Micro-fibre pollution: why what you wear matters

Whilst pollution from plastic bags, coffee cups and microbeads has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, another microplastic pollutant is passing under our noses on a daily basis. This pesky plastic is barely detectable to the eye, yet is polluting our ocean ecosystems at a terrifying rate. It is synthetic microfibres, and it’s a macro problem.

These microfibers come from the synthetic clothes and textiles so prevalent in daily life. It’s been estimated that 700,000 fibres could be released into wastewater on an average wash and spin load. Whilst natural fibres like wool and cotton are biodegradable, synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are not. These fibres are manmade from fossil fuels so, not only are the CO2 emissions from polyester production 3x that of cotton, but the fibres hang around for a loooong time.

Take a look at the clothes you’re wearing now, what are they made of? Mine are mostly cotton (it’s a lounging kind of day), but my Sweaty Betty yoga top is 50% Merino wool, 34% Tencel, 16% Polyamide. It’s an interesting example because this includes all three of the fibre types; wool is natural, Tencel is a regenerated fibre from wood cellulose and Polyamide is manmade, very similar to polyester. In fact, polyester can be found in 60% of our clothing and it’s easy to see why; polyester is cheap, durable, crease-resistant and easy care. In some ways it’s more environmentally-friendly to produce than cotton because it has a lower water footprint and there’s no need for pesticides, but it does have a bigger carbon footprint.

Despite polyester’s useful properties I tend to prioritise natural fibres over synthetics because they are exactly that – natural. I have been aware of the ability to release microfiber pollution through the process of washing our clothes but it wasn’t until I spoke to Gintare from Amberoot that it really hit home. Gintare has a close affinity to nature and is passionate about reducing plastic pollution. Based in Brighton, UK, Gintare left a job in banking to set up a sustainable and ethical online clothing shop. Her goal is to encourage consumption behaviours that do not have a negative impact on the environment, other people or animals. Although she works with brands that emphasis holistic ethical work practices, the story behind Amberoot isn’t one of fairtrade or organic clothing per se, but instead is focused on shunning the pollution caused by synthetic fibres, turning instead back to natural ones. Natural fibres doesn’t mean just cotton and wool either; there is a growing list of exciting options from bamboo to orange fibre!

Gintare says: “The research regarding the microfiber effect on soil, air and health effects on humans is currently ongoing. There was some research regarding the health effects of inhaling microfibers and on health effects for soil and eventually us. But this is just very beginning, more studies are surely to come.”

The environmental impact of washing synthetic fibres has attracted a few studies but results are not conclusive. A study by the University of Plymouth for example found that more microfibers are released in the first four washes a new garment receives and that fabric composition and detergent choice also affect the amount of fibres released. Polyester-cotton mix consistently shed significantly fewer fibres than either polyester or acrylic. The addition of bio-detergent and fabric conditioner increased the numbers of fibres shed. Another study from earlier this year found that worn (old) fabrics shed more in the wash as did looser textile weaves.

Based on the research there are things you can do to limit your microplastic fibre footpoot:

1. If you need the performance of polyester, try poly-cotton mix (or something like my Sweaty Betty top) rather than 100% synthetic fibre.
2. Wash at a lower temperature. In the aforementioned study by Imogen Napper at Plymouth, washing at 40 degrees led to more fibres shed than at 30.
3. Try a GuppyFriend washing bag.
4. If you know a plumber, you could attach a filter system to your machine. It seems to me that manufacturers should be working towards this as standard. Maybe they are.
5. Look for natural fibres, care for them and wear them for years to come.

Amberoot is well worth a browse because Gintare has curated a range of beautiful brands, many of which were new to me. What’s particularly useful about the website is you can shop by accreditation (e.g. Fairwear, B Corp, PETA) as well as by brand. Buying natural, biodegradable fabrics means that you can avoid the pollution effects scientists are now discovering are caused by synthetic fibres. Amberoot stocks men’s and women’s clothes as well as home goods. I’m very tempted by the Motumo loose-fit linen dresses (see above)- yes they will need ironing, but I just wouldn’t wash it all that often! I also love the lingerie and nightwear by AmaElla and knitwear by Izzy Lane. The latter is knitted from the undyed wool of rescued sheep. If that doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, I don’t know what will.

