Why I’m Boycotting The Clothing Industry

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. [2]”

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? 

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

See also:

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.

Watch Unseen: The impact of microplastics on our ocean and ourselves above. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition has released a new short documentary film Unseen: The impact of microplastics on our ocean and ourselves. With stunning footage of plastic pollution in Indonesia, the film explores the problem of microplastics through interviews with scientists, explorers, and environmental activists. 

“Plastic particles smaller than 5 mm pose a massive environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways,” said Abby Barrows, a marine research scientist with Adventure Scientists and College of the Atlantic, who is featured in the film and has analyzed thousands of water samples from around the world for microplastics.

“Plastic is affecting the health of thousands of marine species,” said Steve Trott, a scientist from the Watamu Development Association. “This accumulations of microplastics is being ingested by the largest of the filter feeders right down to the smaller organisims, the microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain.”

Take Action: text ‘microplastic’ to 52886 (U.S. only) to get involved. 

See also: New Research Shows Plastic Fibers in Drinking Water

Take Action to stop plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition. 

83 percent of drinking water samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic plastic fibers.

Tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” have been found in the far corners of the world – in the oceans, in remote lakes and rivers, in fish, salt, and honey, and in the air we breathe. But until now one research area – our drinking water – remained unexamined.

According to new research published today by Orb Media, tap water and plastic bottled water in cities on five continents is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers. Scientists say they don’t know how these fibers reach household taps, or what their health risks might be, but experts suspect plastic fibers may transfer toxic chemicals when consumed by animals and humans.

Visit EWG’s Water Filter Guide

“The contamination defies geography: The number of fibers found in a sample of tap water from the Trump Grill, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, was equal to that found in samples from Beirut,” reads the Orb report. Orb also found microfibers in bottled water, and in homes that use reverse-osmosis filters. 83 percent of samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic plastic fibers.

“This is frightening information; it’s time for all of us to wake up,” said Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen of the new research. “Microfibers are insidious. If we’re finding them in everything around us, the obvious solution is to go to the source, to refocus our energy, and to move away from toxic plastics.”

What does the new report mean for our drinking water? Jane Patton, Managing Director of PPC advised contacting officials to make your voice heard. “We believe access to clean water is a human right. Make sure your city government knows that you expect them to keep your drinking water safe. Stand up and say ‘I rely on this resource.’ Remember that we have a structure in place to influence the cleanliness of our tap water and that is not the case with the plastic bottled water industry.”

We believe access to clean water is a human right. Make sure your city government knows that you expect them to keep your drinking water safe. Stand up and say ‘I rely on this resource.’ Remember that we have a structure in place to influence the cleanliness of our tap water and that is not the case with the plastic bottled water industry.

— Jane Patton, Managing Director of PPC

Microfibers in Our Food

The news about plastic microfibers in our drinking water comes on the heels of a study by Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) published in May 2017, showing microfibers in plankton, both farmed and wild mussels, sea salt, and even honey.

According to PSF, microfibers can enter our water supply through machine washing synthetic clothing such as fleece, polyester, and nylon. “It appears that 34.8 percent of primary microplastics released by machine washing synthetic clothes ultimately ends up in the environment,” explained Maria Westerbos, director of Plastic Soup Foundation.

Clothing fibers are often too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment plants and are discharged into streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually the ocean. “Plastic particles smaller than 5 mm pose a massive environmental and human health risk when they enter our waterways,” said Abby Barrows, a marine research scientist with Adventure Scientists and College of the Atlantic, who has analyzed thousands of water samples from around the world for microplastics.

Microfibers in our waterways are consumed by fish and other marine animals. They are one component of a growing list of plastic pollution causing more than 1,220 animal species to suffer, said Westerbos. “It can have myriad consequences: ranging from a worsened condition and internal wounds to starvation and dehydration.”

