Why it matters
Did you know that you may very likely be wearing plastic? An estimated 63 percent of the world’s textiles are made from petrochemicals. Even more alarming is the fact that 98 million tonnes of nonrenewable resources (fossil fuels) are used to make clothing every year. This overabundance of plastics in textiles (and the fashion industry in general) poses several health and environmental concerns. Here, with the help of the latest science, we attempt to break it down for you.
Let’s start at the very beginning. In general, textiles can be classified as synthetic or natural, with a confusing third category of semi-synthetic fabrics.
Synthetic fibres These include polyester (including fleece), acrylic, spandex, and nylon.
Semi-synthetic fibres This category includes fibres originally derived from natural materials but that have since been subjected to significant chemical processing; for example, rayon, bamboo rayon , and modal.
Natural fibres These include plant materials (such as cotton, hemp, and linen) and materials either made from, or by, animals (such as silk, wool, leather, and alpaca).
Here are a few concerns with plastic fashion.
The source Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource with immense environmental consequences. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (an international nonprofit organization who’s mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy), “In 2015, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from textiles production totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
If our society hopes to transition away from overreliance on fossil fuels for a more sustainable future, we need to question the abundance of fossil fuels used by the fashion industry.
The use Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic (less than 1 mm). One massive source is synthetic clothing, as the plastic “sheds” in laundry wash/dry cycles. Some of the earliest microplastic research back in 2011 estimated that more than 1,900 microfibres can be released from a garment in the wash.
In a more recent 2018 study, researchers determined that 30 billion particles of microplastic are released into our waterways every year—and this data only measured Vancouver. Even worse, the data was collected after water treatment centres filtered out almost 1.8 trillion plastic particles.
What’s the big deal? As these plastics are introduced into our waterways, they disrupt the natural environments, and make their way through the food chain—even to us, in our drinking water (tap water and bottled water).
Research tells us that plastics absorb hazardous chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants, and since these microplastics are about the same size as plankton, they’re consumed by organisms. Plastics can block organisms’ digestive systems, reduce the filtering ability of mussels, and cause death in certain crustaceans.
As far as human health effects go, the research at this point is lacking. Of course, species are intricately linked, and we may not know the full picture for some time.
The “end of life” Synthetic clothing is not biodegradable. What are its options for “end of life”? Textile recycling programs exist; however, they’re not yet widely available to consumers, and plastics such as synthetic textiles can’t be recycled repeatedly with our current technology. And even then, recycling doesn’t put a dent in the current overproduction of virgin plastic textiles. Overall, textile recycling is an imperfect system, and reducing consumption should be our first step.
Short answer: it depends.
Unfortunately, natural fibres also produce microfibre contamination and pollution. Sure, it’s not plastic, but it’s still often chemically processed and is thought to harm the environment.
An estimated 20 percent of industrial wastewater pollution comes from the fashion industry; textile dye is the second largest polluter of freshwater after conventional agriculture. The conventional leather tanning industry is also a huge polluter.
Animals are very often mistreated in conventional agriculture, including for fashion. Although natural, if you’re buying anything made with leather, fur, or wool, keep in mind that animals were involved.
Some natural plant crops are environmentally destructive, such as conventional cotton. It’s estimated that 2,700 litres are needed to produce one cotton t-shirt. Conventional cotton also exposes workers to harmful chemicals. Organic cotton is safer for workers and uses less water.
There are differing points of view; however, many believe that the intense chemical processing required means that these options are environmentally destructive.
Thankfully, there’s a lot we can do.
You might be surprised at how much simpler your life becomes: less time, energy, money spent on finding, buying, storing, and maintaining your clothes.
Rather than tossing torn, or otherwise damaged clothing, mending is less expensive and can be very satisfying, as well. Consult the pros for complicated jobs, such as shoes or bags.
This means no new resources need to be used for your clothing. There are many retailers of secondhand clothing, from local consignment shops to online swap sites—and you may be surprised at the quality of goods you can find.
Try to choose pieces that are well made, will last for years, and can be repaired. Research shows that use matters: disposable, cheap products are very different from durable products, even when made with synthetic materials.
When it comes to laundry
Created in March 2019, the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, unfashionalliance.org is a partnership between the UN and other organizations committed to raising awareness around sustainable fashion.
Together, they’re working to combat the environmental costs of fashion, while recognizing the important social factors at play. This includes the production of raw materials as well as the manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of products.
The notorious chemical bisphenol A (BPA) has been detected in clothing, especially synthetic clothing like polyester. While we are almost certainly exposed to BPA in other more significant ways, this emerging research is still concerning.
This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title "Are you wearing plastic?"