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There are No Quick Solutions to Fashion’s Microfiber Pollution Problem

Despite growing consumer awareness of how microfibers and microplastics are polluting aquatic ecosystems and the at-risk creatures that reside within, so far slam-dunk solutions have remained elusive for government, fashion industry and research bodies seeking to address and remedy the environmental hazard.

Today much of the clothing in consumer closets contains synthetic fabrics, especially polyester, which when laundered is widely thought to leak microfibers into the wash water that eventually finds its way into the earth’s waterways, wreaking havoc on fragile ecosystems.

At Texworld USA on Tuesday, Tricia Carey, Lenzing’s director of business development for apparel, denim, credited social media for shining the spotlight on the problem of pollution through “compelling” images such as National Geographic’s photograph of a seahorse intertwined with a Q-tip. With consumers tuned into these issues, and specific targets like the drinking straw ban spawning numerous hashtags like #skipthestraw, #nostrawplease and #stopsucking, the apparel industry will be incentivized to act quickly to stay in customers’ good graces, Carey added. “The pressure coming from the consumer side will certainly help to speed that up.”

To date, three states have attempted to regulate microfibers through legislation, with little success, said the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s (AAFA) government relations representative Kristen Kern. A California bill that sought to include product labels calling out garments made with 50 percent of more synthetic fibers was scuttled earlier this year. Kern said she worked with legislators to remove one particularly divisive part of the bill: a call for those same garment labels to recommend hand washing versus laundering by machine.

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The hand-washing recommendation not only is unsupported by science, Kern said, but could actually cause more of the polluting microfibers to end up in bodies of water due to the lack of proper filters in most sinks.

“We immediately stepped in knowing how costly and detrimental this would be to [AAFA] member companies and to our industry,” Kern said. Most troubling, she explained, was how California’s proposed bill cast apparel brands in a bad light—but failed to include actions consumers could take to address the microfiber problem.

As a result, numerous stakeholders “weren’t able to get behind such a large impact of a bill without a very visible impact on the problem,” Kern said, adding, “That’s why that bill has lost some traction in this session.”

Connecticut’s legislative proposal was scaled down to a study bill bringing together industry and environmental organizations to start a dialogue on ways to approach solutions going forward, and New York’s effort never even received a hearing—but “did indicate [the state’s] desire to open the conversation on the topic of microfibers,” Kern said.

Prior to proposing solutions, those in the industry need to understand exactly what the problem is. Brand partners appreciate Lenzing’s commitment to sustainability and manmade, responsibly sourced cellulosic fibers, and yet some of the $2 billion company’s activewear brand clients expressed concerns as to whether other fabrics—not just synthetics and polyester—were contributing to the microfiber problem, Carey said. “How much are other fibers shedding? Because any time you trade off with another fiber, that’s what’s happening.”

Though swapping out synthetics for a less detrimental fiber seems like a quick fix, that could unleash challenges of its own, plus potential implications for fiber demand and supply.

“The interconnectedness of all the fibers we’re using is something that people started to realize,” Carey explained.

What’s more, Carey added, everyone wants to know whether the solution will come via washing machine manufacturers, filtration systems or at the apparel product design level.

“It’s important as a designer or product developer you understand the nuances of what you are buying—and to question that,” Carey noted. “That’s where I see education being so important, so you’re armed with the right knowledge to ask the right questions.”

To date, research efforts, perhaps the most important initial component in identifying actionable solutions, have been fragmented. Kern said AAFA has been working with researchers at the University of Santa Barbara, which also has future studies planned, and MIT experts have been studying microfibers as well. Trade groups like the Outdoor Industry Association and the National Council of Textile Organization have been looking into the issue as well, Carey added. Kern encouraged governments interested in this particular pollution crisis to sponsor related research, noting that California enacted an AAFA-supported research bill that would study the existence of microfiber in the state’s waterways.

Though it’s clear microfibers and microplastics are polluting oceans and other areas, questions remain about how exactly they’re ending up there. Are larger pieces of plastic carried on the waves breaking down into microscopic particles? Are microfibers from other industries contributing to the contamination? Only with methodical research will the answers come to light, Kern said.

“We don’t want consumers to feel like the industry is hiding something. We want consumers to trust products that the industry is providing,” she said, “and we want to do that in way that’s providing accurate and scientifically proven information.

“Supporting research at this stage allows us to be transparent with the consumer,” Kern said.