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Chilpa: Handmade and fairly traded products from Mexico

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UK-based Mexican fashion brand Chilpa is producing a new range of contemporary products made with traditional Mexican scarves (known as rebozos). A rebozo is a long flat garment similar to a scarf, used since colonial times to cover up and carry babies, and for centuries they have been made in small-home based workshops on mechanical foot looms. The use of these weaving looms requires no fossil fuels or electricity so it has minimal environmental impact, and they are dyed by hand in small batches. Chilpa’s rebozos are made with a traditional ikat technique (where the cotton is tied together previous to dyeing then untied to reveal the pattern).

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Unlike other new brands, Chilpa’s products champion slow fashion – moving away from the reliance on globalised mass produced garments sold at low prices to favour close collaboration with the people they work with and reinvesting a percentage of the profits to train a new generation of artisans. Chilpa treats the artisans who make its products as its own internal employees, as they believe that the fashion business’ archaic model needs an upgrade – moving away from low wages and poor working conditions, fostered by many people’s belief that fashion is cheap and disposable. As a way of changing this mind-set, every one of Chilpa’s products celebrates the artisan who made it by including their name and portrait on the label attached to it.

“I set up Chilpa because I was tired of Mexican mis-representations in the media in so many negative ways. I had also seen how fashion designers became famous by using rebozo fabrics, without acknowledging the people who made it and I wanted to do the opposite”, explains Maru Rojas, Chilpa’s founder.

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Maru worked with a professional fashion designer and seamstress in London to produce a new range of practical yet beautiful bags incorporating the fabrics of the rebozos. Local seamstresses, working in small workshops rather than factories, manufacture all the bags in Mexico. Most of the bags use eco-friendly jute fabric as an alternative to cotton. Chilpa is committed to responsibly sourcing all their materials and ensuring the production process pays a fair wage to all those employed.

Chilpa is raising funds via a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to help produce this new range of products ranging from tote bags to exclusive silk rebozos. All items can be pre-ordered until October 7th, 2015. Check out the campaign here.

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Uni Project Turned Brit Business: Get Made in Britain Clothes Online

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The British Clothing Co is a brand new online retailer of sustainably sourced, British manufactured accessories and clothing.

The idea was originally dreamed up as part of a university project in 2013, as Hollie, then studying Fashion Marketing at Nottingham Trent, wanted to research into an area she felt strongly about; ethical and sustainable fashion. At the time, there was becoming slightly more awareness of British manufacturing due to the likes of Mary Portas’ “Kinky Knickers” campaign, along with some major retailers releasing British made ranges.

From here she researched into consumer attitudes towards fashion consumption, whilst also speaking to a range of manufacturers within the British Isles. She found that most of these manufacture small-scale production lines and even bespoke products, making sure they are of the highest quality, and meaning they will last for season after season. This is the complete antithesis of the disposable, fast-fashion many British consumers have become accustomed too.

After graduating, gaining industry experience and doing some traveling, Hollie decided in early 2015 to put the ideas into action and started The British Clothing Co. Putting together a brand with a strong ethos and range of suppliers who resonate the same values of quality and craftsmanship. The mission being to educate and inspire consumers of the wide selection of quality garments produced from a variety of brands within Britain, proving that fashion can be sustainable, for the environment and their local economy.

At present, The British Clothing Co stocks pieces from a variety of brands from across the British Isles. For the sartorial gentleman they stock garments by Meccanica Cycles and Quantock Clothing, including Chinos, Polo Shirts, Merino Knitwear and Polo Shirts, along with a small preview-collection from Living in Light. For the classically stylish woman, there is a wider range of boho-inspired dresses from Living In Light, along with Hugget Jackets and incredibly feminine workwear by Client London. Along with accessories, including hard-wearing canvas backpacks by Sidewinder Apparel and up-cycled clutch bags by Reniqlo.

