trendy thing; he’s looking for something that’s well made.” Saba’s comments support a set of legislative proposals made by the European Commission that would make sustainable textiles the standard throughout the European Union. The tactic will address the unintended release of microplastics from textiles and stimulate a change towards quality, durability, extended use, repair, and reuse. According to Rissanen, there must be a new generation of fibres to replace traditional synthetics like polyester, as well as a decrease in the amount of clothing that is now produced. His perspective aligns with such measures. According to Rissanen, “this is an incredibly difficult project that requires some centralised, international work and a lot of locally specific work around the world.” “The fibre mix can include recycled fibers, although plastic fibres that are incompatible with biological systems should be excluded, including recycled polyester, as these still contribute to microplastic pollution.” Where the performance qualities of plastic polyesters are required, renewable and biodegradable fibres need to be developed and made available. What continuously concerns me is our general willingness to pump out ever more microplastics when we do not know their full impacts on human health or the health of other organisms. It speaks to a deep disconnect we have with Earth and with ourselves.

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