rethink everything

The Unravelling

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A hidden danger is devastating our waters. To put things right, we need to rethink an entire industry

In 2014, a study estimated that at least 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 the surface or smaller than 0.33 mm. Most worrying are microplastics—fragments less than 4.75 mm long. Although they only account for 13% of plastic pollution by weight, they make up 92.4% of individual pieces and are the most likely to slip through filtration systems and escape cleanup efforts.

In 2014, a study estimated that at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing over 265,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans.

You might well find this shocking, yet unsurprising. We are surrounded by plastic, and its pollutive effects are well known. But in recent years, something curious about the makeup of all that microplastic pollution has come to light.

When Professor Sherri Mason first cut open a fish from Lake Michigan, USA, she made a shocking discovery. It was riddled with synthetic fibres, which appeared to be "weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract”2. Such fish are a regular feature on dinner tables throughout the region. And the problem isn’t limited to the Great Lakes. A 2014 review of the literature found that such microfibres are one of the most common forms of microplastic pollution and that fish across the world are ingesting them in massive quantities3. So where are all these microfibres coming from? To solve this mystery, we must turn to the fashion industry and its evolution over the past half century.

… microfibres are one of the most common forms of microplastic pollution and that fish across the world are ingesting them in massive quantities.

A worrying trend

Fashion 1.0: Before the 1960s, clothes were almost always sold in their country of origin and there were just two fashion seasons: warm and cool. But when increased globalisation brought access to cheap labour, retailers saw an opportunity. As their costs fell, so did their prices. This led to marketing apparel not as an investment, but as an ephemeral statement of style. The number of fashion seasons per year started to increase as brands encouraged their customers to buy more clothes, more often. Eventually, shoppers would come to expect the trend toward ever lower prices and more new ranges, creating a feedback loop that set the industry on course to Fashion 2.0—commonly known as “fast fashion”. Today, we effectively have 52 fashion seasons a year as brands introduce new lines every week to keep their customers buying. In the 1960s, the US produced 95% of its clothing domestically. As of 2013, that figure stands at just 3%4.

Today, we effectively have 52 fashion seasons a year as brands introduce new lines every week to keep their customers buying.

Fashion 2.0 has come at a cost, some aspects of which are relatively well-known. For example, the relentless drive for lower prices encourages unfair trade, which affects people at the manufacturing end of the supply chain in developing countries in the form of unethical labour practices and socioeconomic hardship. Many of the effects that the disposability of apparel is 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 and its non-obvious origins.


A material change

Access to inexpensive labour wasn’t the only thing that helped drive down the price of apparel. In parallel, manufacturers increasingly replaced natural fibres—which are relatively expensive to produce—with cheaper, man-made textiles. As the fast fashion paradigm took hold, the demand for synthetic fibres skyrocketed. The market for polyester, for instance, 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 serious environmental cost.

When a synthetic garment is washed, it sheds microfibres that are too small for the machine’s filter to catch. A synthetic fleece jacket, for example, sheds an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres in every wash7. Eventually, these tiny threads 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.

What nobody knew at the time was that synthetic materials would have a serious environmental cost.

Materials, models and machines

The microfibre crisis is therefore a by-product of Fashion 2.0 and the massive demand for synthetic materials required to sustain it. And it’s just one of the many diverse problems caused by the fast fashion paradigm, a deeply entrenched business model fuelled by the same customer expectations it created.

But there are signs of hope. Public consciousness around the problems of fast fashion generally and microfibre pollution specifically is growing. The result is a new corner of the market that is now attractive enough for many brands to target and, over the coming years, to prise wide open.

But there are signs of hope. Public consciousness around the problems of fast fashion generally and microfibre pollution specifically is growing.

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. The company has since committed to further research on the scope of the problem and potential solutions. A big part of which is likely to be innovative, eco-friendly textiles. Vaude, for instance, is the first outdoor clothing brand to have developed a fleece material from TENCEL, a high-tech textile made from sustainable wood sources. So, although Vaude’s TENCEL fleeces still shed microfibres, they are entirely natural and biodegradable, vanishing before they cause any problems for marine life.

