Under Armour is going full-throttle on drastically cutting back on microfiber pollution and it appears to be paying off.
The activewear company has been awarded a SEAL Business Sustainability Award in the Sustainable Innovation category in recognition of its new approach to highlighting the microfiber shed-rate industry-wide and on materials and textiles it sources. The company’s goal is to have 75 percent of its high performance athletic apparel, footwear and accessories made of low-shed materials by 2030.
SEAL stands for sustainability, environmental, achievement and leadership. Under Armour plans to use the awards platform in its quest to reduce pollution from microfiber shedding, much of which becomes microplastic particles that make their way into the water supply and food chains with toxic results. Under Armour has stated that it will share the technology within the industry at large and as well as with other industries that may contribute to microfiber discharge.
Kyle Blakely, Under Armour’s senior vice president of innovation, viewed the award as forward-thinking, much like the methodology that won the company the citation. Under Armour’s plan is to measure the shed in any given textile but also develop textiles that don’t shed to keep microfibers out of the equation as much as possible. Anything that sheds too much gets pulled from production.
“It’s an honor that the SEAL Awards have recognized the potential of our new test method, which is advancing our work to mitigate the shed-rate of products long before the associated fibers can enter the environment,” Blakely said. “We’re excited about our method’s potential and look forward to continuing to work with partners and peers to address the growing threat microplastics pose to our planet and society.”
It was during product development that Under Armour developed the method of measuring microfiber shedding. In the works for many years, it is said to complement other techniques, including the one launched by the Microfibre Consortium in 2021. In executing it, a fabric swatch is placed in a solution then agitated; microfibers released from the textile are collected and measured. Some similar test methods are cost-prohibitive for some companies, but the Under Armour method streamlines those making it more affordable and accessible. It has the potential to be scaled.
The award-winning technology, made public for the first time in February, has possible applications across the whole fashion sector as well as other industries. Most microfiber pollution was believed to come from synthetic fabrics, but studies released in the past few years showed high content of cotton fibers in samples of ocean water collected from 37 sites along the coast of East Africa. A second study involving mussels showed a growth rate decrease of 18.7 percent when the bivalves were exposed to cotton microfiber, but double, 35.6 percent, when they were exposed to polyester fiber.
The ingestion of microfibers of all kinds skyrocketed as the textile industry exploded over the two decades between 2000 and 2020 when it jumped to 109 million tons worldwide from 58 million tons, and with it the expected effects on health.
Outside of production hazards, ordinary household washing machines do their own kind of damage. A single turn in a washing machine releases 700,000 microfibers of all types into the environment, for a total of 500,000 tons of microplastics per year. France is combatting that by requiring all washing machines and dryers to have filters that capture microfiber pollution by 2025, and the UK is working toward a similar requirement. Patagonia and Samsung are collaborating on a washing machine designed for microfiber mitigation and California is considering legislation to require these filters by 2029.