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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Thesis online: The social, cultural and economic role of NCT nearly new sales

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My entire PhD thesis is available online so if you are interested you can take a look here: THE SOCIAL, CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC ROLE OF NCT NEARLY NEW SALES: Second-hand consumption and middle-class mothering

Many thanks to the participants and NCT branch volunteers who supported and contributed to the research. The project was funded by the ESRC’s Retail Industry Business Engagement Network and sponsored by NCT.

Happy reading!

Second-hand childrenswear at an NCT sale

Second-hand childrenswear at an NCT sale

Abstract: NCT nearly new sales are held across the UK as a service for local parents to buy and sell second-hand or used baby clothes, toys and equipment. This thesis investigates the social structures influencing participation, individual consumption practice at the sales (and of mothers at home) and the social role of the sales. With an emphasis on mothers as co-consumers, the study utilised a mixed-method approach of participant observation, interviewing and a quantitative survey across 13 sales/branches in the UK.

Findings suggest that the typical middle-class demographic participating in the sales are not financially or socially excluded from conventional first-cycle retail but rather attend the sales in order to get the best value for money and to buy extra, non-essential baby goods, as well as for social and moral reasons of reciprocity. The thesis explores the tensions and responsibilities of motherhood as enacted through consumption practice and structured by the themes of social class, thrift and co-consumption. As a diverse retail space, attendees with higher levels of social and cultural capital benefit most from the sales and are able to mobilise the sales for both material and social/cultural resources as a space of bonding and learning. Whilst not common, the sales can encourage further involvement with NCT as a parenting charity and in local parenting networks.

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Live LAGOM Project Update

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It’s been three months since I picked up my sustainable living stash from IKEA (see here for my first post about it). Because I live on my own in a small flat it was a struggle to spend £500 (I didn’t spend it all) – I wanted to pick things that really would be useful. The changes I’ve made have been small but I’ve become a lot more conscious about everyday living. The bulk of the money actually went on soft furnishings to keep my flat warm because with old electric heaters and no double-glazing it did get chilly! I picked a huge soft rug for my living area which made the world of difference, it was really noticeable how cold my feet got elsewhere in the house. I also put up new blackout curtains in the bedroom and blind for the kitchen. The blind was a bit tricky because I had to cut it to length so that it fit snuggly in the window. This involved sawing through the (very thin) metal rod and cutting the blind with a Stanley knife. I have a recommendation for IKEA on this – print squared guidelines on the back of the blind to make it easier to cut straight! It’s a very inexpensive way to improve the look and warmth in the kitchen though so was well worth taking the time to fit it properly.

Me enjoying the view more than DIY

Me enjoying the view more than DIY

My New Year’s Resolutions

My resolutions were 1) zero food waste 2) stop wasting heat 3) achieve 100% recycling 4) save water. I’ve already discussed saving heat so let’s think about food. First, I’ve been popping down to my local weekly ‘Veg shed’ whenever I can. Not only is it supporting local growers but it’s great value for money and means I get things in season and at their best. I’ve been far more careful with portion sizes and had a clear out of the cupboards and freezer so I could keep track of exactly what I had.

On to recycling . . . Now, I don’t think I can say I’ve reached the 100% recycling zone but I’ve certainly been trying. I took the time to visit the city council website to see exactly what could go in my recycling bins (magazines – yes, gift wrap – no) and I’ve been washing out my jars and plastic tubs rather than lazily throwing them in the bin. I found out the council even have a recycling app with all the important info and collection dates. I also had a sort out and visited the City Depot Recycling Park. It was fantastic to see so much going on. I took years’ worth of broken and unusable electronics – old kettle, lamp, laptops, things that can be broken down and disposed of/reused safely.

And finally for my saving water efforts. The main change I’ve made is to reserve baths as a treat and stick to showers. I just felt so guilty sitting in a huge tub of water. I also realized that I often took a bath to warm up when I got home but by taking the steps to keep the flat warmer anyway that wasn’t so necessary.

My plans moving forward are to keep going as I have been and as spring comes start foraging more for food!

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Ethical High Street has Launched!

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My new website Ethical High Street has launched! I came up with the idea some months ago for an easily accessible online resource which helps your average shopper navigate the British high street more ethically. I felt that other resources are often aimed at heavily engaged consumers and can be quite hard on the high street chain stores when the fact of the matter is that 99% of shoppers use them and aren’t going to actively seek out ethical brands online. So Ethical High Street actively promotes the high street and all of the shops you’ll find there – chain stores, department stores, indies and charity shops by highlighting the more ethical or sustainable options. Rather than trying to find the worst in brands, we try to show the best. It’s all about compromise.

www.ethicalhighstreet.co.uk

Ethical High Street will be a slow burner. I have other things on at the moment, like my PhD but I do have various ideas for growing it in the future. So up on the site already we have:

Myself talking about the history of modern shopping and how the way we consume has changed over the decades.

