Plastic micro-fibre pollution from laundry in tap water

Flo Nolan, ethical fashion lifestyle writer, interviews Safia Minney and discusses plastic micro-fibre pollution in tap water, from laundering clothes.

You spoke at the Fashion SVP seminar “Sustainable Sourcing: Fresh Challenges, New Opportunities” bringing together specialsists to discuss what the fashion industry can do about micro-fibre pollution from clothing wash off.  Why should we care?

Mircro-fibres caught the attention of the public last year with Orb Media’s report that found that over 83% of the worlds drinking water is contaminated by micro-plastics, with one of the major culprits for this contamination being the fashion industry. Our drinking water is now full of plastic fibres, up to 5mm in length, as a direct result of fast fashion’s mass-production of clothes in synthetic materials.

The micro fibres are ingested by fish and filter feeders, like mussels and oysters, and are rapidly becoming part of the food chain.

This contamination happens when synthetic clothing is washed in washing machines and the micro-fibres they are composed of wash off and end up in water treatment plants but are not filtered out.

This contaminated water flows back into the water table systems and our drinking water, our fields, polluting the soil that we rely on for crops. They have polluted our oceans and some argue are as numerous as plankton so naturally they are ingested by fish and filter feeders, like mussels and oysters, and are rapidly becoming part of the food chain.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, brought home the issues that face our oceans and the effect of plastic pollution on it – can we use this media attention and heightened public awareness to change the fashion industry and the way we buy clothing and care for it?

The fashion industry must reduce production in synthetic fibres and fabrics and producing in natural and organic fibres.  As consumers we should buy natural fibres and re-consider the way we buy clothing and shoes.  Buying less and demanding longevity and quality is a good start.  We can also wash the synthetic clothes we own less and when we wash them in a Guppy bag to collect the micro fibres and throw these in the trash.

I hope more consumers will switch to natural fibre and fabric alternatives  –  I’m surprised that people who embrace well-being that choose synthetic yoga wear rather than organic cotton yoga wear despite it being very affordable as well as allowing your skin to breath.

The fashion industry and government needs to be looking at a ban and regulation on the production of synthetics and how to filter water to reduce micro-fibre pollution.  I think there needs to be a ban like the micro-bead ban passed in 2017.  I fear that the vested interests from the fast fashion industry in synthetic fibre, acrylic, polyester, etc; because they are cheap, is just too huge.  We will have to raise awareness and campaign from within the industry, as Patagonia are, alongside ethical fashion pioneers, together with consumers and environmental organisations to push the Government for regulation.

If all else fails, I think we should ask fashion company CEO’s to drink water with micro-fibres in relation to how much synthetic fashion they produce!

So what can fashion brands do to avoid mircro-fibre pollution? How does People Tree and Po-Zu do it differently?

When I founded People Tree 27 years ago, I decided I would try to make clothes using only natural fibres because I didn’t want to use synthetics as they are unbiodegradable. It was on the basis of using fashion as a tool for change.  As a way of producing fibres like organic cotton, hemp, nettle and jute in a way that protects the environment and creating livelihoods for economically marginalised people and artisans in rural areas. The difference between brands such as People Tree and Po-Zu and fast fashion brands is that we think downstream, back into supply chain. We design our clothes and shoes using sustainable materials and avoid using toxic substances in the production process.

We build sustainable supply chains that reflect best practice with relation to people and the environment. Organic and natural fibres that break down in months rather than hundreds of years. People Tree worked to create standards for the farming of organic cotton, and we try to avoid synthetic materials even in our interfacings and accessories.   However it is difficult to eliminate synthetics completely – but as a company we have largely done so.

The dress I’m wearing today is 96% organic cotton with 4% elastane.   Po-Zu shoes uses organic cotton, cork, natural rubber and pineapple leaf fibre in its shoes and all these materials biodegrade quickly in the environment.

There are ways forward and quick wins.  We have a short time to reign in the huge levels of pollution from fast fashion production, these ‘externalities’ are not accounted for in our current economic modelling of fashion production, but they are fast destroying our health and the health of our planet.  We have evidence of the immediate effect of chemicals on people living near water waste and now mounting evidence that plastics can disrupt human hormones levels.

Safia Minney available for speaking engagements worldwide and also for consultancy work. Please contact: info@safia-minney.com

Further reading on the Fairtrade Coalition AGM on Anna Brindle’s blog