I don’t remember what year it was when I first encountered fleece. What I do remember is that it was love at first wear. Its softness, warmth and lack of itchiness were a godsend to me. Prone to being cold, I’ve been wearing it ever since, from fall through early spring. I couldn’t image being without fleece – until last week, when I learned that it’s poisoning the oceans.
I’ve always understood that fleece was made from crude oil, the same toxic stuff that is currently warming our planet to an alarmingly perilous degree. I hadn’t looked into the toxic manufacturing implications, nor how much energy it takes to create fleece, as I love it too much to dissect the relationship. Then, in one of my Internet odysseys, I stumbled upon a recent study that links the microfibers of fleece to life at the bottom of the sea.
According to a recent environmental study, one piece of fleece clothing can shed close to 2000 plastic microfibers when washed. These fibers make their way from our washing machines to the bottom of the ocean. There, they are consumed by sea creatures such as clams, mussels and sardines, which are then consumed by larger fish that ultimately end up at our dinner table. I could be ingesting my own fleece jacket while dining on my favorite mussel dish at Tapas Teatro. And I could well be wearing fleece while eating. Talk about six degrees of separation.
It turns out that the fashion industry is one of the worst polluters on the planet and that really all fabrics – synthetic and natural – contribute to the degradation of our environment due to chemicals used. Still, the synthetic fabrics are the ones responsible for the non-biodegradable plastic microfibers that end up in the tissues and cells of fish. So many of my clothes have synthetic material in them! I felt terrible that I was contributing to further polluting our already polluted seas.
Another study took sand samples from 18 beaches across the globe and all had plastic microfibers in them. Was there no end to ways in which we contaminate the natural world that sustains us? And what would I do about my love of fleece? Thankfully, I stumbled upon some encouraging news.
I learned from an article by Marc Gunther that the fashion industry is not happy with the environmental footprint it is leaving and is proactively shifting the practices of the industry. Started in 2009 by an unusual team effort involving the founder of Patagonia and the chief merchandising officer of Walmart, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was formed.
The coalition includes more than 60 members including stores such as Target, GAP, Kohls, J C Penny, H&M and Hanes, to name a few. In three years, they have developed a global sustainability index to measure and score products, factories and companies for both their social and environmental impact. Their intent is to create “an apparel and footwear industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.”
Though I’d prefer that the word “unnecessary” not be in that statement, I was really happy to learn about this.
Coming back to my own dilemma, I was now conscious of the fleece I owned and unclear about whether to ever buy my beloved fleece again. I discovered that Patagonia answered this question a year ago. On Black Friday of 2011, they took out a full-page ad in the New York Times that showed one of their renowned, high quality fleece jackets with the words “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”
The ad was part of Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, which asks us to think twice before buying something in order to reduce our environmental footprint. The Initiative promotes 5 “steps ” in an intentional order:
1) Reduce what you buy. Buy what you need.
2) Repair what you have. Fix what still has life in it.
3) Reuse what you have. Pass it on to others when you no longer need it.
4) Recycle. Patagonia has recycled over 83,000 lbs. of clothing and gear since 2004!
5) Reimagine a world where we only take what nature can replace.
Patagonia offers repair, resale and recycling services to their customers as part of this pledge. I can’t imagine that every member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is going to be as thorough as Patagonia in their dedication, but all signs point to the right direction for the fashion industry. And if we as purchasers ask companies we frequent to step into this commitment more fully, they will. When it comes to the mighty dollar, customer influence has an impact.
So will the fleece still be with me? Yes. I own plenty to keep me happy for a while. I don’t wash it often because I wear layers beneath it that keep it clean for longer periods of time. When I do wash it, well, at least I’ll be conscious of what I am doing. Hopefully the makers of washing machines will soon come up with a filter that keeps the microfibers out of the sea. It will happen faster if consumers speak up in favor of it.
Right now, as an activist and writer, I don’t make enough to worry about buying more than I need. If that changes, I’m grateful to have come across Patagonia’s philosophy to keep me on the right purchasing track. We can help take care of the Earth with the purchases we make and the lives of those purchases. Everything we do matters.