One of fashion’s widest-reaching impacts on the planet is largely invisible and the industry isn’t doing enough to tackle it, according to a new report from nonprofit Forum for the Future, supported by UNDP’s Ocean Innovation Challenge. Tackling Microfibres at Source hopes to spur industry action on microfibre shedding and cut down pollution at an earlier stage of the design process.
The report contains several recommendations, including a more robust wastewater treatment system; upstream innovations to reduce water, energy and chemical use; and reducing the impact of dyeing and heat setting, which seem to contribute significantly to microfibre shedding in the manufacturing stage. However, it raises as many questions as answers: what factors impact microfibre shedding the most? Who should bear the cost and responsibility for change? Do natural and synthetic microfibres have the same impacts on human and planetary health?
“In our industry, technical solutions appear to offer the most attractive and convenient answers,” said Keith Ma, strategic director of the report’s industry partner, Ramatex Group. “What this project has shown is that complex problems require collective action and collaboration between multiple stakeholders.” How those stakeholders interact with each other — especially brands and their thousands of suppliers — is a big barrier to progress.
Research indicates that microplastics are harmful to human and marine health, though the extent of its impact is yet to be fully grasped, says Forum for the Future. “Microplastics have been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the deepest point of the world’s oceans — as well as the top of Mount Everest,” says sustainability consultant Philippa Grogan of strategy consultancy Eco-Age. “They have been found in human breast milk and lung tissue, in our food and even in salt. Because microfibres can get into farming sludge, some reports have suggested that there is four to 23 times as much microplastic pollution in soil as there is in the sea. They are ubiquitous and so dangerous.”
Despite growing awareness of the issue, there are still many gaps in the industry’s understanding of microfibres, particularly what factors affect microfibre shedding in the production stage, and the potential implications of microfibre ingestion on human and ecological health. And, funding for this research is limited, says Sophie Mather, founding director of The Microfibre Consortium (TMC), which supported Forum for the Future to produce its report. “As the complexities of the topic grow, the requirement for funding grows, too.”
Even the definition of microfibres versus microplastics can be confusing. The textile industry definition of a microfibre is a synthetic fibre with a linear density of less than one denier, but the term means something slightly different when related to unintended shedding and pollution. In this context, TMC does not define microfibres by their size or type. To avoid confusion, it prefers the term “fibre fragment”. A microplastic is more specific: it is a small piece of plastic debris that measures 5mm or less. Synthetic fibre fragments are generally classified as microplastics. In the Forum for the Future’s report, microfibres refer to both natural and synthetic fibres.
To date, conversations around fibre fragmentation have focused on microplastics rather than microfibres in general, says Mather. “There’s a lot of concern around plastic right now, but the scale of natural fibres being produced means they will also be detrimental in the longer-term,” she adds. The amount of treatments and coatings used on natural fibres can also make them behave more like microplastics, adds Eco-Age’s Grogan. “If natural fibres have been coated in something like a durable water repellent coating, they will behave like a microplastic, which affects their biodegradability.”
Tackling the problem
Several pieces of EU guidance touch on fibre fragmentation, including the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodology it is developing; new microplastics regulation expected to be published in May 2023; and the eco-design principles scheduled for the end of 2024. France’s Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law attempts to tackle consumer education, mandating that new clothing which contains 50 per cent or more synthetic fibres by weight (either recycled or virgin) carries a warning about microplastic shedding on its care label. The UK currently has a microplastics bill in its second reading, with updates due this month — campaigners are hoping to get the government to mandate microfibre filters on all new domestic washing machines.
In theory, these fragmented pieces of legislation will loop up to address the whole lifecycle of a garment, says Grogan. “Ideally, the eco-design principles will design out unavoidable shedding, and things will be of higher quality and last longer. Then, at the end of the life cycle, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes will make companies physically and financially responsible for the waste they produce. We’re yet to see how that unfolds, but if microfibre shedding was within the scope of EPR, brands might be more compelled to make changes upstream, to avoid having to pay downstream.”
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