Check out these pieces and more at www.thebritishclothingco.co.uk. Additional lines to be added soon!

100% British wool pencil skirt, £69

100% British wool pencil skirt, £69

Made in London stripe backpack, £139

Made in London stripe backpack, £139

Made in Britain menswear

Made in Britain menswear

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SWAGS World do Christmas with Sustainable Artisan Crafts

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Christmas is fully upon us. I know this because my weekly Sunday paper has doubled in size under the weight of branded gift guides, the Christmas market has opened in town and television adverts are united in a singular voice – buy our stuff for your best Christmas ever. We don’t have to partake in this commercialised view of Christmas though, should we want to do it differently. When it comes to buying gifts and decorating the home in the lead up to the big day, there are ways to give a gift that goes further than simply that received by the recipient.

Take SWAGS World for example. Buy one of their products – bags, sandals and dolls – and you are helping to empower a woman in South East Asia to earn her own income through her artisan craft. Joanne White founded SWAGS World (Simply Women and Girls Sustainable World) as a social enterprise offering affordable, accessible products for socially responsible shoppers, all handmade by women in South East Asia. The artisan women involved receive a fair price for their products through sustainable employment that will accommodate their family life and other commitments. SWAGS World pay 50% of the price of each item to the producers upfront, and the SWAGS Academy programme helps by providing training and support in creating a long-term artisan trade.

You can check out their products online. Their fabric covered Christmas tree decorations (£6) are absolutely gorgeous and are great stocking fillers. Each one has a special meaning, the globe symbolises celebration with family and friends. The recycled newspaper print shopper is practical, fun and classically designed, but my favourite product has to be the Harmony Dolls. Designed to spark curiosity in children, and an acceptance of diversity in the world, they are made by a co-operative of women on the island of Atauro, East Timor and are totally delightful.

SWAGS World christmas globe
SWAGS world recycled Handbag Newsprint

SWAGS World are based locally to me in Hampshire, so I got to ask the team about their future plans:

1. Where can we buy your stuff?

Our exclusive handmade products are currently available in our online store at swagsworld.com. We share the stories of the artisans we work with, so our customers can connect with the women who have created the products they are buying.

2. What’s the SWAGS Worldwide marketplace?

Our dream has always been to make ethical products desirable, accessible and affordable. With our Marketplace, we hope to offer a global collection of products for socially responsible consumers; an alternative to mass-produced, throwaway fashion, poor working conditions and undervalued labour. We will provide an online platform for consumers to purchase handmade items from artisans all around the world, with the knowledge that they are having a positive impact on people who really need it.

3. What would a real SWAGS world look like?

We believe a true SWAGS World would be positive, honest, educational, supportive and sustainable. We hope that with the continuing growth of ethical, sustainable brands and increasing choice for consumers, we are getting closer to this vision!

SWAGS World Harmony Dolls

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In Search of Sustainable School Uniform

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A few weeks ago I was in the FAIR shop, Brighton, chatting to owner Siobhan about the perils of kid’s school uniforms. Manufactured in their masses and worn five days a week by children in the UK they are a significant part of the clothes economy. Parents also have little control over what they must buy as most schools have designated suppliers, and certainly regulations on colour and style. Most suppliers focus on price and practicality, resulting in cheap synthetic materials which might wash well but could be uncomfortable and unhealthy to wear, and manufactured with little ethical regard for people and planet.

