Recipes, people, places and things we love — every month. Head to Substack to support our work. Visit  Later

Fashion industry

On plastics in clothing

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published August 31 2023

We’re at a point where society is too concerned with plastic straws and not concerned enough about the vast quantities of cheap synthetic fast fashion flooding high street—destined for landfill after a season. Synthetic fibres such as polyester make up more than 60 per cent of fibres produced globally, and up to 700,000 fibres can come off our synthetic garments in a typical wash. By 2030, 70 per cent of all fabric fibres will come from plastics. It’s recently also been discovered that if the fashion industry continues as per projections, by 2050, 22 million tonnes of microfibres will enter our oceans. These were the facts that Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, founder and chief executive of Lincoln Sarnoff Consulting and former executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a conservation non-profit that fights ocean plastic pollution, laid bare on stage at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

There is now a growing public awareness that our global reliance on fossil fuel plastics isn’t compatible with a balanced and ecologically diverse future. And given that so many of us have made a concerted effort to cut back on single-use plastic, it may come as a surprise that there’s so much plastic in what we wear. It’s a conversation that should be happening a lot more. Considering the fact that globally, over 100 billion garments are created every year and that 70 per cent of our clothes currently end up in landfills, it’s clear that it’s a huge problem that needs addressing. The vast majority of it ends up in landfills in countries in the Global South.

Many people don’t understand that you can’t throw garments away. They don’t get recycled— 73 per cent of garments are landfilled or burned, and less than 1 per cent is recycled. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, manufacturing has doubled in the last 15 years, while the amount of time clothing is worn before it’s thrown away has fallen by around 40 per cent. In Aotearoa, New Zealand, we import over 380,000 tonnes of textile products and half of that ends up landfilled. Each week, 70 truckloads of clothing arrive at Waste Management’s Redvale landfill—highlighting the unfathomable wastefulness of the consumerist world we live in.

Why, then, are so many of our clothes made from plastic?

It’s cheap. Fast fashion relies on cheap labour and cheap materials, and it relies on zero responsibility for the end of life of its products. You are probably wearing some form of plastic right now. In fact, nearly two-thirds of our garments are made from synthetics such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane—these materials are derived from fossil fuels.

There is an exciting opportunity for resale in reducing textiles landfilled, and this is an important part of the work I do alongside a friend of mine in her charity, Koha Apparel, which is a community wardrobe exchange, utilising garments donated by the public and brands to clothe those in need. Resale funds this work. Raising the utility of clothing is the most direct way to design out waste and pollution, but we’re far from seeing people making thoughtful decisions about the clothing they buy—and understanding the realities of the fate of these garments once worn out. Last month, we received close to 4,000 garments, and we’re sending 30 to 40 per cent of that to UPPAREL. Much of what is donated are synthetic blends—a lot of cotton and polyester. I understand that a small percentage of synthetic fibre may provide additional longevity. However, we must make sure that we create clothing from materials that are safe and renewable and ensure that when that clothing does eventually reach the end of its life, it can easily be used to create new clothes or other textile products. These are the issues the EU Commission's strategy for sustainable and circular textiles seeks to address. It is only by doing this that the industry will be able to move away from using the huge levels of non-renewable resources that it currently relies on.

What are microfibres?

Unlike natural materials like cotton, plastics do not break down. Instead, they become smaller and smaller pieces and eventually tiny plastic pieces that are less than 5 mm in length. These are "micro-plastics,". It's these micro-plastics that can be found in fabric used in apparel production. Textiles are the largest source of primary microplastics (specifically manufactured to be smaller than 5 mm), accounting for 34.8 per cent of global microplastic pollution. Microfibres are a form of microplastic released from synthetic garments during wash cycles. “Washing one synthetic fleece jacket releases as many as 250,000 micro-fibres,” said Lincoln Sarnoff during VOICES. “And because they’re so small, we can’t capture them through wastewater treatment … sending about one million tonnes of these into the ocean every single year.” Scion’s recent data confirmed that our clothing is a major source of microplastic pollution in that 87 per cent of the microplastics polluting Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland waterways came from synthetic textiles. The plastic waste crisis that’s damaging the natural world’s lifecycle is now present in the foods we eat, and the water we drink—and the chemicals they contain are linked to obesity, fertility and cancer. I have covered this subject more thoroughly in this piece on my viewpoint that recycling is normalising plastic pollution.

People need to know their efforts matter, regardless of how small

As consumers, it is very important to be engaged with our purchases, recirculating and recycling as an ethos because most of the plastic we buy will likely end up in landfill—or the sea and will take hundreds of years to degrade. Lobbying aside, we can really only be active participants in shifting the industry by thinking before we buy. If you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, watch that cerulean blue scene in The Devil Wears Prada. The political powers want us to feel like we cannot have the impact of a multi-national, which, if true, would mean that advertising would not exist. Those companies would not exist. It is our money. Once you understand this, people around you might change, too – it’s how societal shifts begin. To help, firstly, look to see what you can do in your life.

Wash your clothes less Does that garment really need to be washed, or can it be worn on several occasions before laundering?

You can use a filter like the CoraBall, Lint LUV-R or similar The Cora Ball is a pinecone-esque laundry ball that catches microfibres during wash cycles; the XFiltra, LINT Luv-R (an install-yourself washing machine filter) and PlanetCare are filters that attach to the washing machine outflow. The CoraBall and Lint LUV-R have been shown to reduce the number of microfibres in wastewater by an average of 26 per cent and 87 per cent, respectively.

or a GUPPYFRIEND Washing Bag A self-cleaning fabric bag comprised of a specially designed micro-filter material that you launder your clothes in. The GUPPYFRIEND Washing Bag claims to reduce microfibre releases by 90 per cent—the study mentioned above found it collected 54 per cent of microfibres. While the number is significantly lower than projected, it is still the second-highest score, so worth it if a filter is not an option.

Keep clothing in circulation Resale disrupts the wasteful practices of the current fashion industry, challenges our pace of consumption and supports ambitions towards a circular industry.

Where possible, embrace the natural world Science, technology and industry collectively have a BIG role to play in radically reducing the fashion industry’s reliance on non-renewable virgin resources. Constrain yourself to think about materials, opting for garments made from (largely) renewable materials including organic cotton, linen, wool, TENCEL™ and Monocel® and recycled cotton and wools.

The problem of plastics encompasses more than materials and manufacturing. It is also about over-production, the structure of the exploitative fast-fashion model with its accelerated cycle of drops and over-consumption. As consumers, we have a role to play. We can be active, exercise choice and shift demand. Clothes to wear and then landfilled, Mother Earth cannot afford.

Dive deeper

© LAGOM 2024, All rights reserved