By Kara Allen
I was baking a Spanish olive oil cake a few weeks ago and ended up spilling a full cup of olive oil down the front of my favorite yoga pants, the Cecilia Knicker, a pair of hemp and organic cotton blend yoga pants from Prana which they no longer make. Unfortunately, I was so consumed with cooking that I didn’t try to wash the oil out immediately and the pants now have a massive oil stain that won't budge.
I went online to look for a pair of replacement yoga pants and I had one very simple requirement: the pants had to be made from 100 percent natural fibers. Why? I learned last year about how our synthetic clothing isn’t just making us stinky (compared to natural fibers that resist bacterial growth and can go longer in between washes) but far worse, synthetic fabrics are filling our oceans with plastic microfibers that wash out of our clothing made from polyester, nylon, acrylic, lycra, spandex, etc. Those fibers act like sponges for toxic chemicals like DDT and BPA and then end up in our seafood and water sources. If you're not familiar with this issue, check out this video from The Story of Stuff Project that explains the issue in very simple terms.
Back to my online shopping adventures … I thought this task of finding yoga pants would be simple; I went to Prana’s website, who I know use organic cotton and hemp in many of their items, and searched for yoga pants filtering down by Fabric = Organic Cotton. I was dismayed to learn that every single pair of yoga pants made with organic cotton had polyester or Lycra blended in. Several hours of online shopping later and I learned that you simply cannot find yoga pants without at least 5 percent Lycra or spandex. This was true even at companies advertising 100 percent organic cotton where their clothing were actually actually only 95 percent Organic Cotton and 5 percent Lycra / Spandex; I learned that when you see companies advertising 100 percent organic cotton, it often means that all of the cotton used was organic but not all of the fabric used in the garment is organic cotton.
Frustrated, I changed my search from yoga pants to drawstring capris. If I could not find yoga pants from all natural fibers, perhaps I could find some loose drawstring capris made from linen or cotton jersey, which would not require any Spandex or Lycra to be blended in. I went to the pants section of clothing companies like Patagonia, Prana, REI, Backcountry.com and used fabric filters like "Eco-Friendly" or "Organic Cotton" only to find a ton of recycled polyester blended into all of the pants I looked at. In my opinion, branding recycled polyester as "eco-friendly" or "sustainable" is a classic example of greenwashing, which for those of you not familiar with the term, is defined as "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image."
Clothing companies claim recycled polyester is sustainable because they are only looking at the manufacturing part of the garment's lifecycle and not looking at what happens once it leaves their factories. Prana's page on recycled polyester is a great example of this viewpoint, neglecting to mention the microfiber pollution problem that polyester proposes: "Protect your sea salt! If you use sea salt to spice up your meals, you’ve likely been sprinkling plastic on your food as well. A recent study found that 16 sea salt brands from 8 countries contained plastic. "
Prana's claim that recycled polyester will protect sea salt is laughable given what we know about how plastic microfibers enter our oceans and waterways. They also claim, "Recycled polyester is a better alternative because it relies on a recycled material, which means you don’t have to factor in all the toxins and energy used in manufacturing the plastic in the first place. So less energy, aka Greenhouse Gas emissions and water, are required to manufacturing compared to virgin materials."
I will agree with Prana that recycled polyester is better than virgin polyester, but that does not make it sustainable. To me, sustainability means that we could sustain human life forever on our planet using this method. Polluting our oceans and drinking water with plastic microfibers that impact marine health and likely human health is not sustainable. According to the WWF, over 3 billion people rely upon seafood as their primary source of protein. If that protein source is compromised due to fish bio-accumulating plastics and other toxic chemicals that bind to plastics, we risk poisoning a major food source for our planet.
Prana are not alone in greenwashing recycled polyester; they are simply one example in a sea of clothing companies who are blending some kind of synthetic fabric into everything they make. In speaking to the owner of a boutique denim shopping Oakland, California, I learned that it is harder and harder to find 100 percent cotton denim and many brands are now blending in polyester. I looked in my closet and learned that the fitted Lucky Jeans that I bought a few years ago second-hand are made from 100 percent cotton (and have plenty of stretch), have now been modified to include 6 percent polyester and 1 percent lycra. American Apparel shirts used to be made from 100 percent cotton but now most companies have switched to the cheaper 50/50 shirt, which is 50 percent polyester and 50 percent cotton. Even Patagonia, who have funded research on microfiber pollution and are extremely aware of the issues as they outline here in their blog, still blend polyester or spandex into almost all of their pants.
Who is responsible for this solving this issue? Right now, clothing manufacturers are looking to others to solve the issue. One proposed option for solving the microfiber problem is for washing machine companies to install a lint filter on washing machines to capture the microfibers. Japan has these in their washing machines and they capture up to 93 percent of microfibers, but a significant amount of microfibers still get through. If this was our best option, it raises the question of who would be responsible for the cost of retrofitting our existing washing machines and how many people would actually add the filters in. Another proposed solution is for consumers to spend $40 on a bag called the Guppy Bag that will capture the microfibers so clothing manufacturers can keep using inexpensive materials to manufacture cheap clothing for us; however, very few people in the grand scheme of things will buy that bag and there is no way to enforce its use so it is not a reliable solution long-term. Another proposed solution is that public utilities responsible for sewage try and filter out the microfibers, but as with the lint filters in washing machines, even the finest filters have proven ineffective.
So what can you do about this?
- Make your voice heard. Contact your favorite clothing companies that are using synthetic fabrics and ask them to make a change; without consumer pressure, they will not change their offerings and it will continue to be nearly impossible to find clothing made from 100 percent natural fibers. You can also sign this petition from The Story of Stuff Project or send a letter to your representatives using this form from Plastic Pollution Coalition.
- Vote with your pocketbook. I am personally refusing to buy any new clothing that contains microfibers like polyester, nylon, acrylic, lycra or spandex; clothing companies will not get rich on my dollar while our future is put at risk by their negligence. Let brands know why you are no longer patronizing them so they can adjust course appropriately and provide us with better options in the future.
- Educate your friends and family. Share this blog with your friends on social media because surprisingly few people know about the microfiber pollution problem. I only learned about it last year, although the outdoor and clothing industries had been discussing it for far longer.
- Wash your clothing less often. The less you wash your synthetic clothing, the less microfibers that will end up in our oceans. Air your clothing outside in the sunshine to remove odors. Spot treat clothing that gets a bit dirty versus washing the whole garment. Wear an apron when you cook to protect your clothes from getting soiled.
- Make existing clothes last. Since I am not buying any new clothing containing synthetic fibers and it is extremely challenging to find clothing with 100 percent natural fibers, it is critical that I make my existing clothes last. Check out my blog for 7 Ways to Make Your Clothes Last for my tips and tricks.
- 15 Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution Now
- The Ocean Conservancy’s Microfiber Action Roadmap
- Connecting the Threads: A Microfibers Research Guide
- Shedding Responsibility: The Microfiber Epidemic
- Listen to this podcast from How to Save the World on Fashion + Sustainability
- Source: Maria, P., et al. (2014). Study Concerning the Pollution of the Marine Habitats with the Microplastic Fibres. Journal of Environmental Protection and Ecology, 15(3), 916-923)
Kara Allen of San Francisco, California, blogs at My Eco Legacy a site dedicated to helping others living more sustainably, one small change at a time.