In the lead up to Christmas, many of us will be eagerly searching out the best deals on fleece jackets, woolly jumpers, and fuzzy socks. You may not be aware but our clothes release tiny “microfibres” when we wash them. These are small plastic threads from synthetic clothes that can go through washing machines and into our oceans.
The issue of plastics in the marine environment extends from plastic bottle caps to vehicle tyres. Much smaller and more ubiquitous pieces of plastic are shed from all fibre types, and in particular, from polyester and acrylic clothing from domestic washing. These microplastics – or microfibres – are being found by marine biologists in the oceans and in marine life but the full extent and impact of them is still unknown.
Working with many different retailers across the UK, I have seen the efforts made to tackle plastic pollution, avoid plastics where possible, and increase recyclability of materials. With microfibres, early research suggests that microfibre shedding from clothing makes up a significant proportion of the microplastics entering the oceans. Already, retailers are working together with leading academics, NGOs and with their supply chains to better understand its impact.
What can retailers do? It is important that we take the best scientific guidance available to inform any action. Different forms of fabric and fibres have a different environmental impact – from water scarcity to climate change – so hasty actions can often end up having unforeseen consequences. Retailers are continuing to support the research – including understanding the difference of shedding between virgin and recycled yarn and whether colouration of a garment plays a part – into this issue as well as speaking with their supply chain to ensure focus is being given to this issue from all sides. Everyone has a part to play including detergent and washing machine manufacturers.
As Friends of the Earth wrote, there is no “magic button” that we can ask retailers to press to solve this issue. But they rightfully call for continued research into ways we can reduce the amount of microplastics in our ocean – including from microfibres.
The Outdoor Microfibre Consortium – a cross-industry, collaborative organisation – is strategically mapping and undertaking work with retailers, brands and supply chain partners, and is making great progress. However, more research needs to be done to determine the most effective solutions before retailers and brands are able to confidently put improved products on the shop floor. It is worth noting that both synthetic – (polyester, nylon, acrylic) fibres as well as natural fibres will shed microfibres, so the solution is not to stop wearing all plastic, but to be mindful about the choices we make.
Our members at the BRC are working together through a new campaign launched this year called Better Retail Better World. Building on the UN sustainability goals, retailers have pledged action to meet some of the biggest environmental and societal global challenges of the coming decades, such as on waste and climate change. In addition, the UK Plastics Pact, and the aforementioned Microfibre Consortium, are addressing the microfibre challenge though activities in strategy, integrity, research, and product development.
So what can environmentally-conscious consumers do this Christmas?
First and foremost, value your clothes and take care of them based on their care labels. Retailers and brands make clothes built to last and the last thing they want is for them to end up in the bin.Look and shop for clothes that are sourced responsibly or come from responsible retailers. Lots of retailers are embracing greater openness by providing more information about the sustainable fabrics they are using, where they are sourcing the fabrics from, and how they are helping to tackle big issues like climate change. Finally, continue to raise awareness of the plastics (and microplastics) that end up in the ocean. Everyone has a part to play in helping to stop plastics pollution.
Despite the issue of microfibres being so pervasive, retailers believe that developing a comprehensive strategy to reduce plastic pollution across all product and packaging lines is the first step forward. They are committed to being more sustainable as a responsibility to their millions of customers and to our environment. But beware of simplistic and singular solutions – they could end up just being a drop in the ocean.