It is no surprise that Australians are very interested in issues around ocean pollution. As an island nation, we live surrounded by the most pristine and beautiful waters, and many people spend a lot of time near, or in, the water – surfing, swimming, board riding and sailing. The impacts of the fashion/textiles industry on oceans is therefore one topic that has come up a lot in my conversations with Australian brands and consumers.  The launch last year of a sustainable menswear brand from surfer Kelly Slater certainly garnered some attention.

From a lifecycle perspective, when we talk about the impacts to waterways and oceans it is normally in the Production phase, such as polluted discharge from textile mills. However, there has been growing interest in the issue of micro-plastic fibres in oceans – minute strands of plastic that are discharged during the Use phase, when we wash and launder our clothes. The infamous Dirty Laundry report from Greenpeace in 2011 highlighted the issue of toxic impacts to waterways in the UK and Europe, caused by consumers washing clothing that had been produced in China. Yet, the urgency of the issues is now becoming more apparent. A recent article in the NY Times (by Mark Anthony Brown a researcher affiliated with UNSW) explains how these plastic fibres make their way into ecosystems, and also into the lungs of humans and animals. The fibres are infused with harmful chemicals such as dyes and surfactants, that can damage immune systems and kill wildlife. The extent of this continuing pollution to our oceans is staggering, when you consider that around 70 million metric tonnes of fibre is produced globally every year.  As Brown highlights in the article, there is little incentive for textile manufacturers to innovate and consider cleaner alternatives and governments across the globe are allowing manufacturers to keep polluting in this way. There is also scant scientific evidence on the impacts of different types of fibres, such as polyesters and natural fibres.

The solution is for designers, manufacturers and even washing machine manufacturers, to collaborate. Brown mentions a research programme that is trialling such an approach, testing the usefulness of filters on washing machines; and the exact differences between natural and man-made fibres. This type of approach sits perfectly with The TEN framework, a set of strategies for designers to consider when they are specifying materials and garment design, that I co-developed and now work with.

The TEN approach asks all stakeholders to consider a lifecycle perspective, and take responsibility for their actions and choices at all stages of the lifecycle.  Ideally the day will come soon when designers have available data on the impacts of different fibres in the Use phase (when exposed to washing and laundry); and some viable cleaner alternatives.