As the issue of plastic pollution and micro-plastics moves into the spotlight, Drapers speaks to industry insiders to find out more on how fashion is contributing to the problem and what can be done to start the clean-up.
Towards the end of 2017, Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Blue Planet II brought plastic pollution in the oceans to the forefront of public consciousness.
Alongside bulkier waste such as plastic bottles, there are microplastics. These are similar to cosmetic microbeads, which were banned from manufacture in the UK in January, and will be banned from sale in July, because of the threat they pose to marine life. They are produced by textiles: minuscule plastic fibres can be released when synthetic materials are washed, finding their way into the water system and then the sea, where they can enter the food chain when they are consumed by fish. Last month, a study from the National University of Ireland in Galway showed that 73% of Atlantic deep-sea fish surveyed had ingested microplastics.
In addition to recycling fibres such as polyester to reduce waste or reducing packaging, fashion businesses are now focusing on the plastics involved in textiles, as man-made fabrics are increasingly being shown to be a huge part of the issue.
Drapers speaks to experts and brands that are tackling the issue to find out more about the challenges the industry faces, and what they are doing to solve the plastic problem.
Nina Marenzi, founder, sustainable textile organisation, The Sustainable Angle
We started in 2010, with the aim of supporting and initiating projects with a low environmental impact. We set up [London trade show] the Future Fabrics Expo in 2011 to research sustainable materials, putting them on display and then connecting them to the fashion industry.
Today, sustainability comes down to the product itself needing to be more sustainable, rather than the earlier focus on carbon emissions or packaging waste. These things are important, but now it is about how you create more sustainable products, and that comes down to textiles.
Some fibres are made from ocean plastic – plastic refuse found in the seas and oceans. These include Bionic Yarn, in which plastics taken from waste in the oceans are spun into polyester and combined with cotton in a yarn. There’s also a material called Seaqual, which does a similar thing, using waste plastics from the Mediterranean sea.
Waste reduction is a huge thing, and it will just get bigger. That is a great improvement, but recycling can sidetrack people from the real issue, which is the need to use better, improved materials in the first place.
There can be too much focus on recycling, rather than investing in materials that are low-impact and renewable in the first place. It is good for a transition, but we need to focus on renewable materials as an alternative. With all fabrics made from recycled materials you still have the problem of microplastic pollution, because recycling the material doesn’t stop that.
Lucy Gilliam, co-founder, Exxpedition, a microplastics research project
Every piece of synthetic clothing – every time you wash it or even every time you use it – sheds tiny little fibres. A synthetic fleece going through a washing machine could release up to 70,000 particles per wash, and all those fragments then go into the water.
These particles act like sponges for chemicals. So, if a microfibre encounters chemicals in the environment they bind to each other. If those plastic fragments are ingested [by marine life], not only is the plastic itself clogging up the gut, it is a vector for toxins.
When we sailed around the British Isles last summer [to quantify levels of contamination], every single sample that we took had some kind of plastics contamination, with fragments of fabric and yarn.
We need to produce materials that shed fewer fibres, and we need to make materials that don’t remain in the water, using more natural materials or mimicking natural materials. We’re seeing lots of initiatives where people are making recycled polyester clothing, but in some cases a recycled plastic clothing can actually shed more than clothing made from first-use polyester. We also need to design washing systems that mean we’re not discharging microfibres, whether that’s through having filtration systems on washing machines or something else.
Ultimately, the responsibility has to be on the industry. No matter how educated the consumer will get, there’s only so far they can go in their choices. We have to put responsibility onto the industry and make available partnerships for innovation – not only to create products, but then to actually get them scaled on the real market.
Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, acting environmental sustainability manager, H&M group
Our ambition to become circular means to have a circular approach to how fashion is made and used, including our aim to only use recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. We are further increasing our use of recycled polyester, recycled plastic and recycled polyamide as alternative to virgin polyester, plastic and polyamide. This is a sustainable way to decrease the use of virgin resources and tackle the issue of pollution.
Today we are one of the world’s largest users by volume of recycled polyester. In 2016 we used recycled polyester equivalent to 180 million PET [polyethylene terephalate, the most commonly used plastic] bottles. In addition, in our last H&M Conscious Exclusive collection we introduced Bionic, a material that is made from plastic recovered from waterways. In this year’s Conscious Exclusive collection, we are also introducing Econy, which is 100% regenerated nylon fibre made from fishing nets and other nylon waste.
There is an increasing concern about microplastic pollution in the oceans as a result of the washing process of synthetic textiles, such as polyester. We’re investigating how we can drive research forward on different fabrics’ shedding properties and contribute to a global solution. We’re also investigating our own synthetic textiles to see how the fibre composition can affect shedding during the washing process.
From 2018 we will be participating in a project run by Swerea [a Swedish research group that specialises in material development] to develop guidelines and look at technical solutions to help the textile industry reduce microfibre released from their products. These guidelines will allow us to design clothing made of synthetic fabrics minimising microplastic pollution when washed. The project will also investigate how washing machines are designed and if a filter that could reduce the emissions of microplastics could be implemented.
We usually take the opportunity of our Conscious Exclusive collection to test new materials that can be later escalated and used in a wider range. In the last few years, we have been supporting innovative materials, such as Bionic or Econyl, which are sustainable alternatives to virgin plastics or polyamide. We are also one of the core members of the Circular Fibre Initiative, together with The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other industry actors. One of its focus areas will be phasing out substances of concern and [addressing] microfibre release.
Being a global company with a strong sustainability strategy, we have the size to drive this change. But we also need a collaborative approach to tackle common challenges. The Swerea project regarding microplastics is a good example, as it gathers experts, researches and brands together.
Katy Stevens, sustainability project manager for trade body European Outdoors Group
The problem with microfibres [from textiles] is that, as it’s a relatively new problem, there’s been very little scientific research. We still don’t know exactly where the fibres are coming from. One line of thought is that it’s coming out of clothing when it’s being washed, but the conversation is moving away from just water-based emissions to land and air-based emissions. For example, in the cutting rooms in garment factories there are a lot of fibres flying around, and the question is, where are they going and how are they being disposed from?
Members of European Outdoors Group include Berghaus, Adidas and Arc’Teryx. We’re part of a new cross-industry agreement to help prevent microplastic release, which was signed by five industry bodies and endorsed by the European Commission in December 2017. We became aware that this was a problem and, as industry representatives, we realised we could achieve quite a lot if we joined forces.
First, we want to help with test methods. There is no industry test method or standard to actually measure microfibre emissions. This makes it very difficult to find solutions.
The other aim is to share knowledge and really collaborate to try and address the problem. The overall aim is to foster industrial research and investigate feasible options to solve the problem.
In the long term, we want product solutions – fabrics and production methods that minimise shedding in the garment’s life cycle.
Brian Grevy, chief marketing officer, Gant
We’ve joined forces with the charity Waterkeeper Alliance to focus on protecting fishable and swimmable waters around the globe. Plastic is one of the biggest pollutants there is, and we want to make sure we can be part of making a difference within that. We’re looking at how to use some of the upcycled ocean garbage that is out there and put that into our production and materials, and we are planning to use that ocean plastic in our upcoming collections.
We do not use fossil plastic [plastic created using crude oil or fossil fuels] in most of our collection, and we only do it when we make a conscious decision that it’s the right thing to do in that instance. Gant’s foundation comes from using natural fibres and natural materials.
With microfibres, we’re investigating how to construct yarns to prevent shedding, and we also want to partner with companies who can help innovate in that area.
We also want to empower the consumer with how they can help. Micro-plastic shedding is a new topic for the whole industry and we want to be part of finding solutions to that.