The Guardian

From Cotton Fields to High Street Racks, Fashion Bids to be 100% Sustainable

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Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment

How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply

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New studies show that alarming numbers of tiny fibers from synthetic fabrics are making their way from your washing machine into aquatic animals

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Microplastic pollution is devastating our oceans. New research indicates that the biggest culprit may be the shirt off your back Photograph: Getty Images

The first time professor Sherri Mason cut open a Great Lakes fish, she was alarmed at what she found. Synthetic fibers were everywhere. Under a microscope, they seemed to be “weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract”. Though she had been studying aquatic pollution around the Great Lakes for several years, Mason, who works for the State University of New York Fredonia, had never seen anything like it.

New studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. Microfibers – tiny threads shed from fabric – have been found in abundance on shorelines where waste water is released.

Now researchers are trying to pinpoint where these plastic fibers are coming from.

In an alarming study released Monday, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. The study was funded by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, a certified B Corp that also offers grants for environmental work.

“These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website.

Synthetic microfibers are particularly dangerous because they have the potential to poison the food chain. The fibers’ size also allows them to be readily consumed by fish and other wildlife. These plastic fibers have the potential to bioaccumulate, concentrating toxins in the bodies of larger animals, higher up the food chain.

Microbeads, recently banned in the US, are a better-known variety of microplastic, but recent studies have found microfibers to be even more pervasive.

In a groundbreaking 2011 paper, Mark Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Australia, found that microfibers made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world.

While Patagonia and other outdoor companies, like Polartec, use recycled plastic bottles as a way to conserve and reduce waste, this latest research indicates that the plastic might ultimately end up in the oceans anyway – and in a form that’s even more likely to cause problems.

Breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all.

Barrows lobsterboat
Abigail Barrows, principal investigator of the Global Microplastics Initiative, says that microfibers are a bigger problem than most realize Photograph: Veronica Young

Scary science

While the UCSB study is sure to make waves, researchers are consistently finding more and more evidence that microfibers are in many marine environments and in large quantities.

What’s more, the fibers are being found in fresh water as well. “This is not just a coastal or marine problem,” said Abigail Barrows, principal investigator of the Global Microplastics Initiative, part of the research group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

Of the almost 2,000 aquatic samples Barrows has processed, about 90% of the debris was microfibers – both in freshwater and the ocean.

Microfibers are also the second most common type of debris in Lake Michigan, according to Sherri Mason’s research.

Finishing up research into tributaries of the Great Lakes, she’s finding that microfibers are the most common type of debris in those smaller bodies of water. “The majority [71%] of what we’re finding in the tributaries are actually fibers,” Mason said by email. “They exceed fragments and pellets.”

Mason is finding that the wildlife is indeed being affected.

A study out of the University of Exeter, in which crabs were given food contaminated with microfibers, found that they altered animals’ behavior. The crabs ate less food overall,suggesting stunted growth over time. The polypropylene was also broken down and transformed into smaller pieces, creating a greater surface area for chemical transmission. (Plastics leach chemicals such as Bisphenol A – BPA – as they degrade.)

Mason said her concern is not necessarily with the plastic fibers themselves, but with their ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to concentrate them in animals’ tissues.

An increasingly toxic problem

Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which oversees Barrows’s microfibers work, said studies have led him to stop eating anything from the water.

“I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops’,” Treinish said.

His organization received $9,000 from Patagonia to research microfibers in 2016.

“It absolutely has the potential to move up the food chain,” said Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation biology at the University of California at Davis and the University of Toronto. She cautioned, however, against a rush to avoid fish: “I think no one’s really asked questions directly about that yet.”

Rochman’s own recent study of seafood from California and Indonesia indicates that plastic fibers contaminate the food we eat.

Testing fish and shellfish from markets in both locations, Rochman determined that “all [human-made] debris recovered from fish in Indonesia was plastic, whereas [human-made] debris recovered from fish in the US was primarily fibers”.

Rochman said she can’t yet explain why fish in the US are filled with microfibers. She speculates that washing machines are less pervasive in Indonesia and synthetic, high performance fabrics, such as fleece, which are known to shed a lot of fibers, are not as common in Indonesia.

Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine.
Pinterest
Tiny plastic fibers taken from a water sample in Blue Hill Bay in the gulf of Maine. Photograph: Marine Environmental Research Institute

Industry reacts … slowly

Companies that have built their businesses on the environment have been some of the first to pay attention to the growing microfiber issue. Patagonia proposed the Bren School study in 2015, after polyester, the primary component of outdoor fabrics like fleece, showed up as a major ocean pollutant.

Patagonia is part of a working group, as is Columbia Sportswear and 18 others, studying the issue through the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade group consisting of about 1,300 companies around the world.

“We believe the outdoor industry is likely one of those [industries that contribute to the microfiber issue], but we just don’t know the breadth,” said Beth Jenson, OIA’s director of corporate responsibility.

In an email, Patagonia spokesperson Tessa Byars wrote: “Patagonia is concerned about this issue and we’re taking concerted steps to figure out the impacts that our materials and products – at every step in their lifecycle – may have on the marine environment.”

Miriam Diamond, an earth sciences professor who runs the University of Toronto lab where Rochman now works, said she believes so-called fast fashion could play a larger role than the comparatively smaller outdoor apparel industry. “What I suspect is that some of the cheaper fabrics will more easily shed fibers. It’s probably that the fibers aren’t as long or that they aren’t spun as well,” Diamond said.

Inditex, which owns Zara and Massimo Duti among others, said microfibers fall into the category of issues covered by its Global Water Strategy, which includes ongoing plans to evaluate and improve wastewater management at its mills.

H&M declined to comment on the microfiber issue, as did Topshop , which responded by email “we are not quite ready to make an official statement on this issue”.

Time to take action

Mark Browne, the researcher responsible for first bringing microfibers to public attention, said that the grace period is over.

“We know that these are the most abundant forms of debris – that they are in the environment,” Brown said. He added that government and industry must be asked to explain “what they are going to be doing about it”.

The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, an ocean conservation project co-funded by the European Union, said better quality clothing or fabrics coated with an anti-shed treatment could help.

The foundation’s director, Maria Westerbos, said a nanoball that could be thrown into a washing machine to attract and capture plastic fibers also seems promising.

Another solution may lie with waterless washing machines, one of which is being developed by Colorado-based Tersus Solutions. Tersus, with funding from Patagonia, has developed a completely waterless washing machine in which textiles are washed in pressurized carbon dioxide.

Others suggest a filter on home washing machines. More than 4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing per wash, according to preliminary data from the Plastic Soup Foundation.

But the washing machine industry is not yet ready to act. Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, said the washing machine could very well be a source of microfiber debris, but that the proposed solutions are impractical.

“How do you possibly retrofit all of the units that are in the market and then add a filter in and talk to consumers and say, ‘Here is a new thing that you’re going to have to do with your clothes washer?’”

She added that the industry still has trouble getting people to clean lint from the filters in their dryers.

For Plastic Soup’s Westerbos, the reluctance of the industries that operate in that crucial place between the consumer and the world’s waterways can no longer be tolerated.

“It’s really insulting that they say it’s not their problem,” Westerbos said. “It’s their problem, too. It’s everybody’s problem.”

*This story first appeared on The Guardian.

Despite the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there’s a lot you don’t know about that T-shirt

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By Marc Gunther

An ambitious effort by a global apparel industry group to measure the social and environmental impact of making clothes and shoes has yet to deliver on its promise.

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Rescuers workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza building, home to a garment factory, in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013. They struggled to reach many who were trapped in the rubble. Photograph: ZUMA / Rex Features

From the cotton farm to the clothing factory to the fashion show, the global apparel industry has more than its share of social and environmental problems.

Behind the images of beauty and style is an often dirty business that relies onwater-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in its factories, most of them in poor countries and hidden from view. While garment work has provided a pathway out of poverty – now in China, but earlier in the US and UK – no worker should be exposed to the unsafe conditions that led to calamities like in Bangladesh, where in 2013 the collapse of the structurally unsafe Rana Plaza building killed more than 1,100 workers.

