How the Fashion Industry is Tackling Three Major Impacts on Our Ocean – Bringing Hope for the Decade of the Ocean

08 June 2022 by Liam Goldsworthy
blog author

​The old adage ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea’ has been replaced with the inconceivable ‘By 2050 plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish’ (according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in partnership with The World Economic Forum). 

But with World Oceans Day and the Decade of the Ocean’s science goals for sustainable development, a much-needed spotlight has been shone on the challenges urgently requiring prompt action for systemic change to save our oceans. As a result, industries such as fashion that inflict significant damage are stepping up and investing in innovation and technology to lessen their ocean impact, as well as committing to pre-competitive multistakeholder collaboration, to accelerate the change required. 

More than three billion people rely on the ocean’s biodiversity for their livelihood, and the ‘big blue’ not only provides us with oxygen and food but also absorbs around 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity. We owe the ocean a lot and the fashion industry, which is responsible for around 2-8 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions has responded to this. Renowned for being a water-intensive and wasteful industry, textiles account for around nine per cent of the microplastics that end up in the sea every year, causing ocean acidification and harming marine biodiversity. 

To explore how the fashion industry is responding, we’ve spotlighted three key ocean-related environmental impact areas that are requiring a transformational and forward-thinking response from the industry: 

1. Microplastics      

These miniscule plastic particles (less than 5mm in size) are causing havoc in rivers and the ocean, with 500,000 tonnes of microfibres washing off clothing and causing ocean pollution annually.  

Every time we launder garments, a mass exodus of tiny fibres (such as nylon, polyester, viscose and acrylic) enters the waterways (up to 700,000 synthetic fibres shed from our clothes in a typical wash). Eventually reaching the sea, they are eaten by plankton and fish, and eventually the fish that seafood lovers love to consume. We’re not only devouring our clothes, but also nasty chemicals that attach to these microfibres and make its way through the food chain, into our bloodstream. This is a morbid and oversimplified explanation, but one which science is increasingly proving to be broadly factual. 

While some brands jump on the eco bandwagon by introducing recycled nylon (ECONYL®) with other sustainable fibres, it is still plastic. According to Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism movement, a staggering 22 million tonnes of microfibres will enter the sea by 2050 unless the fashion industry overhauls its system. SO, what can be done to protect our ocean from microfibres?   

One effective solution is for brands to stop producing clothing made from plastic fibres and focus on making natural textiles such as linen, silk, cashmere, bamboo, flax, wool, jute, and hemp more cost effective.  

While garments made from these mostly plant-based textiles may come at a higher price, they boast a lower environmental impact encouraging consumers to support the slow fashion movement. Better still, repairing, repurposing or reselling clothes helps bolster the circular economy.  

This responsibility shouldn’t always fall at the feet of the brands and consumers, however, and policymakers are being urged to step up and share responsibility for the microplastic crisis, by helping to encourage consumer behaviour change, force the hand of fashion businesses and innovate via policy and new legislation. 

For example, France has become the first country to introduce a policy requiring all new household washing machines to have filters to trap microplastic particles by 2025. Lastly, there is an abundance of tech innovations springing up, such as fibre modification and fabric coatings to prevent shedding, but more research is required at this stage. 

 

 2. Macroplastics

Greater progress has been made in addressing larger plastics measuring more than 5mm and while they aren’t as tiny as microplastics, they are playing a deadly role in stirring up the litter storm in the sea. Fortunately, negotiations are underway for a United Nations Treaty on Plastic Pollution, to banish macroplastic pollution on a global scale. 

This positive step towards decisive action is a huge turning point as the mandate will look at the cause, rather than just the symptoms, scrutinising every aspect from cradle to grave. This will include initial product design and production to managing the waste at the end, fully realising a circular economy and generating an ultra-efficient process. 

Nations have committed to an international legally binding agreement by 2024 that will see Heads of State, Ministers of environment and UN Member State representatives unite to address the entire lifecycle of plastic, a move which has been hailed as “the most important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord”, according to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Innovation plays a major part and one company, Humblebee, has taken a novel approach to search for an alternative solution. 

The New Zealand-based firm is on a mission to replace plastic in textiles with a substance it has discovered from a solitary bee species. The bee produces a bioplastic to waterproof its nest and the company is developing a way to create the same substance sustainably, by using the bee’s DNA, and then bringing it to scale via the use of microbes. This is the science of biomimicry or the art of copying nature. 

