Today marks World Oceans Day, an annual reminder of the crucial role the oceans play as the basis of all life and regulation of our biosphere. This year’s theme ‘Life and Livelihoods’ puts a spotlight on the often undervalued interconnectedness between our oceans and the future existence and lives of the human species.
Oceans cover approximately 70% of the planet’s surface providing 50-70% of the planet’s oxygen and a home to much of the world’s biodiversity. (1) When it comes to livelihoods, by 2030 it is estimated that 40 million people will be directly employed by ocean-related sectors including that of the food and medicinal industries. (2) However, with 90% of large fish species now endangered and 50% of coral reefs destroyed, society is threatening the oceans’ ability to sustain itself as well as those who depend upon its services. (3) Going forward key stakeholders must now come together to determine the right balance whereby humanity can live prosperously whilst allowing our oceans to self-operate and replenish.
THE FASHION INDUSTRY
For too long the fashion industry has directly contributed to ocean pollution and the destruction of marine ecosystems in more ways than one. Today, microfibres shed from synthetic textile fibres when laundered are believed to present one of the largest threats to our oceans and its ecosystems, however further research is needed on this to fully understand the true extent of their impact. In addition, the fashion industry is a significant contributor to the depletion of vital water sources and pollutive chemicals.
The fashion industry is currently responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide. (4) Despite developments made to restrict the use of hazardous substances, textile dying and manufacturing processes still require an abundance of chemicals which often end up in our waters and oceans.
MICROFIBRES ARE POLLUTING OUR OCEANS
According to research, synthetic fibres are the largest primary source of microplastic accounting for 35% of microplastics released into our oceans. (5) Today, almost two-thirds of clothes produced are made from synthetic textiles derived from nonrenewable fossil fuels including polyester, acrylic and nylon. Despite the industry benefits presented by synthetic fibres such as their durability, recycling potential, availability and low cost, synthetic fibres are the core culprit of microfibres produced by the fashion industry. Microfibre shed can happen at any stage of the product lifecycle however it is the washing phase which has the greatest impact on our oceans. Whether it be the washing processes during the manufacturing stage or consumer use, it is estimated that over 9 million microfibres are shed in a single wash load eventually ending up in our rivers and oceans threatening marine habitats worldwide. (6) Recent evidence has also found that synthetic microfibres are increasingly accumulating in remote locations, posing a greater impact on how effectively greenhouse gases are sequested by oceans.
SO HOW CAN BRANDS ACT TO MINIMISE OCEAN MICROPLASTICS?
1. Incorporate recycled fibres
While increasing the percentage of recycled inputs in materials doesn’t eradicate the issue of microfibres, it does however extend the lifecycle of fibres produced reducing reliance on virgin polyester production. New innovative materials such as ECONYL presents just one recycled alternative to virgin nylon that is made entirely from waste. (7)
2. Consider switching to natural fibres
Unlike with synthetic-based materials, all fibres shed from natural materials such as cotton, wool, leather, down and silk will breakdown naturally in marine environments. However, this does not mean natural fibres come without other challenges. When reconsidering your material mix it is important that you holistically evaluate the associated social and environmental costs related to each option to ensure a switch to a lower impact material. Impacts related to chemical use and water consumption at both farming and processing stages must be considered when being mindful of our oceans.
3. Educate consumers on washing practices
Brands and retailers have a responsibility to empower consumers on best practice when it comes to simple action such as a washing. Washing less or hand washing are just a few ways to effectively minimise microfibre shed. Fuller loads, washing similar fabrics together and opting for liquid detergent over powders also reduce friction (another route cause of additional fibre shed). It is also important to educate consumers to use lower wash temperatures alongside shorter washing cycles and to explore washing filter options which can act to further reduce microfibre release. (8)
4. Explore new innovations
New materials are constantly being developed but require investment to become commercially available at scale. Brands and retailers are encouraged to stay alert of developments and where possible invest in the scaling of material innovation that may present the industry with lower impact alternatives. Research suggests that less microfibres are released from tight woven materials than those with looser structures. (9) We also encourage brands and retailers to work within their own supply chains to identify opportunities within own processes for innovation, e.g., fitting washing filters which capture microfibre shed.
Alongside this year’s World Oceans Day theme, the UN has launched the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development to strengthen efforts around sustainable ocean management in a bid to achieve SDG14; Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources by 2030. (10) Though, despite promising movements in ocean science and technologies on the wider spectrum, only 20% of fashion brands have a strategy in place to minimise microfibres release. (11) With only 9 years to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the fashion industry must urgently outline a clear roadmap of actions.
1. United Nations. (2021) World Oceans Day 2021.
2. United Nations. (2021) World Oceans Day 2021.
3. United Nations. (2021) World Oceans Day 2021.
4. World Economic Forum. (2020) These facts show how unsustainable the fashion industry is.
5. OECD. (2020) Workshop on Microplastics from Synthetic Textiles
6. Ocean Clean Wash. (2021). Microfiber pollution through washing & wearing.
7. ECONYL. (2021) About us.
8. Good On You. (2020) What Do About Microfibres in Clothing.
9. Good On You. (2020) What Do About Microfibres in Clothing.
10. United Nations. (2021) World Oceans Day 2021.
11. Fashion Revolution. (2020) Fashion Transparency Index 2020.