What does this mean for human health? “I would not be surprised if we start to find microplastics on or in food that we consume daily,” said Barrows of the scope of the problem. According to PSF, consuming fish and shellfish that contain tiny particles of plastic could lead to health risks. The European Food Safety Authority already considers microplastics as a threat to our food safety.

“This should knock us into our senses. We knew that this plastic is coming back to us through our food chain. Now we see it is coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have a way out?

— Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank

How do we solve a global problem?

All over the world, grassroots advocates are working to stop microfiber pollution. The international Life+ Mermaids consortium, recently performed research into microfiber loss in washing machines, and conducted successful experiments with bio-based coatings made from shrimp (chitosan) and plants (pectin). These experiments managed to reduce fiber loss by an impressive 50 percent, but how this can translate to households around the world is still unknown.

In the U.S., the Cora Ball is now being produced after a successful crowdfunding campaign. The natural filtration system of coral formed the inspiration for this ball, which filters tiny particles out of the rinse water in the washing machine. Another example is the Guppy Friend, a special bag for the washing machine that traps microfibers and prevents them from reaching the water supply.

Slowing the wastewater treatment process would allow for the capture of more plastic fibers, said Kartik Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, to Orb Media. This coupled with the fashion industry moving away from synthetic fabrics could stop the flow of plastic microfibers into the environment.

“It is worrying… that so far we have hardly seen any effort from the clothing industry to tackle the problem at the source,” said Westerbos. “Although all the grassroots solutions we have been seeing are fantastic, it is even more important that we see change in the clothes themselves. Instead, the only development we can see is that more and more brands are creating clothing from possibly dangerous ocean plastics, which might disintegrate even quicker.”

“Downcycling used plastics into clothing is not the solution,” agreed Cohen. “This simply continues the cycle, eventually releasing plastic fibers into the environment, animals, our food sources and ultimately, into us. The fact that we’re finding microfibers in bottled water and tap water is a wake up call. On an individual level, if you have the ability to filter your drinking water, please do. On a larger scale, demand that your local water municipality improve their filtration systems to address microfibers immediately. Fashion industry, hear us: if you are making clothing out of synthetics (plastics) you are part of the problem.”

On an individual level, if you have the ability to filter your drinking water, please do. On a larger scale, demand that your local water municipality improve their filtration systems to address microfibers immediately. Fashion industry, hear us: if you are making clothing out of synthetics (plastics) you are part of the problem.

— Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of PPC

Solving the global plastic pollution problem will take collaboration between individuals, companies, and governments working to stop the flow of new plastic being created. A global shift away from a Linear Economy (take, make, dispose)  toward the Circular Economy (make, use, return) will ensure that manufacturers and designers create goods, clothes, packaging, and materials that do less damage to the earth. While incineration or “waste-to-energy” is sometimes hailed as a plastic pollution solution, this method poses considerable risk to the health and environment. Read more on the problems with incineration.

Together, we can take action to stop plastic pollution around the world. “Since the problem of plastic was created exclusively by human beings through our indifference, it can be solved by human beings by paying attention to it,” said Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to Orb Media. “Now what we need is a determination to get it done before it gets us.”

If outside the United States, use the below letter to mail or email your official.

Dear Official,

According to new research tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” have been found in our drinking water. Experts suspect plastic fibers may transfer toxic chemicals when consumed by humans. Microfibers enter our water supply through machine washing synthetic clothing such as fleece, polyester, and nylon. Clothing fibers are often too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment plants and are discharged into streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually the ocean, where they harm our environment and marine life.

I believe access to clean water is a human right. I ask you to keep our drinking water safe, and to explore methods to slow wastewater treatment in our communities to filter out plastic microfibers. Our environment, waterways and oceans, and animal and human health is at stake. 

See also: 15 Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution Now

Join our global Coalition. 

By Beth Terry 

In March, I wrote about microfiber laundry pollution from synthetic clothing and mentioned that soon there would be a special bag available called Guppy Friend to catch those microfibers before they are rinsed down the drain. Well, the bag is now available and the company sent me one to test out.

