What is it about “fast fashion” that makes it so fast? Most people might use the term to encapsulate a retail model built on high-turnover speeds of production, cheap materials and even cheaper labor.
For Maria Westerbos, founder and director of the Plastic Soup Foundation in Amsterdam, however, no label more apt exists for garments designed only for the short term, such as the blouse she purchased from Zara for the purpose of running it through the wash.
Composed of 100 percent polyester in the front and a cotton-modal blend in the back, the garment shed so many tiny fibers per spin—an average of 307.6 milligrams per kilogram of laundry (mg/kg)—that it started to disintegrate after a few rounds in the washing machine.
“This is what you call fast fashion,” Westerbos quipped. “It disappears in front of your eyes.”
The Plastic Soup Foundation enlisted experts at the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) to examine clothing from Zara, Adidas, Nike and H&M as a part of a study to understand how microfiber loss during washing can contribute to microplastic pollution in rivers, lakes and oceans.
T-shirts from Adidas and Nike, both derived from 100 percent polyester, generated similar numbers of microfibers per wash: 124.05 mg/kg and 125 mg/kg, respectively, Westerbos noted. A top from H&M containing 65 percent polyester lost an average of 48.6 mg in microfibers per kg of laundry—still high, but “better” in relation to the other brands, she said.
IPCB-CNR used a methodology similar to the one Plymouth University employed in its 2016 investigation of synthetic textiles, which can slough off as many as 700,000 fibers per cycle at standard washing-machine temperatures, according to the school’s researchers.
Both the IPCB-CNR and Plymouth University weighed the filters before and after laundering to determine the number of microfibers released in grams. The main difference between the two, Westerbos said, was that IPCB-CNR used three filters (with mesh sizes of 400, 60 and 20 micrometers) and laundered whole garments, while Plymouth University availed itself of just one filter (with a mesh size 25 micrometers) and swatches of fabrics. Still, the outcomes of both projects were comparable, she added.
Further details of the study are forthcoming, but a benchmark will have to be developed before true comparisons about yarns can be made.
“IPCB-CNR wrote a scientific paper on the performed tests which is being peer-reviewed and will soon be published,” Westerbos said. “Although the outcome is shocking and three out of the four fashion brands perform ‘badly,’ we cannot completely compare them. It all depends on what fabric has been used and how the yarn is made: what combination of materials, but also if the fibers are long or short, or if the yarn is woven or knitted.”
The onus to create such a benchmark lies with the brands, she said, but “no fashion brand in the world is willing to pay for that.” (To be fair, the apparel industry isn’t completely oblivious to the problem; it’s just taking its time to address it.)
“It makes me so sad,” she added.