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Here’s How Fashion Brands Can Go Plastic Free Beyond July

July 12, 2023

Catherine Salfino

Now that we’re fully involved in the hazy days of summer, it means pool time, barbecues and, more recently, Plastic Free July. This initiative by the Plastic Free Foundation aims to see “a world free of plastic waste.” While the fashion industry plays its own part in the problem, it can also be part of the solution simply by employing natural fibers like cotton.

Wait, you may say. Fashion and plastic waste? See, when people think of plastic waste, something like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the largest accumulation of ocean plastic on the planet – might come to mind. Or maybe they consider the millions of tons of plastic that are dumped into our landfills, be they plastic bottles, bags, utensils, or shower curtains. But the fashion industry is responsible for its own share of plastic pollution, in the form of microplastics, due to the industry’s reliance on petroleum-based fibers like polyester, nylon, acrylic, and spandex.

When purchasing clothing or textiles for your home, choose sustainably sourced natural materials as much as possible. Try to stay away from fast fashion, as this model only encourages overconsumption of clothes, especially synthetic ones like polyester.

The Plastic Soup Foundation

See, polyester is the most widely used fiber in the world, according to EarthDay.org. However, it creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during production, and microplastic fiber pollution from the time it’s worn to well after it is discarded. 

The Plastic Soup Foundation, a non-profit marine conservation organization, says when fossil fuel-based synthetic textiles are worn, washed, or dried, the tiny plastic particles from the garments are released into both the wash water and the air. The foundation says microplastic particles have been found from as high as Mount Everest to as deep as the Mariana Trench , which is almost 7 miles deep in the Pacific Ocean. This means the particles are in our food chain, our water, and in the air we breathe. By 2050, it is projected there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

And that’s just the microplastic particles emitted during the normal wear of a garment. Now take into account that every year, U.S. consumers alone discard more than 34 billion pounds of used textiles, according to a Boston University study. Of that, 66 percent winds up in landfills. The problem with sending billions of pounds of mostly polyester to landfills? A study from the University of Wollongong in Australia says a polyester shirt can take up to two centuries to decompose depending on the manufacturing quality, fabric thickness, and material compositions. While sitting in landfills, these synthetic textiles can leach microplastics and harmful chemicals into the ground and water supplies.

But that’s not the case with natural fibers like cotton. Cotton biodegrades relatively quickly because it is made of cellulose, an organic compound that is the basis of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers. These cotton fibers break down naturally in landfills, similar to other crops such as food or plants.

Cotton also biodegrades quickly in water. In a study comparing the degradation rate between cotton and polyester, cotton had 76 percent degradation after 243 days, while polyester showed just 4 percent degradation. Further research showed cotton will continue to degrade over time, while polyester’s degradation plateaued after the test time.

As the microplastic pollution problem has grown, so has consumer awareness. In 2018, 27 percent of consumers said they were aware of microfibers from clothing polluting our oceans and waters, according to the 2023 Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. That figure has grown to 38 percent. Further, the majority of consumers (63 percent) who are aware of microplastic pollution know that much of this is caused by washing clothes made from synthetic fibers.

The number of consumers who say their awareness of microfiber pollution will factor into their clothing purchase decisions has increased from 60 percent in 2018 to 66 percent this year, according to Monitor™ research. And nearly two-thirds of consumers (63 percent) say they are bothered by brands and retailers using synthetic fibers in their clothing because of microfiber pollution.

While the fashion industry has long talked about sustainability, it may just take government regulation to make it actually happen. Earlier this year, the EU announced a proposal that would essentially crack down on fast fashion in an effort to promote goods that are more sustainably produced, longer lasting, and easier to recycle. It is no secret that fast fashion brands flood the market on a weekly, if not daily basis with inexpensive, lower-quality clothes primarily made of petroleum-based textiles.  

The EU Commission’s report said “the trends of using garments for even shorter periods before throwing them away contribute the most to unsustainable patterns of overproduction and overconsumption. Such trends have become known as fast fashion, enticing consumers to keep on buying clothing of inferior quality and lower price, produced rapidly in response to the latest trends.”

Included in the EU Commission’s proposal are labeling requirements that would explain how easily recyclable and environmentally friendly a garment is to consumers. Currently, 99 percent of “recycled polyester” is made from plastic bottles, not discarded polyester garments, according to a report from the Textile Exchange. And when washed, manmade fiber garments can possibly shed nearly 730,000 synthetic particles per wash.

This intention to include labeling requirements is decidedly germane to the sustainability conversation. According to the Monitor™ research, 55 percent of consumers say they would be more likely to check fiber content labels before purchasing clothing to avoid apparel made of synthetics because of microplastic fiber pollution.

That’s why fashion brands should note that the overwhelming majority of consumers (86 percent) consider cotton to be environmentally safe, according to the Cotton Council International (CCI) and Cotton Incorporated 2021 Global Sustainability Survey.

This is especially poignant in the microplastic pollution discussion. Because, while all garments shed microfibers, petroleum-based textiles like polyester can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, as mentioned above.

Both consumers and members of the fashion industry might take heed of the recommendations from The Plastic Soup Foundation, which states, “As consumers, we often feel hopeless when we hear about problems on such a global scale. When purchasing clothing or textiles for your home, choose sustainably sourced natural materials as much as possible. Try to stay away from fast fashion, as this model only encourages overconsumption of clothes, especially synthetic ones like polyester.”