Investigating Fast Fashion’s Microplastic Problem: Contamination in the Fashion Industry’s Supply Chain

As the fast fashion industry continues to grow, so does its environmental impact. With a surge in synthetic fibers and disposable garments entering our oceans, landfills, and waterways every day, it has become increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to address the hidden microplastic problem within the fashion industry’s supply chains. 

In this blog, we will explore how microplastics enter these supply chains through raw materials and manufacturing processes, and delve into potential solutions to reduce microplastics in fast fashion supply chains. Join us as we trace the journey of microplastics from production to consumer use – and beyond.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, measuring between 1 micron and 5 millimeters in size. They can come from a variety of sources including synthetic fibers used in clothing production, microbeads found in cosmetics and face washes, and even the breakdown of larger plastics that have been discarded into our environment. These particles are small enough to pass through water filtration systems, meaning they end up making their way into our oceans, rivers, lakes – and eventually our food supply! Microplastics have become a growing environmental concern as they pose serious risks to marine life as well as human health.

Read more: Microplastics: The Big Little Problem Plaguing Oceans

Microplastics in Clothing: How Do Fast Fashion Supply Chains Contribute?

The fast fashion industry is a rapidly growing global phenomenon that focuses on producing affordable, trend-driven clothing at high speed and in large quantities. This model of production has revolutionized the way we consume clothes, but it has also had major consequences for our environment. As a result of this mass production that relies on synthetic materials and limited oversight of supply chain operations, microplastics are increasingly finding their way into water bodies around the world. In this section, we’ll review each stage of fast fashion supply chains to understand how fast fashion contributes to our global microplastic problem.

Raw Material Sourcing: The fast fashion supply chain starts with the production of raw materials. Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are often used in clothing production because they offer advantages like affordability, elasticity, and durability. These materials are excessively favored in fast fashion supply chains as well. With the pressure to meet consumer demands and keep up with ever-changing trends, factories often prioritize quantity over quality. This leads to the extensive use of synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, which are notorious for shedding breaking down, and shedding microplastics during their lifecycle.

Once the raw materials have been sourced, they must be shipped from factories to retailers all around the world. During this stage of transportation, there is potential for further microplastic release through breakage or wear and tear that occurs during shipping. 

Processing and Manufacturing: Once at their destination, the fabrics must be processed and dyed before being made into clothing garments. The processing and manufacturing of clothing is one of the most significant contributors to microplastic contamination within fast fashion supply chains. During these stages, heat and pressure are applied to synthetic materials to create fabrics or garments. This process releases even more tiny plastic particles into the environment. 

Additionally, improper waste treatment during this stage can lead to the release of microplastics when plastic residue is released via water runoff from factories. The lax environmental regulations in many fast fashion manufacturing countries allow fast fashion brands to cut corners, disregarding the proper filtration and treatment of wastewater. Consequently, untreated effluents containing microplastics and harmful chemicals are discharged into rivers and oceans, amplifying the contamination of aquatic ecosystems and posing a threat to marine life.

Use: When the garments are ready for sale and consumers take them home, microplastic contamination can continue to occur. A 2016 study found that washing clothing releases up to 700,000 tiny fibers of plastic into our water systems per wash – which eventually find their way into our food supply. 

Read more: How to Reduce Microplastic Shedding from Laundry.

Disposal: While not technically part of the fast fashion supply chain, disposal of fast fashion clothing items leads to microplastic contamination as well. Once these garments reach their end-of-life cycle they are often discarded in landfills, where their synthetic fibers can break down and release microplastics into the environment. In addition, improper disposal of clothes such as burning or throwing them in rivers and lakes also leads to further release of these tiny plastic particles. When these microfibers reach our oceans they can be ingested by fish and other marine life, and eventually work their way up the food chain to humans. This poses a major risk to human health and highlights the importance of proper disposal methods for fast fashion items.

Solutions to Fast Fashion Microplastics

There are a number of ways fashion supply chains can reduce the creation of microplastics.

First, manufacturers can reduce the amount of plastic used in production. This can be achieved by encouraging manufacturers to implement alternative materials such as organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo fibers instead of synthetic plastics. Some new textile materials can even biodegrade in water, thus eliminating concerns about fabric fibers accumulating in waterways. Additionally, manufacturers can adopt circular economy principles such as repairing and reusing items whenever possible, thus reducing single-use plastic consumption. 

Secondly, fast fashion factories must improve waste management during production. This includes proper disposal of hazardous materials that contain microplastics, as well as improved recycling procedures for plastic items that cannot be reused or recycled. By doing this, manufacturers will reduce the amount of plastic entering bodies of water through runoff from factories and ultimately limit microplastic contamination in our oceans. 

Finally, we can implement better consumer education about the environmental impact of fast fashion and proper disposal methods for garments at their end-of-life cycle. Consumers should be encouraged to donate or resell clothing items to extend their lives or opt for rental services instead of buying new garments when possible. Moreover, consumers should understand the consequences of improper disposal methods such as burning clothes or throwing them in rivers and lakes—these activities must be avoided altogether if we want to protect marine life from the danger posed by microplastics. 

Enforcing Solutions through Responsible Supply Chains

While these methods described above are all effective ways to reduce the amount of microplastics produced in clothing manufacturing, they must be enacted and enforced. The fast fashion industry is notoriously difficult to regulate, as production often occurs in countries without strict environmental regulations. Government regulation and enforcement alone may not be sufficient to address the microplastic problem in the fast fashion industry. Enforcing effective methods to reduce microplastics in clothing manufacturing also requires supply chain management and auditing. Brands can enhance visibility and control by conducting audits, collaborating with suppliers, and implementing sustainable practices. Consumer awareness and demand also drive change. Through a collective approach that combines regulation, supply chain management, and consumer engagement, we can foster a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry.

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