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Of the 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, it’s estimated that 70 per cent are made of plastic.Alex Bamford/Supplied

You may be surprised to learn how much plastic is hiding in your closets. That designer handbag you saved months for likely contains material made from fossil fuels. So, too, the cozy fleece you throw on to walk the dog, your favourite skinny jeans, your workout gear and most of the stuff in your sock and underwear drawers.

The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that of the 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, 70 per cent are made of plastic (mainly polyester and nylon) – a number on track to rise. And the tiny microfibres shed from all those plastic-filled clothes – mainly through washing but also through regular wear and tear – are in the water we drink, the lakes and oceans we swim in and the air we breathe.

Four ways to minimize the impact of plastics in your clothing

“We’ve all become well-educated about the hazards of plastic waste from bottles, bags and straws, but we just don’t think of our clothes as a form of plastic,” says Heather Podoll, who works with Fibershed, a non-profit in California focused on developing healthy natural fibre textile systems.

“You might think you are a sustainable shopper, buying from brands that use recycled fibres, but I challenge anyone to do a deep dive into their own wardrobe and look carefully at the labels. They’re usually very surprised.”

I took her dare and pulled out a random sample of things: a bathing suit, T-shirts, khaki pants, a raincoat, leggings and a sweater. I didn’t find the word “plastic” anywhere, but I did spot polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex (also called Lycra or elastane), fleece, polyolefin and polyamide – all plastic made from crude oil.

It’s important to take a step back to better understand how we ended up in this plastic predicament. In the long history of textiles, synthetic fibres are relative newbies to the game. Nylon was invented in 1935 by U.S. chemical giant DuPont and polyethylene terephthalate – the most common polyester used in clothing – came along six years later, courtesy of textile maker Calico Printers’ Association in the U.K.

Synthetics, lauded for their strength and resistance to wrinkles and water, were also faster and less expensive to produce than natural fibres from plants (cotton, linen, hemp) or animals (leather, silk).

Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action in Toronto, says around the year 2000 there was a “tipping point” when synthetics displaced cotton as the dominant fibre. “Up to 50 per cent cheaper to produce than regular cotton, the use of synthetics has since steadily increased,” adds Drennan, whose non-profit organization works to promote sustainability in fashion.

Then along came fast and ultrafast fashion brands such as Shein and ASOS, which churn out subpar-quality clothes based on the latest trends. These companies need cheap fabrics to make their business models work, Drennan says, so synthetics became entrenched. The UN Environment Programme estimates the average consumer now buys 60 per cent more garments annually than they did 15 years ago, but wear them for just half as long.

Only a tiny proportion of these fabrics are ever recycled, with the vast majority ending up in landfills such as the eyesore in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is estimated to contain at least 40,000 tonnes of discarded clothes.

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Georgia-Rae Taylor, sustainability strategy director at Eco-Age in Britain says if the fashion industry continues with business as usual, in less than 10 years almost three-quarters of all textiles will be made from fossil fuels.Alex Bamford/Supplied

“What many people don’t realize is that fashion is on the cusp of becoming the cash cow of the oil and gas industry,” says Georgia-Rae Taylor, sustainability strategy director at Eco-Age in Britain. “Consumers often think of oil and gas in the context of cars and transport. They don’t connect it to fashion. But the fossil-fuel industry is eyeing fashion as their next cash cow, and that’s very alarming.”

If the fashion industry continues with business as usual, she adds, in less than 10 years almost three-quarters of all textiles will be made from fossil fuels.

While there is much to criticize, there are moves – at the top and the bottom of a complex global supply chain – to push truly sustainable fashion forward. On the grassroots research side, for instance, Alt Tex in Kitchener, Ont., is working to commercialize their process of re-engineering food waste into biodegradable fabrics intended to replace polyester. In the U.S., textile manufacturer Unifi has amassed a client base that includes Vivaia, Lands’ End, Quiksilver and Teva for Repreve, its high-performance recycled polyester made from postconsumer water bottles.

