How sustainable is bike clothing?

The greenest cycle garment is the one you already own, writes Carl Regan…

Is the cycling industry doing as much as it can to reduce its footprint, or could it be accused of resting on its laurels? In recent years, the Government has come down hard on plastics in the ocean, and one of the baddies has been labelled as synthetic clothing – the stuff made from polyester and nylon. How bad is the clothing?

What are the better alternatives? Whereas the outdoor industry has several brands that have led on their sustainable characteristics to great success, it does not seem to have been repeated within the cycle trade – why not?

Back in 2018, microplastics really hit the headlines and were debated at parliamentary level. The Surfers Against Sewage campaign, in particular, caught lots of attention. But what did that all mean, and what measures have been taken since then? We need to establish what is fact, and what is simply opinion.

Most of the information was initiated by marine biologists from the University of Plymouth, who noticed that products like fleeces wore out over time. Examination of ocean inhabitants revealed microfilaments of textiles. Studies of the fertility levels of Inuit Indians of Greenland have sunk by two thirds due to PFC contamination. It all sounded very doom and gloom.

Everyone has seen reports of whales being cut open to reveal 50 supermarket carrier bags clogging things up, or the pictures of the dehydrated albatross’ stomach full of plastic detritus; this is plastic pollution. It is said that every piece of plastic ever produced is still around – if it has not been burnt.

When plastic became a commercial alternative midway through the 20th century, it was embraced. One of the great things it has done is it has made packaging much lighter and more durable. The lighter it has been, the more the carbon footprint of transport has been saved. Plastic packaging has also been a cost-effective way of preserving goods; whether foodstuffs whose restriction of oxygen has prolonged their shelf-life, or just something to keep garments clean in warehouses.

However, microfilaments are different. This is a collective expression for fibres – what normally gets twisted together to form yarn that then goes on to become fabric – is composed of both synthetic and ‘natural’ materials.

The most popular synthetics are polyester and nylon, while cotton/wools/linen/wood-pulp and so on form the latter – plus mixed solutions like polycotton and BioSynthetics. Any product which is flushed into the sea will become a carrier for the chemicals which have also been washed into the oceans. The chemicals range from PFCs (used in durable, water-resistant finishes of garments), herbicides and pesticides.

It is known that most, but not all, of the natural fibres will decompose in the sea, whereas the synthetics simply do not. The hang-up is that natural microfilaments are more likely to absorb a greater number of the bad chemicals, thus get more toxins into the food chain through plankton being eaten by fish (which are then eaten by birds, which in turn are eaten by animals and thus part of our diet).

A microfilament is approximately one-tenth of the diameter of human hair. The vast majority of break-off from a garment happens during the laundry cycle, and the waste is collected by the sewage system – but some of it will slip through the wastewater treatment plants. There are now laundry systems like the Patagonia Investment Fund- supported Guppy Friend, or the Cora Ball, who do offer a solution, but where is the collected waste disposed of?

The laboratory figures for measuring the numbers of fibres shed between a performance woven windproof and a fashion acrylic jumper vary by up to 1,000-fold (with a performance fleece being a lot better than expected); but the most interesting factor was the loss of strength of the fibres once extended UV exposure had occurred.

Generally, footprinting of garments measures the three biggest impacts: waste, water and carbon. The former is generally the smallest concern and the latter really takes off the longer the garment is owned and used for – think laundry repetition. There is much attention on the end-of-life (looping polyester garments is one great example to negate this effect), but the biggest influence is what gets decided upon by the designer. The single biggest factor in modern times is how long a garment is loved for – in other words, how regularly it is worn. Everyone reading this article will have one-third of a wardrobe that has not been worn over the last year!

A garment made of a pure fibre is the easiest to recycle, but recycling should only be the last choice (landfill is a no-no, even for worn-out underwear) as the garment should be repaired and reconditioned first and foremost, then reappropriated for some other use, or even donated to others. Several independent outdoor retailers now offer to recondition waterproofs as a service when DWRs get compromised by dirt and sweat (a great way to encourage further footfall from regular customers).

The greenest cycle garment is the one you already own. It’s better to have it made from not-so-eco materials if it remains in use for longer, as remanufacturing a garment is the single biggest additive footprint that can be applied. If there are so many constructive arguments for choosing a more environmentally-friendly garment, why are more not offered by the cycle industry? GRN Sportswear, Vaude and Howies offer the strongest selection to the British market.

It is well-acknowledged that the coming through Generation Z put care for the environment high on their agenda. They are aware that ‘natural’ materials aren’t always the best performers (and their footprints can be worse – a pair of jeans uses 7,000 litres of water in its production, while a human only consumes 12,000 litres in their lifetime) but having the latest PTFE membrane that wears out after a couple of years is not always required if that is adding to the toxic dump. When will the cycle industry take the clothing issue more seriously?

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