Where did Microfibers go?

A few years ago, everyone was talking about microfibers. Then, the sustainability discussion moved on to other hot topics. But that didn’t mean the problem was solved, says representatives from the The Microfibre Consortium.

The Microfibre Consortium (TMC) was formed as a direct industry response to the challenge of microfiber pollution, driven by the European Outdoor Group (EOG). Katy Stevens, Head of CSR and Sustainability at EOG and Technical Director at TMC, explains that back in 2016, the EOG supported Biov8tion, a UK based sustainable innovation company, and its campaign Don’t Feed the Fish, with the mission to understand the specific textile factors that contributed towards microfiber shedding.

“We needed further clarity and foresight on microfiber shedding for our members, and a little later the EOG formed the ‘European Outdoor Microfibre Consortium’ off the back of the interest generated from the Don’t Feed the Fish work,” recounts Katy Stevens, before continuing:

“This quick-fire response to the escalating industry challenge enabled a clear industry voice, a level setting of understanding and immediate support to safeguard synthetic performance textiles that were being placed at risk within the larger industry conversations.”

Sophie Mather, Strategic Director of TMC and Material Futurist at Biov8tion, adds:

“We could see the potential value of collaboration on this topic and felt that by bringing the industry together to work as one, we could achieve a greater understanding and industry solutions in a smaller time frame.”

In 2019 to support the growing topic complexities and member interest, the work spun into its own stand-alone organization, TMC, which now works under the governance of its board representing the interest of its brand, retail and supplier members.

What steps have been taken?

The first step was to visualize the microfiber reality and break it down into a more manageable format, explains Sophie Mather. TMC looked at how microfibers related to all areas, from the textile supply chain and into the use and end of life of a garment.

“From this we were able to recognize where our areas of expertise are and what work is in scope of the consortium going forward,” says Sophie Mather.

With an overview in place, they decided to review the existing data. But it wasn’t long before they discovered that microfiber reports were often conflicting, the results were not repeatable and experimentations were often not driven with textile understanding.

“The disparity of data created a lot of uncertainty and confusion over the scale and the severity of the problem, which made it very difficult to know how to help the industry,” recalls Sophie Mather.

“And so, we realized that firstly we needed to be able to quantify the problem, because without a benchmark, there was no obvious place to start innovation. So, the first thing that the industry needed was a test method.”

Thus they began their so-called “1.0 Integrity” work stream, with the aim of developing just such a rigorous test method and begin quantifying actual material losses from various textiles. By the end of 2018, TMC had attained a method that they were fairly confident was repeatable and had the potential to be reproducible.

“Since then, we have been working on validation of the method through round robin trials with a number of our member labs. We are also in conversations with other certification bodies working in this area to make sure we have alignment of the method with other test methods in the area.”

And this brings us to the present. So, what’s next for The Microfibre Consortium?

What’s next for TMC?

As the methodology is finalized, the next step is to construct a reliable tool for the industry to use and make informed materials choices. TMC is currently preparing the work plan for their “2.0 Product development,” where they aim to do just that.

“This step will support product development functions, through TMC lead primary research into fibers, fabric structures, and production variances using the 1.0 research methodology,” explains Sophie Mather.

Moving into 2020, TMC will aim to scale up their primary research in order to begin churning out data.

“From this, we will create in-depth data base results around various textiles, and ultimately the creation of an industry tool that can be used by brands in-house to inform their material choices.”

Once this database and industry-oriented tool is in place, the aim for 2020 is to put this tool to use and begin effecting change.

“As soon as the 2.0 product development work starts to produce results in the first half of 2020, we will have a much better understanding of the causes and triggers of fiber shedding and can then start to work with the industry to find ways to mitigate these.”

Can manufacturers be involved?

Yes, says Sophie Mathers. While the aforementioned work is ongoing, TMC has begun planning the next implementation phase, called 3.0 Workstream Manufacturing, and are already exploring the issue of microfiber loss in manufacturing.

“We want to figure out what our members can do to reduce their impact in the area of manufacturing, with the ultimate output being best practice guidance to mitigate microfiber release to the environment on a facility level. Two of the ways TMC envisions addressing this is to include facilities measurements and to create a best practice guide.”

What have they learned so far?

While the TMC continues to progress rapidly along their timeline, they also emphasize that much remains unknown:

“What we have learned is that it’s a lot more complicated than narrowing it down to a single material/product. All fiber types shed, natural and synthetic, and data is beginning to suggest that natural fibers actually shed more than synthetic,” explains Sophie Mather, and continues:

“As an industry, we still don’t know much about what shed fibers are actually doing to marine life and human health, but we do know that natural fibers do not necessarily biodegrade in ocean conditions and all fibers carry textile production and processing chemicals, which are a huge risk.”

In short, a useful understanding of microfiber shedding and its associated risks remains a work in progress. That’s why at this point, Katy Stevens urges patience – and caution – until the groundwork they’ve been laying begins to come online:

“We are working towards populating the database and creating an industry tool, which hopefully should start to give us some answers on the worst offenders. But what I would say in the meantime is that we need to err on the side of caution as an industry and be very sure we have some solid, robust facts before we start recommending fibers or fabrics that should be avoided.”

 

Photo: Martina Simonazzi/istock.com

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com