The CEO and brains behind Humble Bee, Veronica Harwood-Stevenson, swiftly discovered the unique bee substance is resistant to water, acids, and most solvents and is flame resistant. It is an incredible notion that one small bee, from the Hylaeus genus, can create a substance so highly performing it could be transformational, not only for fashion but spanning across many industries, if scaled up and brought to market. 

 Another organisation working to protect the ocean from macro and microplastics is The Fashion Pact, a global coalition compromising more than 70 CEOs representing a third of the fashion and textile industry. These include Burberry, Gap, Adidas, Chanel, H&M, Nike, Puma, Stella McCartney and Kering. 

 With one of their 3 pillars focused on ocean action, the group is calling for innovators to step forward and present ideas for solutions to the plastic crisis, via its (RE)SET for The Fashion Pact. The unique opportunity aims to replace all single-use plastic packaging in the fashion supply chain such as hangers, shopping bags, shrink film, shirt clips and polybags. 

 New solutions incubated through The Fashion Pact and scaled via its multi stakeholder platform of CEOs and CSOs at member businesses, could hold the key to transforming the way plastics are used and disposed of in fashion. 

 

 3. Wastewater 

The fashion industry is renowned for being exceptionally water-intensive – it is responsible for 20 per cent of global wastewater and uses 7,500 litres just to make one pair of jeans, according to the UN.  

The statistic may seem incomprehensible but when you consider that data includes water used to grow the cotton as well as every step of the denim production, the figures add up. 

Designer Stella McCartney – famous for her sustainable fabrics – admits the fashion industry is “incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment” and the precious commodity must be preserved. But how can this be achieved when we rely on water to grow cotton and produce textiles (25 billion gallons for one year’s worth of global textile production including cotton farming, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation)?  

A focus on efficiency throughout the entire value chain is a key requirement here; from Primark’s flagship Sustainable Cotton programme which educates 100,000+ farmers on sustainable cotton farming practices whilst enriching livelihoods to working with production sites that recycle their water preventing unnecessary waste. 

There is also the problem of water pollution, as 85 per cent of water used in textile processing is used for dyeing the fabrics, which can lead to runoff, polluting nearby water sources and the same goes for fertilisers used for growing cotton. Tainted wastewater can be catastrophic for health and is the culprit for some rises in disease, particularly in Bangladesh and India, in addition to the aforementioned impact on marine wildlife and subsequently our own health.  

Producing higher quality products is a less water-intensive solution which will also prolong the garment’s lifecycle in addition, the dyeing and end process of garment production can be re-evaluated via research for more environmentally friendly alternatives. 

One such solution is the ZDHC Programme (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) which aims to create long-lasting change by supporting the entire value chain in benchmarking safer products to reduce the industry’s chemical footprint.  

Similar to The Fashion Pact, ZDHC’s Roadmap to Zero programme has united organisations through its global ecosystem, built through collaboration, to transform the way chemicals are used. The community shares ideas, knowledge and sustainable chemical management best practices for brands and retailers to implement sustainable chemistry and protect the environment as well as consumers and workers.  

Two years into the Decade of the Ocean sees the fashion industry taking some meaningful steps toward reducing and mitigating its impacts on our ocean, but these are complex, wide-reaching, and systemically linked to efforts to tackle climate and land-based biodiversity threats. The hope is that existing work through supporting innovative start-ups, influencing consumer behaviour, lobbying policymakers and pre-competitive C-suite level multi stakeholder collaboration, can foster the change necessary to avoid realising the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s damning outlook on what our oceans may look like by 2050.  

This article mentions just a few, but what other multi stakeholder initiatives and innovative start-ups are worth noting that could have a transformational influence on reducing the fashion industry’s impact on our ocean? 

If you’re curious to explore this further and understand how organisations are resourcing to tackle ocean-related impacts, get in touch with liam.goldsworthy@acre.com 

 Liam Goldsworthy is Principal Consultant in Acre’s UK Sustainable Business function supporting organisations across fashion, luxury, and home industries. Liam also manages the Acre Foundation, developing and fostering strategic partnerships with values-aligned causes/charities such as Ocean Generation.