Brands: The Next Concern (Microplastics)


An entire segment of the retail industry is on a ticking clock. In the near future, due to changing public sentiment and increasing challenges, athleisure companies that fail to adapt will be at a disadvantage. Home Textiles Today explains:

A quantitative online survey of 527 U.S. adults found that 49% are familiar with the term “microplastics,” and those adults are most likely to identify plastic bags (76%) and microbeads (61%) from health and beauty products as contributors. Just over half (52%) were aware that clothing made from synthetic materials, like polyester, impacts the problem of microplastic pollution. (Read More)

By 2028, retail brands heavily reliant on microplastics will face pushback and declining approval. The apparel industry is notorious for its use of plastic-derived fibers from petroleum. Approximately 70% of materials found in most garments – including yoga pants, jackets and others – contain nylon, polyester, and similar non-biodegradable textiles. Currently, the US Environmental Protection Agency states that only about 15% of these textiles are recycled.

With growing environmental awareness and legislative pressures, brands will likely encounter challenges in maintaining their business models based on cheap, non-biodegradable materials. As highlighted by George Harding-Rolls from the Changing Markets Foundation, ultra-fast fashion brands, which heavily rely on synthetic fibers, will bear the brunt of this shift, potentially rendering their business models obsolete if legislation were to be passed limiting this type of material use. An interesting article from the Journal of Hazardous Materials (February 2021) states:

Subsequently, we estimated that globally on average, humans may ingest 0.1–5 g of microplastics weekly through various exposure pathways.

Companies like Reformation are already paving the way by setting bold targets to minimize synthetic use. Partnering with startups like Kintra Fibers, they’re exploring alternatives such as biodegradable polyester derived from corn. However, scaling up these innovations to match the current demand for synthetics will be a significant challenge.

When Lululemon made a minority investment in Australian startup Samsara Eco in mid-May, the move was a significant nod to the industry’s changing approach to sustainable apparel. The multi-year commitment marked Lululemon’s first step into the recycling domain, showcasing a shift towards using enzymes to recycle old textiles into new ones. Through this enzymatic process, Lululemon aims to transform used nylon and polyester from damaged or discarded clothes into materials for new collections.

I believe that this is a band-aid on a much more significant wound. Traditional recycling methods for fashion brands include mechanical recycling and chemical approaches. However, these methods have their drawbacks, from relying on virgin plastics to maintain quality to the high energy requirements for breaking down polymers. In contrast, the enzymatic approach, as adopted by Samsara Eco, efficiently breaks down plastics in a carbon-neutral, low-heat environment. This innovative method could potentially reduce the need for new plastic production, given its ability to recycle existing plastic effectively.

The significance of this approach is evident as the fashion industry grapples with its dependence on microplastics. According to a recent article by Vogue, about two-thirds of our garments are made from synthetics such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and elastane. These materials, derived from fossil fuels, not only release microplastics into the environment but also take centuries to degrade.

This is where the rise of organic-based textiles with technologically advanced properties will dominate, setting a new trend for the future.

The industry’s transition from virgin polyester to recycled polyester is a step in the right direction, with major brands pledging to adopt recycled polyester by 2025. However, sourcing this polyester primarily from plastic bottles shifts the recycling process from a closed-loop system to a linear one, essentially directing these materials to landfills after their use in fashion. The fashion industry, particularly the athleisure sector, is at a crossroads. As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental implications of their clothing choices, they are demanding more sustainable and environmentally-friendly options.

The use of synthetic fibers are continuing to rise. But by 2028, the industry’s heavy dependence on synthetic textiles, laden with microplastics, will have to be substantially reduced if not eliminated to ensure survival in its current form. This is where the rise of organic-based textiles with technologically advanced properties will dominate, setting a new trend for the future.

The Microplastic Dilemma

As outlined in the LA Times, the term “microfiber”, once synonymous with versatile cleaning products, has become an environmental nightmare. When these microfibers, predominantly composed of synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic, are shed during laundering, they find their way into our oceans, rivers, and lakes. The omnipresence of microplastics, which have even been detected in our food chain and water supplies, raises alarming health concerns. Chronic inflammation, cancer, and infertility are just some of the potential risks as these minuscule particles invade human systems.

The enormity of the problem is further compounded when considering that once microfibers enter the environment, they are virtually irretrievable.

Emergence of a Solution: Enzymatic Technology

As the problem with microplastics gained momentum, leading fashion brands and startups began exploring innovative solutions to address this crisis. The partnership between Lululemon and Samsara Eco marks a pivotal moment in this journey. Here, the combination of organic textiles and technology promises a transformative solution.

Lululemon’s commitment to using Samsara Eco’s enzyme-driven technology not only embodies a shift towards circular fashion but also emphasizes the growing need for sustainable solutions within the industry. This technology can efficiently break down used nylon and polyester blends into a form that’s compatible with new fashion collections. With an astounding 70% of the materials in apparel containing synthetic, petroleum-derived fibers, such initiatives are not just commendable but imperative.

Why Enzymatic Solutions? Traditional methods like mechanical recycling have limitations in terms of longevity and efficiency. They also demand the addition of virgin plastics, further exacerbating the microplastic issue. Chemical approaches, on the other hand, are energy-intensive. Enzymatic solutions, however, emerge as game-changers. According to Paul Riley of Samsara Eco, this technology requires less heat and efficiently breaks down plastics, rendering them as good as virgin-quality materials. The subsequent reduced carbon footprint is an added advantage.

Such advancements don’t exist in isolation. The collaboration of global giants like Amazon, KraftHeinz, and Patagonia with research institutions is fast-tracking the development of these enzyme-based solutions. Notably, the discovery of the bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 by the Kyoto Institute of Technology is a testament to the significant strides being made.

The Road Ahead

Startups like Carbios and Protein Evolution, in conjunction with esteemed fashion brands, are set to redefine the future of fashion. By championing enzymatic recycling, they are proving that the fashion industry can indeed exist symbiotically with the environment.

However, as promising as the future looks, the transition won’t be instantaneous. It will require time, investment, and collaborative efforts from all stakeholders, including consumers. The proposed changes in washing machine design to incorporate filters for capturing microfibers, as indicated in the cited LA Times report, showcase the holistic approach needed.

As consumers champion a more eco-friendly, health-conscious, and sustainable approach to fashion, the industry’s pivot to organic-based textiles supplemented with cutting-edge technology will not just be a trend but a necessity. The ongoing collaborations, technological advancements, and investments underscore a hopeful and sustainable future for fashion. While enzymatic recycling offers promise in reducing textile waste, the broader fashion industry must confront its dependency on microplastics. With a sea change looming by 2028, the emphasis should be on innovation, sustainable alternatives, and addressing the root issue of overproduction.

Retail brands that fail to adapt may find themselves marginalized in a rapidly evolving market landscape.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes with art by Alex Remy and Christina Williams 

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