Guppy Friend is a product developed by the campaign STOP! MICRO WASTE, a German non-profit founded by a group of surfers and nature lovers to find solutions to the microfiber pollution problem. Guppy Friend is just one of their projects, as they recognize that it is only one small part of the solution to a huge problem that will require systemic change on a massive scale, not just a few people conscientiously washing their polyester fleece in a special bag. But for those of you conscientious folk out there who do wear synthetic clothing and want to prevent the fibers from escaping into our waterways, here is one small solution.

Guppy Friend is a synthetic bag (yes, a plastic bag meant to catch plastic fibers) that you fill with synthetic clothing (polyester, acrylic, spandex, lycra, etc.) to wash in the washing machine. When it arrived in plastic packaging, I just sighed. After all these years, people are still packaging products meant to combat plastic pollution in more plastic. It’s just so ingrained in our society that everything must be protected with plastic — even things already made out of plastic!

CATS LOVE GUPPY FRIEND

I freed Guppy Friend from its bag and laid it out on the floor. Immediately, my cats went to work sniffing and scratching at it.  But don’t forget — my cats LOVE to eat plastic! This is one item I will have to keep away from them.

Without reading the instructions, I packed the bag full of polyester fleece clothing. No, not MY polyester fleece. I don’t wear that stuff anymore (and honestly, I think the best solution is just to avoid it.) But I live with someone who does wear it, so there was plenty to experiment with.

NOTE: This is NOT the correct way to fill the bag! Only after stuffing the bag full and finding that the first load did not get clean did I actually read the instructions.

But before that, Soots and Arya went to town on it.

CORRECT WAY TO FILL GUPPY FRIEND: No more than HALF FULL

Removing half the clothing, I placed Guppy Friend in the washer and did a second wash.

I made sure to add other (non-synthetic) clothing to balance out the load.

USE LIQUID SOAP

As per the recommendations on the Guppy Friend site, I used liquid laundry soap rather than powdered in the wash.

What is the brown liquid, you ask? It is my homemade soap nuts laundry liquid, which we’ve been using with great success for several years. In addition to using soap nuts to clean clothes, we use white vinegar in the rinse cycle to make sure clothes rinse clean and to keep the washing machine from developing soap buildup. You can read more about our plastic-free laundry procedures here.

Okay, so laundry cycle completed, I removed the Guppy Friend bag from the machine, took out the clothes, and examined the bag to see if it had caught any fibers. Yep. it did.

There wasn’t a ton of microfiber shedding, but per the Guppy Friend website, that’s to be expected. According to co-founder Alexander Nolte, Gupppy Friend can actually extend the life of your clothing.

It is important to point out that the bag not only captures the broken microfibers, but reduces the mechanical forces that cause the breaking significantly. As a consequence the textiles washed inside Guppyfriend lose a lot less fibers, thus have an extended lifespan.

Most of the fibers collected in a corner of the bag, which was also expected.

DO NOT RINSE!

IMPORTANT: Once your Guppy Friend has collected microfibers, do not rinse it out! That will defeat the entire purpose of using the bag in the first place. (Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but I have a feeling there are folks out there who would rinse it automatically without thinking it through.) Just collect the fuzz with your hands and put it in the trash.

If you have more questions about how to use Guppy Friend, refer the instructions on their website.

PURCHASE GUPPY FRIEND

In Europe, you can purchase Guppy Friend here.  In the United States, you can purchase Guppy Friend from Patagonia.  Alexander Nolte says that other retailers will follow.

TAKE ACTION

To learn more about what you can do to combat microfiber pollution on a larger scale, read my original post and sign The Story of Stuff’s petition to stop microfiber plastic pollution.

Beth Terry blogs at My Plastic Free Life and is the author of the book Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (Skyhorse), a practical guide to ridding your life of plastic. Terry is a PPC founding advisor. 