Wendy from Moral Fibres provides some great tips on shopping ethically on the high street.

Didi from Sublow Clothing talks about starting her own sustainable fashion brand.

Stephanie asks how your sportswear shapes up and reviews the brand Howies.

I talk about food co-operatives, the return from e-commerce to bricks-and-mortar stores, and more! Coming up I will be looking into Clarks shoes, People Tree, charity Christmas cards and ethical Christmas decorations.

If you’d like to contribute to the site, get in touch at emma@ethicalhighstreet.co.uk
Follow us on twitter @EthicalHighSt or Facebook.

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Ethical High Street Spotters: I need YOU!

You may have noticed that I have a new project. I haven’t talked about it much until recently, but it’s got to the point where I can’t shut-up about it now. I already had a vague idea when I went to the Innocent Inspires entrepreneurship event at the end of July, but it was Innocent co-founder Richard Reed’s simple advice ‘just start’ that got me going. Just take one step and things will start rolling forward (what d’ya know, it was true!). For me, that one step was to contact a web developer to find out if my idea had legs. It does, and I’ve done a lot over the last few weeks although I don’t feel like I have much to show for it yet.

I want to create an online resource to help consumers navigate everyday shops with more of an ethical conscience. I’ve been involved with ethical fashion for the last few years and have seen it grow exponentially but am astonished when I talk to some people that it still has hippie connotations. Shoppers think ethical fashion is expensive, unattractive and not easily accessible. They just don’t know where to start. People often tell me that I should start an ethical brand, but I think the market is saturated right now. Until more people are going out looking for that thing, we need to go back to basics.

Most of our shopping is done in the same chain stores and supermarkets, so rather than have this them-and-us divide I want to fill the gap in the middle. I think it’s better to get 50 people to make one change rather than one person change their entire life. Not least because over time those 50 people will hopefully go on to make one more change, and another, and another. I want to encourage shoppers back to independent stores with a bricks and mortar street presence, because ethical stuff shouldn’t just be online. I want to tell people that it’s ok to buy things from chain stores if you’re thoughtful about it. I want to give shoppers easy to understand and positive information about retailers rather than focusing on the politics of ethical consumption. And I want to do this across the whole high street, not just for fashion but for home and gifts too. Oh, and I want it to be stylish, not like some of those other ‘green’ websites.

There is plenty I can do with Ethical High Street; I’d like news features, shopping guides and an interactive community. I’ve since met up with another developer who had some really exciting ideas. I have a pen and notebook glued to me right now, but there is a load to do. This is where I need your help. I can’t be in ten places at once so I need all of you lovely people to keep your eye out for great products. If you’re reading this then you’re already part of those ‘in the know’. A fashion chain has launched a charity tee? A stationer has started selling recycled cards? A new ethical indie has opened in your town? Please let me know! I need a team of spotters who can tweet me or email me (pictures!) so we can start sharing tips as a community. I am also looking for contributors to write for Ethical High Street so if this is you then please get in touch.

Want to be an Ethical High Street spotter? Want to blog? Email me: emma@ethicalhighstreet.co.uk
Or Tweet: @EthicalHighSt

Still shopping; but better.

PS. Have you seen my competition? It’s not very often I just give things away you know . . .

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Shopping at Whole Foods Market the Way Nature Intended

Whilst in Cheltenham for a weekend break, my friend spotted Whole Foods Market amidst a crowded retail park on the edge of town. Having previously visited one of their stores in New York she raved that they were a super exciting place to shop so we decided to call in for a look (and for lunch). I didn’t know what to expect from Whole Foods but suffice to say, once inside I was like a kid in a candy shop. It’s like Whole Foods has curated all of my favourite things and put them under one roof – loose teas available by the weight, organic beauty products, amazing cakes, refillable wine and grains and cereals lined up like pick-and-mix. Whole Foods provides a more sustainable and ethical way to do your weekly shop and I love it.

I did some research once I got home and the business started in the US and now has a growing number of stores across the UK. Currently mainly situated in London, I really hope that they expand here, and quickly (Hampshire/Sussex would be great thanks!). I really, really hate packaging. I can see why supermarkets feel the need for it but we could all be buying many of our basics in the old fashioned way – in loose form, by weight, in refillable containers. The Whole Foods Market I went to was definitely smaller than your average supermarket but it still had all of the staples. What it didn’t have were the abundance of convenience foods and copious freezers full of ready meals that fill the shelves of all of our other supermarkets, because really, they are the things we can certainly live without. Just picture your local supermarket’s collection of toilet roll – do we really need all that choice? No.

Whole Foods also had a selection of ready-to-eat hot and cold foods – pizza, a salad bar, curry. You could take the food away or sit in their cafe area where they also sell hot drinks and cake. I could keep prattling on but the pictures say it better than I can. Happy days.

beauty

grains

wine

tea)

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