Microfibre shed from textiles constitutes an estimated 35 percent of all plastics in our oceans. While there are consumer solutions that reduce the amount of microfibre shedding, how can we look upstream at the manufacturing process to truly tackle the problem from end-to-end? Here, Forum’s Senior Strategist Karen Sim sheds light on how the fashion industry can overcome its systemic barriers and transform to a fairer, more equitable one.

Microfibres from textiles are one of the largest sources of microplastic pollution—an estimated 35% of all plastics in our oceans come from textile microfibres, including natural fibres such as cotton or wool. There is even research that shows that natural fibres do not biodegrade quickly and can persist in the environment for extended periods

Microfibres, while small in size, pose a much larger problem than we imagine, and there is much we still do not understand about the problem, from whether some materials shed more easily than others to its impact on human health. 

Forum’s project, Tackling Microfibres at Source, aimed to better understand the impacts of textile manufacturing on microfibre shed. Working with our industry partner, Ramatex Group, a vertically integrated textile manufacturer based in Malaysia and the Nanyang Environment and Water Resources Institute (NEWRI), we developed a methodology that measured fibre shed from main manufacturing steps such as spinning, knitting, and dyeing. 

Understanding where the most microfibre shed takes place during textile manufacturing will enable the industry to develop interventions that tackle the problem of microfibre pollution more effectively, at its source. 

Potential solutions already exist 

Our research showed that the dyeing process resulted in the greatest amount of fibres shed. This is unsurprising as the dyeing process requires a lot of heat (and therefore energy), water, and agitation to the fabrics and in the conventional dye tanks. The problems posed by the dyeing process make it ripe for innovation and change.

An examination of the various interventions in the dyeing process shows a range of potential innovations. Some of them involve slight changes, such as switching to dyes that allow fabrics to be dyed with less heat or for shorter durations. However, this would still involve huge amounts of energy and water. Other innovations that would reduce microfibre shed, energy and water usage, and can be scaled for industrial standards, do exist. These include dope dyeing (adding the colour to PET pellets before they are turned into yarn, therefore eliminating the need for conventional dyeing to take place at all) and CO2 dyeing (dyeing using carbon dioxide). 

No quick fixes for systemic challenges

However, regardless of the innovation involved, it is unlikely that any of these solutions can solve the microfibre pollution problem on their own. When faced with pressing challenges, it is only natural to want quick solutions, and this can at times mean the nature and root cause of the problem is not well understood. 

The textile and fashion industry is no exception to this. This is particularly so given that regulations on microplastics (including microfibres) can be expected in the near future. The EU, under its Strategy for Sustainable Textiles released in 2022, has made clear that it will be looking at greater guidelines and regulations for the textiles industry to reduce microfibre release that will impact both upstream and downstream stakeholders. 

Yet, many stakeholders including brands, retailers and suppliers have a limited understanding of the microfibre pollution problem, let alone the possible solutions. Few have engaged their supply chain partners or customers on this issue. Even large brands and retailers, while aware of the problem, have done little to address the problem since, unlike climate change or chemical pollution, microfibre pollution is still a relatively poorly understood issue. 

Unequal brand-supplier dynamics hindering transformation

In our engagement with the industry, one question was repeated by suppliers over and over: “Who will pay for these solutions?” For brands to invest in these solutions, suppliers may be expected to front the costs first and invest in new machinery, materials and training to use these technologies, or set up new operating processes.

To suppliers, especially smaller ones, this is a significant risk: why should they offer more sustainable options when there is no guarantee that their brand customers even want them or are willing to pay more for them? For example, some dyeing innovations that are more sustainable could result in slightly uneven colouring on fabric, which a brand and their customers may not accept.

This conundrum stems from an unequal dynamic between brands and suppliers that has been entrenched for a long time. This problematic dynamic hinders suppliers from stepping up to provide solutions, even if solutions exist and are available to suppliers. Would suppliers, usually price-takers, risk shifting to more sustainable operations if their brand customers do not pay for their innovations? 

What we need is a shift towards a system that distributes risk between brands, retailers and suppliers more equally—one in which all parties work together to come up with solutions and share the risks equally, and not one where suppliers come up with the solutions and then take them to the brands and retailers. 

Opportunities for a new way of collaboration 

As scientific research continues to shed light on the problem, there are several opportunities exist for the industry to take: 

  • Brands and suppliers can come together to examine how much microfibre is currently shed in the production of their products using the methodology developed in this project and building on existing research on textile microfibres. One initial step they can take to reduce microfibre shed is by examining if their wastewater treatment facilities are sufficient in removing microfibres.
  • Brands and suppliers can find ways to collaborate on more equal terms favourable to both parties to fund innovations or explore various solutions in materials and yarn.
  • Suppliers can advocate for more sustainable and transformational dyeing solutions to brand customers either directly or through pre-competitive collaboration with peers to leverage a collective voice and consolidate enough orders to create economies of scale for mills to adopt the chosen innovation(s). 
  • Brands and retailers can discuss current dyeing methods and processes with suppliers and explore more sustainable options. They can support suppliers by exploring ways to de-risk the cost of investment jointly and support suppliers that have already invested to transform their dyeing processes by paying them a premium for their products.
  • Brands and retailers can also educate consumers on the impact of dyeing processes and the trade-offs in shifting towards more sustainable options, for instance, higher costs or that some products may have a different look, as some dyeing methods may result in uneven colour.

The microfibre pollution problem is an emergent and growing one and regulations are imminent. It is only a matter of time before the industry will be asked to design products that minimise microfibre pollution in the environment. The winners in this race will not be those looking for quick fixes, but those who seize this window of opportunity to make the slow but deep, meaningful systemic changes towards a fairer fashion and textile industry – one that is good for both people and planet. 

Download our latest report, Tackling Microfibres at Source: Investigating opportunities to reduce microfibre pollution from the fashion industry.

Photo by Ahmad Iskandar Photography.