Three ways Canadian companies are advancing sustainable fashion

Seven years ago, when Montreal fashion designer Cynthia Savard was starting Oraki, her brand of women’s athleisure wear, it was impossible to find a recycled polyester she could stand behind. Finally, after 24 months of digging she discovered Repreve, “which is not perfect, but far better than using virgin polyester,” she says.

Since then, her company has aggressively pursued eradicating all non-recycled (virgin) plastic from its supply chain. To date the brand has helped remove more than 16 million bottles from landfills and Oraki now incorporates both recycled nylon and fibres made from dented corn and wood pulp. Savard is also researching the viability of leather made from mushrooms and grapes.

“Our industry has such a long way to go. I look around and I think everything can be made better than it is right now,” Savard says. “But we are trying to make a difference. We follow demand and buy just enough fabric to do the exact production we need. We do very small quantities and when there is no more, there is no more. We are anti-overconsumption, not pushing it like fast fashion does.”

Another Canadian brand pushing greater sustainability is outdoor footwear company Thesus (formerly Alice + Whittles). Last month, the Toronto-based firm shared the intellectual property (IP) for its popular Weekend Boot – which is vegan and made with more than 95 per cent natural and recycled products – listing all its producers, materials suppliers, processes, patterns and ecosystem mapping.

The reason they did so, says founder Sofi Khwaja, is to urge other outdoor-clothing brands such as Patagonia, Merrell, REI and the North Face to use it and accelerate the design’s impact. “We’re acutely aware that as a small, niche brand we can’t do this alone.” Still, since 2021 Thesus has sold $3-million worth of the boot, removing 25,000 pounds of plastic from oceans and landfill.

But no matter how you cut it, recycled fibres are still plastic, Khwaja says. “It’s a medium-term solution. What we need to do is build our garments in such a way that it comes from nature and goes back to nature – and plastic sits nowhere in that sentence.”

Eco-Age’s Taylor says it’s impressive when brands come right out and acknowledge they are works in progress and far from perfect. “They are taking a stance on sustainability,” she says. “They’re saying to their customers, look, it’s a journey and we have a lot to improve on, but come along on that journey with us.”

In the meantime, consumers have to do their part. We need to stop buying fast fashion when possible and instead focus on choosing quality over quantity.

Fibreshed’s Podoll recommends buying certified organic or sustainably sourced fabrics that guzzle less water. These include organic cotton, linen, hemp, ethical wool and ethical silk. Some clothes also have ecofriendly certification, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which shows they have met certain environmental criteria.

Of the recycled synthetics on the markets, decent alternatives include Tencel Lyocell, a cellulosic fibre created by dissolving wood pulp. (It requires less energy and waste to produce than regular cotton.) Another is Econyl, from the Italian firm Aquafil, which is made from recycled synthetic waste such as industrial plastic and fishing nets from the ocean. (It has a lower carbon footprint than conventional nylon yarn). Brands including Stella McCartney, Prada, Gucci, Adidas, Speedo and Patagonia have all used this performance fabric.

An even better option is to buy second-hand or rent.

Every little thing we do to minimize our reliance on synthetics goes a long way to making the planet a healthier place, says Dr. Peter Ross, senior scientist and healthy water programs director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in British Columbia.

A few years ago, Ross was part of four expeditions across the Arctic Ocean. They sampled water as deep as 1,000 metres and found an average of 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre – 92 per cent of which were microfibres from clothing. Nearly three-quarters were polyester.

“It illustrates how contaminated our planet has become with synthetic polymers,” Ross says. “It also shows we are living in a small global village and we are connected as consumers, as homeowners, as individuals, through our behaviours, our choices and our activities to the furthest reaches of the planet.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed rayon as a plastic fabric made from crude oil. It has been removed from the list of examples.

Rick Smith decided to conduct an experiment on himself to see if he could measure an increase of microplastics in his body. The author and Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute says the lab-based tests on his stool samples are the first of their kind in North America to search for traces of the tiny plastic particles in people. Microplastics have been discovered circulating in the environment and are linked to health concerns.

The Globe and Mail

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