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The Microfibre Furore - Clothing Materials Supply Chain

12 July 2016

As of 29th June 2016, Canada has classified microbeads as a toxic substance. They join both the US and the Netherlands in banning the beads from beauty products, due to the prolonged damage they cause to water supplies and marine life.  There’s even an app to check if a particular product contains microbeads.

Sadly, we have recently found out that there is a ‘new’ and equally damaging equivalent to the microbead – the microfibre.

Just a few weeks ago, The Guardian published an article entitled ‘How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply’ which profiled the results of a recent study by researchers at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Their study found that synthetic fabrics from our clothes are making their way from the washing machine into aquatic ecosystems. This research identified that, when synthetic (usually outdoor) jackets and fleeces are washed, on average, 1.7 grams of microfibres (tiny threads shed from fabric) are released from the washing machine, and travel through the waste water systems, where up to 40% then enter rivers, lakes, and oceans. Arguably, the worst part is that these plastic fibres have the potential to bioaccumulate, concentrating toxins in the bodies of larger animals, higher up the food chain.

This research was undertaken on a sample of just five specific jackets, and so while it’s clear that individual manufacturers should conduct their own analyses of their product lines to assess their contributions to microsynthetic fibre pollution, it is indicative of yet another sustainability risk that should be on the radars of clothing retailers and their manufacturing supply chain.

And this latest research throws a bit of a metaphorical spanner in the works for brands like Patagonia and Polartec, who have been using recycled plastic bottles as a fibre feedstock in recent years. As advocates of the circular economy, this form of recycling plastic has typically been seen by those taking a leadership role in the sustainable clothing sector as an innovative way to repurpose waste streams into valuable secondary commodity sources. Patagonia is, however, part of a working group convened by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) which is studying the issue and taking steps to figure out the impacts that material choices and products could have on the environment at every step in their lifecycle.

To also touch on the chemical element of fashion, just last week, at the meeting of Competent Authorities for REACH and CLP, the European Commission proposed 'fast-track' restrictions on CMRs – 286 carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic substances – in textiles. The draft proposal is for these restrictions to happen in two phases, the first focusing on those textiles which make direct contact with the skin; the restrictions would mean these substances added to the REACH restricted substances list. This is an announcement which could significantly impact on the clothing and fashion sector and its choice of raw materials in manufacturing.

Circular Economy ambitions in the clothing sector

At Anthesis, we have been working with clients to help support their circular economy ambitions and mitigate environmental impacts in the clothing sector for several years, and we have a well-defined offer of services which covers the full life cycle, such as chemical footprinting for fashion. Most recently, we’ve been increasing our focus on water in the clothing supply chain, in response to rising concerns about water resources, the use of hazardous chemicals and environmental impacts.

For example, and also relevant to outdoor clothing manufacturers and brand owners, we recently undertook a study for the Textile Centre of Excellence – to compare the environmental impact of two fabric waterproofing treatment processes, including consumption of energy, chemicals and water.

One waterproofing treatment was based upon traditional techniques using fluorochemical (PFC) finishes – which are under scrutiny for toxicity and bioaccumulation issues, and a subject of Greenpeace’s “Detox” initiative; while the other treatment used an advanced plasma and laser-based dry fabric treatment system (termed ‘MLSE[1]’). The results were powerful; data collection and analysis showed an equivalence of the two systems in terms of fabric waterproofing performance and wash resistance; and yet the MLSE process showed ~99.6% reduction in energy usage compared to the traditional process and ~91% reduction in overall carbon impact – alongside the complete elimination of the use of PFCs or other hazardous chemicals, and zero generation of pollutants and other harmful emissions.

So, while it’s clear that there are many players in the apparel industry already making great strides in understanding, and reducing, the whole life cycle impacts of clothing products, news over recent weeks is a reminder that the market place in which we operate is constantly changing as innovation and new science changes the landscape. For manufacturers and retailers trying to understand the lasting environmental legacy of their products, this constant shifting requires foresight and the ability to scan the horizon and respond appropriately.

Please contact our Director Debbie Hitchen for more information on Anthesis and the apparel industry, or alternatively, fill in our enquiry form below.

[1] Multiple Laser Surface Enhancement

 

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