Just days after this chat I heard from Ecooutfitters, the first independent school uniform brand. Ecooutfitters school uniforms are made of ethically sourced, 100% organic cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), ensuring that production meets rigorous environmental and social standards. Thus an Ecooutfitter uniform cares for every individual in the chain not least the children that wear them. The entrepreneurs behind the brand, Marina and Irina, are both mothers themselves and were inspired by the desire to dress their young boys in natural, healthy fibres every single day, not just at the weekends. They said ““When you consider that our children are forced to wear these harmful fabrics for some 36.5 hours a week, running around all day, getting hot, sweaty and agitated, at a vital stage of their development, we knew something had to be done and Ecooutfitters was born.”

The British Skin Foundation has reported a dramatic rise in the number of children in the UK suffering from irritable skin conditions, with at least 10% of children suspected to suffer from eczema during their childhood. Many items of children’s clothing is Teflon coated to repel stains but such chemicals can irritate delicate skin and detrimental long term effects on health aren’t really known. Whilst Marina and Irina were motivated by the desire to banish such chemicals from their children’s wardrobes, they quickly learnt about the hugely devastating effects of the non-organic cotton industry on the communities and the environment around the world.

ecooutfitters shorts

Production of a single cotton T-shirt requires a third of a pound of dangerously toxic pesticides, the effects of which result in 77 million cases of poisoning recorded every year, 20,000 of which result in death. These revelations put ethical production at the heart of the Ecooutfitters mission and since organic cotton doesn’t use dangerous pesticides, protecting farmers’ lives and the environment, it became an obvious choice. “Our uniforms are not only healthier, comfortable and ethical, but competitively priced, durable and practical, disproving the widely held belief that cotton uniform cannot withstand the playground test.”

For more information, to buy or to nominate your school to offer the Ecooutfitters uniform, go to www.ecooutfitters.co.uk

For more information on the concerns about chemicals found in children’s wear, take a look at Greenpeace’s Little Monster campaign

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Ethical Leather Bags & Accessories by Yorkshire-Based Magpie Accessories

Camerastrap

Unwrapping my beautifully packaged new leather camera strap from Magpie Accessories, I was in awe of how soft the leather was at first touch. The violet camera strap was the perfect accessory to jazz up my SLR, attaching elegantly with a buckle fastening. Magpie Accessories manufacture high-quality leather bags and accessories from their studio in Yorkshire, England. They are a luxury British brand with ethics and sustainability at their heart.

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Established by Kathryn Sillince in 2008 with the help of a Princes Trust loan and Arts Council grant, Magpie Accessories officially launched in 2010. Kathryn started conceptualising the brand in 2006, when as a student of the London College of Fashion, she began researching leather suppliers and material processes for making leather goods. This can be a total minefield. The processing of leather is very labour intensive for people and planet, and it is difficult as a consumer to know which brands to trust with their leather sourcing. With this in mind, Kathryn wanted to go about it the right way, ensuring that every aspect of her business was as ethical as possible and building a brand that consumers could trust.

This led to a range of handcrafted goods produced in the finest locally sourced leather. Each leather hide comes from an organically fed animal and is a by-product of the food industry. The hides are sourced from local farms around the UK, not shipped halfway around the world, and each piece is handcrafted in the Yorkshire based studio. As the label grows they are committed to keeping manufacturing in the UK, supporting British industry and keeping their carbon footprint low. Magpie produce men’s and women’s bags, everything from clutches to travel bags, as well as laptop and smartphone sleeves, guitar straps, camera straps, passport holders and glasses cases. They pride themselves on the ability to work directly with customers and offer personalised embossing on many of their products.

In addition to using the best quality leathers, the linings of all products are made with organic fair trade cottons, using water-based eco-friendly inks for prints. All orders are beautifully gift-wrapped in eco-paper. I thoroughly enjoyed trying out my camera strap. Not only does it look smart and sophisticated, but it is made to the highest quality and feels entirely safe and secure at holding my camera. In addition to the plain straps, they offer fun character designs including a ‘Gerald Giraffe’ and ‘Finlay Frog’. I’ve definitely got my eye on their glorious messenger bags too, perfect for work and play.

You can get your own handcrafted leather loveliness online at www.magpieaccessories.com or at one of their stockists.

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