No company can solve such problems on its own. Yet an ambitious effort to bring the industry together to deliver sweeping changes has yet to deliver. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labor unions and academics, aims to create “an apparel, footwear and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities”.

Four years ago, I took a close look at the coalition’s promising beginning. Last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an industry gathering focused on sustainability, I caught up with apparel industry executives and their critics to see how much progress the industry group has made – and opinions are mixed.

To its credit, the coalition, launched in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia, has brought together 175 members whose companies account for more than 40% of the global apparel industry. They have been building what they expect to be the principal driver of change in the industry: a set of three online tools, known as theHigg Index, that measure the social and environmental impact of brands, manufacturing facilities and products. Companies are supposed to use the index to collect information from their own operations and their suppliers’, and all of it goes into a database that coalition members can use to evaluate suppliers. About 6,000 factories have provided information about their social and environmental impact.

Bangladeshi activists and relatives of the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of the disaster at the site where the building once stood on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2014. More than 1,100 workers died in the world’s worst garment factory disaster. Photo: Munir uz ZAMANMUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
Bangladeshi activists and relatives of the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of the disaster at the site where the building once stood on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2014. More than 1,100 workers died in the world’s worst garment factory disaster. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

But most coalition members have been slow to use the index, and there’s no evidence they are reducing – not merely reporting – their impact. A Higg tool designed to measure a product’s footprint – information such as the raw materials and energy used that might interest consumers – won’t be completed until next year. What’s more, none of the social and environmental data being collected is publicly available, at least for now. Companies aren’t even permitted to release their own Higg Index data.

Until the data becomes public, its value will be limited. Environmental and human rights groups that want to hold the industry accountable don’t have access to the information. Nor do investors, who worry about supply chain and reputation risks, have a reliable way to measure one company against another. Consumers who want to know how and where T-shirts or shoes are made will have to wait before they can use the data to learn whether those items are manufactured ethically. Right now, they get little information. Knowing, for example, that a shirt is composed of organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t say anything about the factory conditions where it was produced.

Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the coalition is moving too slowly to collect Higg data and isn’t doing enough to prod companies to remedy problems that turn up. “I am quite surprised at the lack of uptake,” she says. “There are too many companies, even with high profiles, that are not circulating the forms to their suppliers.”

Several big companies, led by H&M and Target, have embraced the Higg tools, as has Patagonia. Others have been slow to use them, but the coalition declined to identify the laggards. Several major industry players, including fast fashion retailer Forever 21, have declined to join the SAC at all.

Nike says it hasn’t used Higg widely, not because it doesn’t support SAC’s effort but because of what Hannah Jones, its chief sustainability officer, describes as “technical, boring IT reasons”. Nike monitors its supply chain using its own software, Jones says.

“The vast majority are using some of the tools,” says Jason Kibbey, the coalition’s chief executive. “The scale and depth with which they’re using them varies widely.”

Several reasons explain why the index hasn’t been widely used. For one thing, it’s still under development. Building the Higg Index is a complex undertaking, Kibbey says. The coalition has to balance competing demands – making tools accessible and relatively easy to use, yet powerful enough to capture an array of environmental and social impacts from farms, factories and stores.

Employees work inside a garment factory in Mumbai, India. Some major brands have worked on reducing their environmental and social impact in manufacturing. But critics say there’s a lot more that needs to be done.
Employees work inside a garment factory in Mumbai, India. Some major brands have worked on reducing their environmental and social impact in manufacturing. But critics say there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Brands also are resistant to spending the time and energy to gathering data, especially from their suppliers. Making a piece of clothing involves multiple suppliers, including: farmers who grow the raw materials; dye-and-finishing mills where environmental impacts are greatest; and cut-and-sew factories where garments are produced. But brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains.

Several coalition members tell me they plan to make the index data public eventually. Kibbey says his members have not agreed when that information will become public.

In the meantime, individual brands have launched their own campaigns to address environmental and social challenges. Nike, for example, has invested in designing and making sneakers that use less material. H&M has improved the dirty process of dyeing textiles and nudged its customers to recycle their clothes. Patagonia discovered slave labor practices among its suppliers and took steps to root them out.

