The unravelling

RE-Wave3_AuthorsWeb-Gacon.png   By Bertrand Gacon, Head of Impact Investing, Lombard Odier Investment Managers

A hidden danger is devastating our waters. To fix it, we may need to rethink an entire industry

In 2014, a study estimated that a minimum of 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing over 265,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans1. That figure does not account for fragments washed ashore, consumed by wildlife, below surface level or smaller than 0.33mm. Most worrying are microplastic fragments – those less than 4.75mm long. Although they only account for 13 per cent of plastic pollution by weight, they make up 92.4 per cent of it by number; and they are the most likely pieces to slip through filtration systems, escape cleanup efforts, and enter the food chain.

It is likely that you find all this shocking, yet unsurprising. We are surrounded by plastic, and the problem of plastic pollution is well known. But in recent years, something curious about the makeup of all that plastic pollution has come to light. In around 2013, at Lake Michigan, USA, Professor Sherri Mason cut open a fish from the water for the first time. What she found shocked her. The fish was riddled with synthetic fibres, which appeared to be "weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract."2 Fish from the lake regularly end up on local dinner tables. And the problem is not limited to the Great Lakes. A 2014 review of the literature found that microfibres are one of the most common forms of microplastic pollution globally, and that fish in locations across the world ingest them in massive quantities3. So where are all these microfibres coming from? To solve this mystery, we must turn to the fashion industry and examine how it has changed over the last half century.

A worrying trend

Fashion 1.0: Before the 1960s, clothes were almost always sold in their country of origin, and fashion had just two seasons: warm, and cool. But with increased globalisation came access to cheap labour in developing countries, and retailers saw an opportunity. As prices fell, they were able to encourage their customers to buy more garments more regularly, allowing retailers to gradually increase the frequency of their fashion seasons. As customers grew to expect ever cheaper apparel, a feedback loop was created between the interests of retailers and customers that set the industry on a course to Fashion 2.0 – the paradigm known as fast fashion. Today, we effectively have 52 fashion seasons a year as retailers demand new lines every week to keep customers buying. In the 1960s, the US produced 95 per cent of its clothing domestically. As of 2013, that figure stands at just 3 per cent4.


Fashion 2.0 has come at a huge cost, some aspects of which are relatively well-known. For example, the relentless drive for ever cheaper clothing has had a devastating effect on the people in developing countries who make it, with unfair trade giving rise to unethical labour practices and extensive socioeconomic issues. Many of the effects that the increased ubiquity and disposability of apparel are having on the environment are also widely understood, such as the massive quantities of clothing being sent to landfill every year5. But the issue of microfibre pollution has received comparatively little attention, perhaps due to its quite literal low visibility as well as its non-obvious origins.

Material change

Access to cheap labour was not the only thing that drove down the price of apparel. In parallel, manufacturers increasingly started to replace natural fibres – which are relatively expensive to grow, harvest and process – with cheaper, man-made textiles. And so as the fast fashion industry grew, demand for synthetic fibres skyrocketed. The market for polyester grew eight-fold between 1980 and 2014, overtaking cotton along the way6.

What nobody knew at the time was that synthetic materials would have a nasty environmental side-effect.

When a synthetic garment is washed, it sheds microfibres too small for the washing machine’s filter to catch. A synthetic fleece jacket, for example, sheds an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres in every wash7. Eventually, they end up in our rivers, lakes and seas, often absorbing organic pollutants along the way. There, they are consumed by wildlife and enter the food chain.

Fashion 3.0: Genesis

The microfibre crisis therefore originates in the massive demand for synthetic materials required to sustain Fashion 2.0. Fast fashion is a deeply entrenched business model fuelled by the same customer expectations it helped create, and microfibre pollution is but one of the many profound and diverse issues the industry causes. But there are signs of hope. For example, the same study (cited above) that revealed the extent to which synthetics shed microfibres when they are washed was commissioned not by activists, but by the outdoor apparel company Patagonia8. Indeed, the study subjected some of Patagonia’s own products to direct scrutiny and produced some quite damning results, about which they have encouraged open discussion. The company has since commissioned a second study with the goal of understanding exactly how synthetics shed microfibres, in order to help the industry research new, more environmentally-friendly materials and fabric treatments9.

While Patagonia has baked sustainability into their brand, this is often even more obvious in the world of fashion startups. People Tree, for instance, avoids microfibre-producing synthetics altogether, opting for organic cotton that also sidesteps the use of harmful pesticides10.


Some brands are even taking the counter-intuitive step of persuading their customers to consume fewer of their products in the first place. Levi’s has a design philosophy that steers clear of trends, and instead focuses on creating timeless pieces. The aim, according to their head of product innovation11, is to encourage their customers to buy products for lasting value over seasonal change, reducing the overall amount of consumption. Successfully convincing customers to buy less would also help them spend a little more time and money on ensuring that the purchases they do make are environmentally and socially sustainable.

Recognition will also be important in driving change, as brands increasingly seek to showcase their environmental credentials.

For instance, the Green Carpet Fashion Awards is a partnership between sustainability consultancy Eco-Age and industry association Camera Nazionale della Moda, created to recognise sustainable innovation and impact in the Italian fashion industry.

Alongside changes in the fashion industry itself, there are also companies looking to tackle the problem at the washing stage, ranging from simple to more radical solutions. On the simple side, we have the Guppy Friend – a bag designed to hold all your synthetics while they are being washed in order to catch any microfibres they happen to shed. At the other end of the scale is Colorado-based Tersus Solutions, who has developed a washing machine that uses liquid CO2 to clean clothes. As well as producing zero microfibre pollution, such a solution would also drastically reduce water and electricity usage. Alongside investing in more environmentally-friendly washing solutions, the bottom line for Impact Investors 12 is that there are two sides to the coin when it comes to changing the face of fashion and reducing microfibre pollution.

The first is in improving manufacturing processes and product composition, in terms of enhancing synthetics for reduced microfibre shedding or favouring natural fibres such as cotton. The second is customer education and expectation adjustment – designing for quality and timelessness; and promoting the idea of buying fewer, better pieces that people love. Impact Investment will be crucial in encouraging brands to adopt these two strategies, which would also address the many other issues created by the fast fashion industry. And together, they could create a novel feedback loop that will bring about a new, more sustainable paradigm: Fashion 3.0.

2 The Guardian 
3 Ivar do Sul and Costa 
4 American Apparel & Footwear Association, via CNBC 
5 The Guardian 
6 Textile World 
7 Microfiber Pollution & the Apparel Industry 
8 Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry 
9 Patagonia 
10 People Tree
11 Fast Company 
12 Lombard Odier defines “Impact” as the sum of positive and negative, direct and indirect effects that a company’s operations and products have on the environment and on society

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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