Microfibers and the Outdoor Industry: Issue Update

Two years ago, we began formally exploring the burgeoning environmental concerns around microfibers and microplastics. Here’s a look at what has happened and what we’ve done since then.

By Nikki Hodgson February 1, 2017

Back in July of 2015, we offered some background on the growing issue of microplastic pollution in the ocean. This update sheds new light on the developments of the problem and progress made toward finding a solution.

Refresher Course: What’s The Issue?

Plastics of various sizes are being discovered in waterways and marine life, at levels and in places not previously realized. The presence of plastic debris poses dramatic changes and risks to the marine ecosystems.

A relatively new and emerging sub-category of marine plastic study is microfibers—tiny fibers (comprised of both synthetic and natural materials) thought to be released into waterways when consumers wash apparel products. The outdoor industry is under scrutiny as a potential source of microfibers due, in large part, to fleece garments that are made by many outdoor apparel companies.

Two Years of Progress

The outdoor industry recognizes the impact of microfibers on our marine ecosystems and, through our collaborative work, have been taking steps over the past few years to better understand this impact and identify steps we can take to mitigate the problem. Studies like the one commissioned by Patagonia and performed by graduate students at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management have shed additional light on the impact of fleece and other textiles. Questions remain about how to best address these impacts. We are working to fill in those gaps while simultaneously addressing other supply chain issues including chemicals management, social responsibility, animal welfare, and responsible materials sourcing.

Through the OIA Microfibers Task Force, OIA is convening disparate stakeholders interested in this issue, including the home appliance industry, wastewater treatment plants, academic researchers, scientists and, of course, apparel brands. For the past two years the Microfibers Task Force has been meeting monthly share information, identify potential opportunities for innovation, and learn from partner organizations.

Results So Far

What exactly have we been working on?

  • Assembling a catalogue of the current research projects and other initiatives and organizations working in the microfibers space in order to understand the full landscape of information and any gaps that still need to be filled. This will enable us to move forward with appropriate solutions as quickly as possible.
  • Working with organizations like the Ocean Conservancy, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and the San Francisco Estuary Institute that can help us to fill in those gaps and better understand not just our impact, but also the best points for us to engage as individual companies and as an industry.
  • Generating awareness within the industry and reaching out to a variety of stakeholders to help pool resources and better understand and address this issue.

Next Steps

What questions are we working to answer?  

  • What are the data gaps?
  • How can we fill those data gaps so that we better understand our impact and leverage points as an industry? How can we ensure that we fully understand the issue before we begin identifying and scaling solutions?
  • How can we as an industry create better performing materials that have no harmful impact? And how can we create test methods to rank fabrics that also include fabrics shedding?
  • How can we ensure that any solution we adopt as an industry does not have unintended consequences?
  • What role do other industries and/or stakeholder groups play in this issue, and how can they best contribute to addressing it as well?
  • What role should consumer education or washing machine innovations play? For example, are there catchment systems that would prevent microfibers from getting into our waterways? Would educating consumers to change laundering habits have an impact?

For more background information on microfibers and the outdoor industry’s work to address this issue, please review the following resources:

Take Action

Review the OIA’s Sustainable Business page to learn more about the issue of microfibers and the outdoor industry’s involvement.

Join the OIA Sustainability Working Group and participate in the Microfibers & Ocean Plastics Task Force. In addition to regularly scheduled calls to get updates on research and innovation opportunities, we have bi-annual in-person meetings at Outdoor Retailer as part of our Sustainability Insights Conference..

Contact us at sustainability@outdoorindustry.org to learn about additional opportunities to help support research and innovation in this area.