See also: 15 Ways to Stop Microfiber Pollution Now

Think about all your clothing made of acrylic, nylon, and polyester. Yes, that means fleece, trousers, blouses, socks, and even your beloved yoga pants. Did you know? Every time you wash these synthetic fabrics, millions of microfibers are released into the water. Microfibers are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants, so they end up in our waterways and oceans, where they wreak havoc on marine animals and the environment.

Plastic fibers are now showing up in fish and shellfish sold in in California and Indonesia for human consumption. And one paper showed that microfibers are responsible for 85 percent of shoreline pollution across the globe. How can we stop this pollution?

15. Watch The Story of Stuff’s microfiber movie to learn about the issue.

14. Wash synthetic clothes less frequently and for a shorter duration.

13. Fill up your washing machine. Washing a full load results in less friction between the clothes and fewer fibers released.

12. Consider switching to a liquid laundry soap. Laundry powder “scrubs” and loosens more microfibers.

11. Use a colder wash setting. Higher temperature can damage clothes and release more fibers.

10. Dry spin clothes at low revs. Higher revolutions increase the friction between the clothes.

9. When you clean out your dryer, place lint in the trash instead of washing it down the drain.

8. Consider purchasing a Guppy Friend wash bag. In tests, the bag captured 99 percent of fibers released in the washing process. The bags will soon be available for purchase at Patagonia for $20-30.

7. Purchase a washing machine lint filter. These filters require more of an investment, but they will benefit your septic system and the environment. Check out this one or this one.

6. Speak up and tell clothing designers to choose natural fabrics that aren’t prone to shedding. Sign the petition here!

5. Join Plastic Pollution Coalition to read the latest news and help us get the word out.

4. Tell your friends and family about microfiber pollution.

3. Avoid purchasing cheaply-made, “fast fashion” clothes, whenever possible. 

2. Buy clothes made from natural fibers such as cotton, linen, and wool. Natural fibers will eventually break down in the environment. Plastic fibers will never go away. 

1. Share this article to spread the #StopTheMicrofiber message. We all can do something to help. 

Take the Pledge to Refuse Single-Use Plastic.

Join our global Coalition.

You’ve heard the warnings: By 2025, we are on course to accumulate one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in the ocean, and by 2050, the weight of plastic will have overtaken that of fish. But did you know that among the causes of this possible future scenario is our dirty laundry?

Every time we wash our clothes in a washing machine, synthetic clothes shed small plastic fibers that end up in the water and pollute rivers and oceans because they are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants. A polyester jacket sheds almost 1 million microfibers per wash, according to Ocean Clean Wash (view their video below). 

The Dutch fashion clothing maker G-Star and the Plastic Soup Foundation are now joining forces to stop this process in its tracks with a battle against the microfiber.

“Leading European research recently showed that a fleece releases an incredible 1 million microfibers every time it is washed,” according to Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, in a statement released April 25. “If you imagine that every day a couple of billion people around the world wash their clothing and that almost every item of clothing contains plastic nowadays, you can easily see why it is imperative to deal with this cause of the plastic soup immediately.” Westerbos further stated, “G-Star is the first fashion brand that recognizes and supports the need for innovation.”

The Plastic Soup Foundation and G-Star are calling on other fashion companies, washing
machine manufacturers and the textile industry to support the international Ocean Clean Wash. The signatories of this initiative will contribute to the development of one or more innovative solutions to prevent the release of plastic fibers from garments in the future, such as fabrics that do not release microfibers, or washing machine filters that capture the released fibers. Technological center LEITAT collaborates in the initiative to research the technical feasibility of the solutions proposed.

Capt. Charles Moore of Algalita Marine Research and Education said in an email in response to the news, “A huge challenge to change clothing and bedding worldwide, but exactly the kind of radical change that will be necessary on a global scale.”


Photo: C. Jason Childs, Jimbaran Bay