But those efforts, while worthwhile, aren’t enough to reduce the enormous resource requirements of the fashion business and the waste it generates. In the US alone, 10.5m tons of textiles go to landfills each year. There’s lots of talk in the industry about the circular economy, but real progress has been scant.

Will the coalition ever achieve its lofty goal? That seems to be a big uncertainty, even from its members. Rick Ridgeway, a longtime Patagonia executive who has guided the coalition from the start, says it best: “The hypothesis is that putting better data into the hands of decision makers in the apparel value chains is going to result in better decisions. But that’s a hypothesis.”

He goes on: “Now the rubber is going to meet the road. Are companies, year over year, going to improve? Are they going to lower their impact? Are they going to benefit the people in the supply chain? We don’t know. I’m optimistic, but until that happens, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an unproven experiment.”

*This story first appeared on The Guardian.

Despite the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there’s a lot you don’t know about that T-shirt

Posted on Updated on

An ambitious effort by a global apparel industry group to measure the social and environmental impact of making clothes and shoes has yet to deliver on its promise

3000
Rescuers workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza building, home to a garment factory, in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013. They struggled to reach many who were trapped in the rubble. Photograph: ZUMA / Rex Features

Behind the images of beauty and style is an often dirty business that relies onwater-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in its factories, most of them in poor countries and hidden from view. While garment work has provided a pathway out of poverty – now in China, but earlier in the US and UK – no worker should be exposed to the unsafe conditions that led to calamities like in Bangladesh, where in 2013 the collapse of the structurally unsafe Rana Plaza building killed more than 1,100 workers.

No company can solve such problems on its own. Yet an ambitious effort to bring the industry together to deliver sweeping changes has yet to deliver. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global alliance of retailers, brands, suppliers, advocacy groups, labor unions and academics, aims to create “an apparel, footwear and home textiles industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on people and communities”.

Four years ago, I took a close look at the coalition’s promising beginning. Last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an industry gathering focused on sustainability, I caught up with apparel industry executives and their critics to see how much progress the industry group has made – and opinions are mixed.

To its credit, the coalition, launched in 2009 by Walmart and Patagonia, has brought together 175 members whose companies account for more than 40% of the global apparel industry. They have been building what they expect to be the principal driver of change in the industry: a set of three online tools, known as theHigg Index, that measure the social and environmental impact of brands, manufacturing facilities and products. Companies are supposed to use the index to collect information from their own operations and their suppliers’, and all of it goes into a database that coalition members can use to evaluate suppliers. About 6,000 factories have provided information about their social and environmental impact.

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Bangladeshi activists and relatives of the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of the disaster at the site where the building once stood on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 24, 2014. More than 1,100 workers died in the world’s worst garment factory disaster. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

 

But most coalition members have been slow to use the index, and there’s no evidence they are reducing – not merely reporting – their impact. A Higg tool designed to measure a product’s footprint – information such as the raw materials and energy used that might interest consumers – won’t be completed until next year. What’s more, none of the social and environmental data being collected is publicly available, at least for now. Companies aren’t even permitted to release their own Higg Index data.

Until the data becomes public, its value will be limited. Environmental and human rights groups that want to hold the industry accountable don’t have access to the information. Nor do investors, who worry about supply chain and reputation risks, have a reliable way to measure one company against another. Consumers who want to know how and where T-shirts or shoes are made will have to wait before they can use the data to learn whether those items are manufactured ethically. Right now, they get little information. Knowing, for example, that a shirt is composed of organic cotton or recycled polyester doesn’t say anything about the factory conditions where it was produced.

Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the coalition is moving too slowly to collect Higg data and isn’t doing enough to prod companies to remedy problems that turn up. “I am quite surprised at the lack of uptake,” she says. “There are too many companies, even with high profiles, that are not circulating the forms to their suppliers.”

Several big companies, led by H&M and Target, have embraced the Higg tools, as has Patagonia. Others have been slow to use them, but the coalition declined to identify the laggards. Several major industry players, including fast fashion retailer Forever 21, have declined to join the SAC at all.