The luxury end of fashion is also starting to realise the opportunities in sustainable offerings. Arguably, no-one has done more to lead the charge than Stella McCartney, who was working to reduce the environmental impact of her products even when other famous designers were still scoffing at the notion. Sustainable, environmentally-friendly materials and a circular model in which clothes are designed for minimal waste have always been at the heart of her fashion philosophy. But perhaps her most important intervention has been to call for an end to the fast fashion model that drives brands to use more pollutive, less recyclable materials in the first place. While this would inevitably see clothes becoming more expensive, they would also become more durable. Combined with a shift in focus from ephemeral trends to beautiful, timeless designs and more responsible marketing, customer expectations can be nudged in the right direction. Instead of treating clothes as disposable products, brands can encourage shoppers to see their products as quality, occasional investments that endure.

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Instead of treating clothes as disposable products, brands can encourage shoppers to see their products as quality, occasional investments that endure.

Thanks largely to advocacy from the likes of Stella McCartney, public consciousness is beginning to shift in precisely this way. The fashion industry’s focus on sustainability is growing. And helping big brands make the pivot are businesses like Eco-Age. Founded by creative director Livia Firth, Eco-Age is a sustainability and communications consultancy that helps fashion brands create and publicise more responsible business and design practices. They also have an accreditation process, whereby brands can display the Eco-Age brandmark on products that the company certifies as having been made in accordance with their Principles of Sustainable Excellence. Such schemes will be invaluable in driving a paradigm shift away from Fashion 2.0, giving businesses a way of showcasing their sustainable products and giving customers a way of easily recognising them amongst the noise of fast fashion.

Giving businesses a way of showcasing their sustainable products and giving customers a way of easily recognising them amongst the noise of fast fashion will be invaluable in driving a paradigm shift away from Fashion 2.0.

Alongside changes in the fashion industry itself, there are also companies looking to tackle the problem at the washing stage. On the simple side, the Guppy Friend is a bag designed to hold all your synthetics as they’re washed in order to catch microfibres before they escape. In the more high-tech space, Xeros Technologies have developed a new kind of filter that captures 99% of microfibres shed during the wash and can be incorporated into existing washing machine designs at the manufacturing stage. CEO Mark Nichols has even made a submission to the UK Government’s ongoing enquiry into fashion sustainability, calling for legislation that requires all new washing machines to be fitted with such filters. Such legislation could be a game-changer for the problem of microfibre pollution.


Fashion 3.0: Genesis

There are therefore three key areas to focus on for sustainable investors9 interested in powering a more sustainable fashion cycle that avoids such problems as microfibre pollution.

First, the washing stage. From the simple to the complex, we need to invest in technological solutions that prevent microfibres from entering our waters.

Second, the manufacturing stage. We want to incentivise companies to either research and develop materials that don’t shed plastic microfibres, or to commit to moving away from textiles that do.

Third, and most importantly, is to invest in fundamental change. It is the fast fashion model that introduced and perpetuates unsustainability in the clothing industry, and so we need a new paradigm. Many brands are trying hard to change the way they do things from the ground up, often against strong headwinds. Their success will herald the paradigm shift we need, but they can’t do it without investors. The good news is that the appetite for change is growing, and opportunities for investment in sustainable fashion along with it. With such investment, the new feedback loop between changing customer attitudes and more sustainable business practices can only accelerate.

There are therefore three key areas to focus on for sustainable investors interested in powering a more sustainable fashion cycle that avoids such problems as microfibre pollution.

The sustainability revolution represents the biggest investment opportunity in history, and there are few industries in which this is more apparent than in apparel. Fashion 3.0 is the new, sustainable paradigm the industry needs. And investors will play a vital role in bringing it to life.

1 Journals.plos.org
2 The Guardian
3 Ivar do Sul and Costa, 2013
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 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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