Over the course of their life cycle, textile products shed microfibers during manufacturing, wear and laundering. If these small particles come from synthetic materials, they are microplastics, which can prove harmful to the environment as well as human and animal health if inhaled or ingested.
Activewear brand Under Armour is tackling microfiber shedding at its origin. The Baltimore company created a testing methodology that identifies the rate at which textiles release microfibers. The Steph Curry partner has started testing materials at the beginning of product development, enabling it to pull or rework textiles that have a high propensity to shed.
“When we realized the extent of the fiber shed problem during product research, we knew we needed to figure out a way to use our innovation capabilities to do our part to address the issue,” said Jeremy Stangeland, senior manager, materials lab at Under Armour. “Our strategy focuses on working to help address the root causes of shedding, starting with the ability to measure it. Through ongoing efforts to redevelop high-shed fabrics to shed less, or avoid them entirely, we are leveraging our skills to positively impact our industry and communities.”
According to Under Armour, high-shed fabrics tend to be soft, yet they have poorer durability than textiles that shed less. Armed with the testing results, Under Armour will use this data to help it develop textiles that are both comfortable and lasting. Among the microfiber-reducing tactics the company is considering for high-shed textiles are yarn formations and mechanical finishes that could prevent fiber release.
This effort supports Under Armour’s target to have 75 percent of its fabrics fashioned out of low-shed materials by 2030. The company is also a signatory of Microfibre Consortium’s 2030 Commitment, which intends to shrink the environmental impact of textile fiber fragments to zero.
“We are committed to holistically addressing sustainability issues such as fiber shedding and have already begun to use our methodology to produce more sustainable products for athletes that feature Under Armour’s signature high-performance attributes,” said Kyle Blakely, senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour. “We expect to have products that have been improved through this process in market as early as 2024, and we look forward to continuing to inspire athletes with performance-driven innovations that embody our core value to ‘Act Sustainably’ as we track toward our 2030 goal.”
Under Armour says its testing procedure, which was in development for several years, “complements” other techniques, including the method launched by the Microfibre Consortium in 2021. A fabric swatch is placed in a solution and then agitated, and the fibers released from the textile are collected and measured. “While our method is complementary to existing technologies, Under Armour recognizes that many existing test methods are cost-prohibitive for some entities to invest in,” Blakely told Sourcing Journal. “Our method involves fewer steps and is more affordable and accessible, giving it great potential to be scaled.”
Expanding its impact beyond its own operations, the Nike rival is looking into making its methodology accessible across the fashion sector, and it plans to examine how the testing procedure could be leveraged by other industries. “Under Armour has a reputation as an innovator in athletic apparel, and our approach to breaking through sustainability challenges has been largely innovation-driven,” said Blakely. “The fiber shed issue is urgent, and it will take bold action and collaboration across our industry and beyond to address it, so we are exploring ways to make the method available to others.”
Under Armour sees quantifying fiber shed as the “first step” in tackling microfiber reduction from the start.
“Synthetic microfiber pollution represents a largely invisible, global conservation threat that is only getting worse,” said Aliya Rubinstein, project director for the Oceans Program at the Nature Conservancy in California. “The fashion industry has an opportunity to act now and advance real solutions that measurably address their contribution to the plastics crisis. Under Armour’s investment in efforts to understand and reduce fiber shedding is a critical part of a broader suite of interventions urgently needed for us to collectively move the industry in the right direction.”