What Brands Have To Do To Contain The Microfibre Problem

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 months ago | Features

Image: Microfibres pollute our oceans. Photograph by James Cooper. Image source.

Did you know that a single fleece jacket can release a million microfibres in a single washing? These sorts of statistics have shocked the public into action, but fashion brands still remain slow to introduce design-based solutions for products that shed fewer synthetic fibres. And this has got to change. Because microfibre pollution in our oceans is a major problem and, when it comes to our wardrobes, it’s clear that fashion brands have a lot to answer for here. CNN points out, for example, that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) names synthetic textiles as one of seven “major sources” of primary microplastics. And according to a recent report conducted by the union, an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans every year. 

"These findings indicate that we must look far beyond waste management if we are to address ocean pollution in its entirety," explains Inger Andersen, director general of the IUCN. And we also need to look beyond consumer action to see how brands can help prevent the microfibre pollution problem at the production stage as well. "Solutions must include product and infrastructure design as well as consumer behaviour," he added. "Synthetic clothes could be designed to shed fewer fibres, for example, and consumers can act by choosing natural fabrics over synthetic ones."

It’s not that brands are unsure where to start with this. In fact, a report conducted by Mermaids — a three-year, €1.2m project by a consortium of European textile experts and researchers — provides this very guidance, with recommendations to start with changes to the way brands manufacture synthetic textiles, including using coatings designed to reduce fibre loss. And Maria Westerbos, director of Amsterdam-based nonprofit Plastic Soup Foundation, has urged apparel makers and sellers to heed this advice and apply the report’s recommendations. So far though, much of the action being taken in this regard still rests with the consumer.

Certainly there are positive steps we can take as individuals in terms of minimising microfibre pollution, but we also need to see the brands start to step up. There are stopgap measures available to us now, like fibre-catching mesh bags for holding synthetic clothes while you wash them. Meanwhile specialty laundry detergents and a commitment to washing our clothes less can also have a positive impact, given that a large proportion of microfibre pollution comes about during the washing process. 

According to a sustainable fashion report conducted by not-for-profit organisation WRAP, UK consumers are not only discarding less clothing now, but they are also actively washing their garments at lower temperatures. This is important because warm washing our clothes is where a lot of the microfibre stripping can occur. So if consumers are making active changes in the right direction then, what can fashion brands do to pull their weight here as well?

The Mermaids researchers have pinpointed particular factors in the manufacturing of polyester and acrylic textiles, which influences the amount of fibres that can be shed from a finished product while it is being laundered, or even during normal wear. Their recommendations include lowering the melting temperature during yarn production to improve its tensile strength and reduce the likelihood of breakage. In addition to this, the researchers evaluated a range of coatings, or chemical treatments, for their ability to inhibit fibre loss.

Some of these coatings are being already used by textile makers — like silicone and acrylic finishes, for example — but have produced mixed results, which range from zero reduction to cutting fibre loss by as much as 40%. In comparison to this though, chitosan is one of the two bio-based finishes that researchers evaluated and, derived from crustacean shells, it was found to reduce fibre loss by up to 50%. So why aren’t more brands instituting these real solutions to the microfibre problem then?

According to The Guardian, there are some tradeoffs for brands to changing manufacturing processes, including financial and technical difficulties, as well as the fact that these shifts could lead to slower production rates. As a result of this, many brands remain unconvinced that they should invest in the recommended changes and are calling for more research to be done. But when you consider the fact that 85% of the man-made material found in our oceans comes from synthetic clothing fibres like acrylic, it’s clear that we need to stop with the excuses and start with the action.  

As consumers, we can help to push brands in the right direction here by contacting them directly and asking what steps they are taking in terms of minimising microfibre pollution. This sort of grassroots campaigning is vital to the progression of the fashion industry today and, although it may seem like a small step at first, there is actually great authority in using your consumer voice and purchasing power for positive change.

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