It’s no secret that wearing clothes made with synthetic fibers come with a myriad of problems. From carcinogenic chemicals used to treat and dye the material, to high energy use in making the fibers – we know that oftentimes synthetic clothes aren’t good for us, or for the environment.
At least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and 25% of the world’s pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. This causes irreversible damage to people and the environment, and still two thirds of a garment’s carbon footprint will occur after it is purchased.
But ecologist Mark Browne has just shaken the metaphorical clothing-boat even more, when he revealed in a new study of that 85% of the human-made material found on shorelines were microfibers that matched the types of material commonly used in synthetic fibers.
Microplastics, which are defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as plastic fragments 5mm or smaller, are abundant in all 5 of the major ocean gyres, including the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.
Studies have shown that small organisms ingest these toxic microplastics and are then eaten by bigger organisms, which are then eaten by even bigger organisms… Eventually we eat those organisms which have the toxic chemicals in their systems.
But Browne’s study has opened up a whole new area of microplastic pollution that had yet to go unstudied: Synthetic fibers. Browne sampled wastewater from washing machines and estimated that around 1,900 individual fibers can be rinsed off just one synthetic garment.
No points for guessing where these fibers end up.
Clothing Brands and Browne
But clothing brands aren’t quick to pick up on Browne’s warnings.
After realizing the potential damage that the fibers could have on the environment, Browne reached out to prominent clothing brands for help.
He wanted to map out the flow of synthetic fibers from clothing manufacturing to the ocean. His research, he hoped, would help create better textile designs that could reduce the number of toxic fibers entering the water systems.
But no one – not Nike, Polartec or Patagonia – was interested.
In 2013 after Brown launched a program called Benign by Design, one brand – Eileen Fisher – offered to support him. The company’s $10,000 grant has supported a section of Browne’s research over the past year.
However, Fisher’s products are already 90% natural fibers.
What Browne really needs is the big clothing giants who rely more heavily on synthetic fibers to come forward and invest in the research.
But Browne is going to have to fight to be heard.
The clothing industry has come under pressure in recent months for its poor environmental standards. And there’s a chance that Browne’s important research on synthetic fiber wastewater may be lost in all the noise.
All this might mean that Browne’s extremely important research may go unheeded for some time.