While images of discarded plastic bottles and bags dominate news headlines, in reality most plastics contaminating Earth’s lands and waters are barely visible to the naked eye. And these microplastics (fragments less than 5 millimeters in diameter) have become a problem too big to ignore. They are ubiquitous, found in nearly every environment around the world, and threatening ecosystems and animals ranging in size from plankton to whales. They are also in drinking water, food and our bodies — posing serious questions about the long-term impacts to human and planetary health.
From skin care products and paint to plastic containers and car tires, these microplastics originate from almost every industry. However, many people don’t realize that their clothing is also made from plastic. When we wash and wear synthetic textiles, they shed microplastics, called microfibers. In fact, an average load of laundry can release upwards of 18 million synthetic fibers.
The Nature Conservancy in California teamed up with industrial ecologists from the University of California Santa Barbara to research this problem and found that about 2,200 tons of synthetic microfibers entered California’s lands and waters in 2019 alone from apparel washing.
But microfibers are not only released during consumer use. Almost as many fiber fragments are also shed during the clothing manufacturing process. A 2021 report from The Nature Conservancy and Bain & Company determined that the pre-consumer process of textile manufacturing releases around 265 million pounds of microfibers each year. And with the global creation and use of synthetic textiles projected to grow by over 50 percent in the next decade, the threat that microfibers pose to people and the environment is only getting worse. Natural fibers such as cotton and wool have also been shown to shed. In their purest form, natural fibers will break down on their own. However, after the addition of dye, softeners and finishers, these fibers no longer degrade as anticipated and contribute to the problem.
Fiber shedding poses a planet-wide threat to natural environments, not to mention human health. Ambitious, collaborative interventions are critical to prevent fiber fragmentation across the lifecycle of textiles. But there is good news: We have solutions to address microfiber pollution, and they can be implemented today. To address its role, the apparel industry must boldly commit to take tangible actions in the near-term and adopt a wide range of interventions across the lifecycle of textile creation. Microfiber capture both at the manufacturing stage and during consumer use have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of microfibers entering the environment.
Microfiber filters built into washing machines is a near-term solution that is relatively cost- and energy-efficient. In California, The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to advance a policy requiring all new washing machines sold into the state to incorporate filtration systems in the next 5 years. And while filters and wash solutions are necessary components of a microfiber pollution capture and reduction solution set, these options only target the symptoms of shedding. Long-term, complementary investments must also address shedding at its source.
The apparel industry is known for innovation, and a number of brands and brand coalitions have been working to better understand the problem and how to reduce their microfiber footprint. As a performance apparel, footwear and accessories brand, Under Armour is working to do its part. Its investment in efforts to understand, measure and reduce fiber shedding is a critical part of a broader suite of interventions urgently needed to collectively move the apparel and fashion industry in the right direction. The company has leveraged its innovation lab to develop a new measurement standard. The new standard not only drives visibility into the shed-rate of the materials and textiles Under Armour sources, but also has great potential to be scaled and adopted by suppliers, other brands and industries due to its accessibility, affordability and repeatability. Under Armour has begun using the method to test materials early during product development to target high-shed materials for redevelopment or discontinuation before they enter the market. The method is also informing the company’s selection of new textile candidates.
Under Armour’s efforts to address fiber shedding at its source are already resulting in lower-shed products. And, as the company continues to take accountability for the fabrics and textiles it sources, it is also exploring ways to make its method widely available to the industry to address this shared industry challenge.
Our organizations urge others in the apparel and textiles sector to join the effort to manage the problem of microfibers through complementary approaches, including The Microfibre Consortium’s globally aligned test method. Additional efforts, upstream and downstream, are needed in the next few years to accompany advances to low-shed fabrics. A multi-faceted set of solutions that reduce fiber flows into the natural environment must also include investing in science, advancing ambitious policies and scaling microfiber capture and filtration solutions during both the manufacturing and consumer stages. The Nature Conservancy, Under Armour and partners are taking necessary steps across the board to catalyze solutions.
The scope of the microplastics problem is too big to ignore, but not so big that our actions cannot make a difference. Indeed, this is a planet-sized problem that can be solved by continuing to commercialize design and technology innovations that have led us to the solutions we have now. Working together, we can implement existing solutions and align our resources to invest in the creative new solutions needed to protect our natural world and all of the species that live within it, including us. The time to act is now.