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Our position on microfibres

Our aim is to be the most sustainable and environmentally sound performance sportswear company in the UK, and eventually the world.

The majority of performance sportswear is made from synthetic fibres, principally based on polyester and nylon.  They are hardwearing, flexible and can be developed to be completely fit for purpose whether that be to wick sweat, add compression, to warm/cool the body, etc.

Our approach is to use fibres and fabrics made from recycled plastics such as plastic bottles (from which a high quality polyester can be derived) and from fishing nets and carpets (which give us high quality Nylon).  Using materials made from recycled yarns significantly reduces energy and water use compared to using materials made from a virgin crude oil (which accounts for the vast majority of man-made fibres on the market).

But we can’t escape from the universal law that every action has a reaction.  In our case it turns out that clothes made from synthetic fibres shed small particles (“microfibres”) when washed, which can be released to the waterways and ultimately to the ocean.  There is an increasing awareness of the issues of microfibre pollution, with the mainstream media highlighting the problem (see the Guardian and the BBC amongst others).

The problem is that these fibres are microscopic so can easily be ingested by marine mammals.  Given their high surface area they are prone to trapping toxic chemicals on their surface.  These can then bioaccumulate in the food chain and ultimately end up in our food chain (I could write a thesis on the chemicals widely used in the textiles industry and how and why we’re avoiding these wherever possible, but that’s for another time).

The obvious solution is to look at natural fibres instead of synthetic, and we will continue to do so.  However none of these are yet as well suited for such a wide range of sportswear uses as synthetic fibres and sadly many natural fibres come with considerable impacts as well (think of the huge water and pesticide consumption to grow cotton as a prime example).

Many bodies are carrying out research into the microfibre problem (see Patagonia’s microfibre study and the #dontfeedthefish to name just a couple) and I am truly hopeful that a technological solution can be found to this very pressing issue.

If we’re to continue to use synthetics in our sportswear for the foreseeable future we can’t just sit on the sidelines.  So I’m really pleased to announce that we’re about to begin a research project that will specifically look at how additives to the recycling process can make the yarns less prone to shedding fibres.  More on that to follow.

From a global perspective we had more good news this week – the United Nations have agreed that the world needs to completely stop plastic waste from entering the oceans.  This is a huge, and extremely positive step.  Whilst there is no mandatory requirement for each nation to cut their plastic-inputs to the ocean as a result of this agreement we’re very hopeful that this will lead to the development of progressive legislation over time.

A note of caution though - we shouldn’t be under any illusion about how difficult this will be.  A recent report by environmental consultancy Eunomia states that approximately 1 million tonnes of microplastics enter the oceans each year.  Roughly 1/5th are from textiles, the rest are from paints, plastic pellets, microbeads, and  tyre dust.

The fact remains – most actions that we take as inhabitants of this planet will have some form of impact.  Clothes manufacture has historically had very serious negative environmental impacts (and don’t get me started on the ethics of fast fashion).  We’re part of a growing number of innovative companies trying to tackle this issue head on but it’s going to be some time before any company is truly able to say “our clothing has no impact on the environment”.  Until we get there the best way to minimise your impact right now is:

  • buy well, buy once (the cheapest clothing is shown to shed most microfibres, not to mention the impact on labour etc)
  • wash less often, and at lower temperature (shedding less fibres and reducing energy and water consumption)
  • use a front-loading washing machine (shown to shed approximately 5 times less than top loading machines)
  • use a laundry bag for washing your clothes
  • repair any minor damage to your clothes instead of throwing them away – patches are on trend right now! Reducing our consumption is the most sustainable step we can take

Rob Webbon
CEO, GRN Sportswear