Nike says it hasn’t used Higg widely, not because it doesn’t support SAC’s effort but because of what Hannah Jones, its chief sustainability officer, describes as “technical, boring IT reasons”. Nike monitors its supply chain using its own software, Jones says.

“The vast majority are using some of the tools,” says Jason Kibbey, the coalition’s chief executive. “The scale and depth with which they’re using them varies widely.”

Several reasons explain why the index hasn’t been widely used. For one thing, it’s still under development. Building the Higg Index is a complex undertaking, Kibbey says. The coalition has to balance competing demands – making tools accessible and relatively easy to use, yet powerful enough to capture an array of environmental and social impacts from farms, factories and stores.

3476
Employees work inside a garment factory in Mumbai, India. Some major brands have worked on reducing their environmental and social impact in manufacturing. But critics say there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Brands also are resistant to spending the time and energy to gathering data, especially from their suppliers. Making a piece of clothing involves multiple suppliers, including: farmers who grow the raw materials; dye-and-finishing mills where environmental impacts are greatest; and cut-and-sew factories where garments are produced. But brands don’t typically deal directly with all those suppliers, and many don’t bother to dig deep into their supply chains.

Several coalition members tell me they plan to make the index data public eventually. Kibbey says his members have not agreed when that information will become public.

In the meantime, individual brands have launched their own campaigns to address environmental and social challenges. Nike, for example, has invested in designing and making sneakers that use less material. H&M has improved the dirty process of dyeing textiles and nudged its customers to recycle their clothes. Patagonia discovered slave labor practices among its suppliers and took steps to root them out.

But those efforts, while worthwhile, aren’t enough to reduce the enormous resource requirements of the fashion business and the waste it generates. In the US alone, 10.5m tons of textiles go to landfills each year. There’s lots of talk in the industry about the circular economy, but real progress has been scant.

Will the coalition ever achieve its lofty goal? That seems to be a big uncertainty, even from its members. Rick Ridgeway, a longtime Patagonia executive who has guided the coalition from the start, says it best: “The hypothesis is that putting better data into the hands of decision makers in the apparel value chains is going to result in better decisions. But that’s a hypothesis.”

He goes on: “Now the rubber is going to meet the road. Are companies, year over year, going to improve? Are they going to lower their impact? Are they going to benefit the people in the supply chain? We don’t know. I’m optimistic, but until that happens, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an unproven experiment.”

*This story first appeared on The Guardian

Observer Ethical Awards 2015 winners: Nudie Jeans

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The jean company, winner of the Sustainable Style Award sponsored by Eco Age, on the lasting appeal of denim.

 Jean genius: sales and marketing director Andreas Ahrman photographed at the Nudie store in Soho.
Jean genius: sales and marketing director Andreas Ahrman photographed at the Nudie store in Soho. Image: Guardian

By

Andreas Åhrman, global sales and marketing director of Nudie Jeans, bought his first denim from the company back in 2003, when he was still a student. “I knew a guy who worked at the store who got me a discount. I got carried away and tried to buy three pairs and some T-shirts, and my credit card got refused. The staff were so nice they let me pay the difference when I had more money. That was pretty impressive.”

In the 12 years since, the Nudie attitude to suppliers and customers hasn’t changed that much. The company is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, which strives to improve working conditions in the textile industry. It also works with Textile Exchange – an organisation that supports the organic cotton industry. Nudie only partners with a small, carefully picked group of suppliers so it’s possible to ensure that they comply to the Nudie code of conduct.

As a customer, if you buy their jeans, they’ll repair them for you. If you’re bored of their jeans, hand them into a store and you get a 20% discount off your next pair and Nudie recycles the denim.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not easy to stick to your principles: “It was a huge struggle at the beginning. We wanted to be 100% organic, but we weren’t big enough to buy in that sort of bulk. Now we can buy large amounts and that helps our supplier to sell small orders to smaller companies. It would have really helped if something like Nudie had been around when we were starting out.”

Now, though, Åhrman says the company message is simple: “Buy high-quality product. Look after it and repair it. When you’re sick of it, share it though our repair shop or by giving it to a friend. Keep clothes alive so we can reduce consumption.”

**This post first  appeared on The Guardian here.