Ok, that's a little bit of hyperbole, but I know everyone is looking for ways to be better stewards of the planet. When we talk about this subject, the textile industry isn't usually the first one that comes to mind. But you might be surprised to hear that the textile industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions annually. Or that 11.3 million tons of textile waste are thrown away every year in the US alone. Or that the textile industry accounts for one-fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year. What's more, it's not just the landfills that are impacted by this - the U.S. Geological Survey found that 71% of microplastics found in samples of river water came from fibers. It's estimated that synthetic textiles are responsible for a global discharge of between 0.2 and 0.5 million tons of microplastics into the oceans each year.
That's a lot to process. I'll give you a minute.
One of the most disturbing side-effects of this ubiquity of plastic fibers is how much of it ends up in your body. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a study in 2019 on microplastics in drinking water, reviewing studies that had analyzed microplastic particles in water: freshwater, tap water, and bottled drinking water. They found that approximately 84% of the samples of soft drinks, cold tea and energy drinks tested contained microplastics. The presence of it in the oceans means that all the seafood you consume will have some degree of microplastic contamination. Yet microplastics are ingested by all kinds of living organisms – not just aquatic ones. The contamination present in soil samples suggests that organisms such as earthworms can transport significant amounts of microplastics from the soil surface to deeper layers. That makes it accessible to plant roots. Microplastics have been reported in a wide range of human foods and beverages, including seafood, drinking water, beer, salt and sugar. In addition to the ingestion of microplastics from water and soil, airborne particles both indoors and outdoors are inhaled.
Ok, so what can we do about this problem? Removing the current microplastic load from the environment is certainly beyond the ability of people like you and I, even if it is possible at all. But at least we can minimize our contribution to it.
Choose natural fibers
Choosing natural fibers for all your textile needs is the obvious first step. Natural fibers will decompose when released into the environment and will add nutrients to the soil. At Yiayia Black Sheep we are, of course, partial to wool and other animal fibers. There is an argument that the raising of animals is causing the release of huge amounts of methane into the environment. The statistics shown to support the argument lump all livestock operations into one category. Factory farming of animals for meat involves feeding high levels of protein to the animals to increase meat production. The by-product of this is high levels of methane. However, grass fed animals being raised for fiber instead of meat produce far less than their counterparts, and organic and permaculture farming techniques can result in a carbon neutral operation. Below is an excellent video from the Campaign for Wool that explains the benefits of wool, and how producers all over the world are working towards carbon neutrality. It is long, but the whole video is worth watching. However, you can skip to the 9:00 minute mark to view the section about carbon neutral farming.
Donate or Consign
Items that are in good shape but that you no longer want, or that no longer fit, can be donated to a thrift shop or taken to a consignment shop so that someone else can get some good out of them. Consignment is ideal, because not only will you recoup some of the original cost of the item, you get the item back if it doesn’t sell. You can then decide what happens to it next. Much of what’s donated to thrift shops ends up getting recycled into carpet padding or rags (not necessarily a bad thing) or sent overseas to be sold in markets that are filling poor nations with useless clothing and severely undercutting local makers. Take a look at this ABC report to get a sense of the problem. Dead White Man’s Clothes
Keep garments in good order by repairing small problems before they become big problems. With knitted or crocheted garments, you can often make an invisible repair to small holes or snags. Use a pill shaver to keep them from looking careworn.
Larger holes, or holes in woven fabrics can be patched or darned, and while those repairs won’t be invisible, visible mending is all the rage now. Hopefully, because it is both a useful and beautiful way to extend the life of your clothing, it will be a lasting trend.
For those items that you can’t salvage with visible mending, consider repurposing them. Old sheets with a threadbare spot? Save what you can to use as wrapping for a present or cut into strips to make braided rugs. Old T-shirts can be sewn into a quilt or cut up for polishing cloths. An old coat could be turned into a shopping bag. Felted sweaters make great pillow covers. Old dresses can go into quilts or be turned into children’s or doll’s clothing. Or use any of it to restuff an old dog bed. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Need some inspiration? Check out this Pinterest board from San Diego County Recycling.
Textile recycling is possible, but finding a way to get your items directly to a recycler is difficult. There are companies that provide collection bins for clothing, but at the time of this writing, they seem to operate only in certain states. These companies will recycle some of what they receive, but some of it goes to thrift shops, and some may also be sold overseas (see above).
Retold is a company that provides bags (made of cornstarch) for you to ship unwanted textiles to them for sorting. Items are sent to thrift stores, donation centers, recyclers, resellers and up-cyclers. You pay for the bag, but no post-consumer items are sent overseas or to a landfill. See more at Retold.com.
So what can a little yarn shop do about it?
The human race has created a problem that won’t be solved in our lifetimes. We all have to do whatever we are able to lessen our impact on the planet. In that spirit, Yiayia Black Sheep will be phasing out yarns containing synthetic fibers, with the exception of nylon in sock yarns. We already carry quality budget-friendly natural fiber yarns, natural fiber luxury yarns, and Fair Trade felted wool notion bags. We also use shopping bags made from 100% post consumer waste and deliver patterns via PDF rather than paper (except for kits).
Another aspect of countering this "fast fashion" mindset is the encouragement we offer to people making their own clothes. When you spend hours planning, sourcing materials, and making (sewing, knitting, crocheting) your own clothing, you will likely be more invested in caring for it carefully and keeping it longer. It might also be passed along - my children passed their handmade sweaters down to their siblings, and then to their younger cousins.
It will require a revolution in the way we think about clothing, but with the wide selection of natural fibers at our fingertips, the tools we need to make the changes are already available.
U.S. Geological Survey
The Campaign for Wool
World Health Organization
Australian Broadcasting Company