Fashion for the Earth

Fast Fashion: Our Generation’s Nuclear Bomb

This summer people rushed to see the movie Oppenheimer, a portrait of the inventor of the atomic bomb.  

One cannot help but reflect on this biopic that humankind’s genius is to continually advance the boundaries of science and technology and invent new ways to defend ourselves, lengthen lives, improve communication, convenience — change things for the better. The atomic bomb, for example, ended World War II and, it was argued, many lives were saved as a result. But besides destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki and horrifically killing or wounding many thousands of people, it ushered in the nuclear age, the existential threat we see ever looming on the horizon. How often we have invented things without really considering the future and how lethal they might ultimately prove to be. Even those that seem quite harmless…at first. 

For example, clothes made of plastic. Introduced to the public in 1951, one of the selling points of polyester clothes was that they could be worn for 68 days straight without any care at all and still look fresh. No one foresaw that it would prove so inexpensive to make that it would one day be drastically overproduced or what the consequences of the material itself would be.

Today, 69% of the fabrics we wear are made of oil-based plastics: polyester’s chemical name is polyethylene terephthalate, acrylics are polyurethane, nylon is polyhexamethylene adipamide, and spandex is a polyether-polyurea copolymer.

But with the explosive growth and ever enlarging volume of clothing manufactured since the early 2000’s (100 billion garments annually, with production of polyester fiber projected to exceed 92 million tons in the next 10 years — an increase of 47%), it’s actually clothing’s tiniest fractions that are the most insidious.   

Every time we wash our clothes, thousands of tiny particles of fabric (5 mm or less in length) are discharged into the water. Globally, 500,000 tons of these microfibers are deposited in oceans every year from our washing machines. Of the 171 trillion microplastics floating in oceans, the microfibers from clothing are responsible for 35%.

“It feels incredible that when the fashion industry began to add plastics into clothing and fashion to create fabrics like polyester in the 1950’s, it was seen as the wonder ingredient – it made clothes stretchy and impervious to creases and wrinkles. But nobody thought to check if these plastics could or would break down and create micro plastics.”  

While we are familiar with the image of a sea turtle choking on plastic bags or dead fish snared in nylon drift nets, we are less familiar with the role microfibers play in the rest of the marine world where they get trapped in the guts of zooplankton, bivalves, crustaceans, coral polyps, the myriad essential aquatic life forms at the bottom of the food chain that affect the entire chain. Studies point to the accumulation of these fibers in marine life affecting feeding and growth, causing genetic damage, oxidative stress, impacts on behavior, reducing fertility and reproduction and mortality.   

“Clothing fibers are the most abundant form of waste material that we find in habitats worldwide, and the problem is worsening. Ingested and inhaled fibers carry toxic materials and a third of the food we eat is contaminated with this material. Still, critical information on their environmental and health impacts is not considered because until now much of the scientific research is unavailable. This has led to the use of unsustainable and hazardous fibers in apparel.”

Added to the dilemma are the toxic chemicals microfibers are coated with – the azo dyes and the formulations to make clothes wrinkle-free, stain-resistant, and water repellant such as toxic fluorinated compounds (PFCs), BPA, phthalates. Worse, microfibers are also vectors for free floating toxic chemicals in the ocean that readily attach to microfibers such as POPs, persistent organic pollutants, including DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) – as well as heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium.  

Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTP) trap many microfibers in “bio-solid” sludge and these solids are transferred to agricultural lands where they are used as fertilizer. There, evidence shows, microfibers and the toxic chemicals they carry can adversely impact terrestrial ecosystems, drawing water away from plants, harming soil biota, rooting ability, soil nutrient cycling – and on and on.   

In March of 2022, scientists at the Free University in Amsterdam discovered that the microfibers known to exist in our body (deep in our lungs, our intestines where they appear to cause inflammation, in our hearts, in placentas and breast milk), are also in our bloodstreams. 

Now we’re scrambling. Although relatively few scientific papers were written following the first study on microplastics and health in 2009 – in the last few years there have been hundreds.  Hopefully they will answer the questions: do microfibers pass the brain-barrier in babies, do white blood cells attack them and cause chronic inflammation, do they contribute to cardiovascular disease by attaching to red blood cells, affect fertility – what do they do

The microplastics shed from our clothes and the “forever chemicals” they carry cannot be reclaimed, but there is hope. In France a law passed in 2020 has made it mandatory that all new washing machines have a microfiltration device installed by 2025.  If AB 1628 is passed, California will follow suit and all washing machines will have microfilters installed by 2029. The idea is in development in other states.

California is looking to potentially add micro filters to all new washing machines and if they do vote to do this then we can hopefully expect the rest of the country to follow, because what California does — industry tends to follow. But the science is clear: to stop ever increasing tons of micro plastic pouring into our waterways and the oceans we have to make this micro-filter an industry standard.”

There is no question that all domestic and industrial washing machines must have microfiber filters installed. These filters have been estimated to capture upward of 90% of microfibers from our clothing, thereby dramatically reducing microfibers sent to WWTP and thence the world.

Filters are not the only answer — there’s the industry that must redesign clothes to prevent fiber shedding in the first place; we need to label garments to reflect how much they shed and how to prevent that, educating the consumer. We need to pass laws such as The Fashion Act in New York that seeks to regulate fast fashion’s vast overproduction and consumption and its gargantuan waste. But before it’s too late, when it comes to fashion, we need to stop the radioactive fallout from our own ingenuity.