Lockdown is over. Restaurants are open once again. You and your friends are heading to your favourite restaurant. You are wearing that outfit. The stunning one you have been looking forward to showing off for almost two years now. Once inside you order the fish. To your surprise the food on the plate looks a lot like your current outfit.
How fashion enters the food-chain
The amount of different forms of plastic used in clothing such as polyester or other synthetics is increasing with some estimates putting synthetic plastic materials at 69% of all textiles used for clothing.
Once washed these clothing items release microplastic fibres that are not picked up by the washing machine and thus, released into the sewage system. A 2016 study estimated that 1.02 kg of fibres would be released per day in a population of 100,000.
From the sewage system, some of the microplastics are released into the oceans where they are eaten by fish on all levels of the ocean both directly and indirectly, as their food sources such as plankton digest it. A study of fish in the mid-ocean level of the Northwest Atlantic found that 73% of the fish had plastic in their stomachs. Meanwhile fish analysed from the Great Lakes in the United States also contain microplastics.
As fish is a part of many people's diet these microplastics go from our fashion, through the sewage, into the oceans, into the fish, and onto the plate before entering our own bodies as well. So in the end, having plastics in our clothing harms the oceans, the wildlife, and ourselves.
How can we prevent it
The fashion industry is not only harming the fish in the oceans through using plastic in their clothing. As reported in Mindless Mag in August 2021, plastic pollution also comes from the wrapping of our clothing. While there seems to be more obvious solutions to those problems such as changing the wrapping of clothing to paper bags or as an individual shopping in-person instead of ordering online, solutions to the microplastic problem are harder to come by.
As synthetic fibres are cheap to use for the manufacturers, they are also part of making clothing affordable and available to most societal groups. Thus, simply getting rid of them is not a feasible short term solution.
Different studies are looking into the possibility and feasibility of fitting washing machines with microplastic filters that will catch more of the fibres before they enter the sewage system. The Synthetics Anonymous: Fashion brands' addiction to fossil fuel report says:
"The solution is not replacing one type of fibre with another, but rather a radical slowdown of fashion, which is the principal cause of untenable volumes of waste, harmful microfibres and widespread pollution."
Furthermore, the report questions the decision to downcycle PET-bottles to polyester for use in clothing rather than recycling the high amount of textile that is currently wasted instead.
"...recycled polyester does not restrict the shedding of microplastics, meaning billions of plastic particles still end up reaching the ocean, the air we breathe and our food chains."
So, even the sustainable sounding solution of using plastic bottles end up harming the fish in the ocean and with the fashion industry not looking like it will slow down at the moment, maybe we do need to find other materials that can be of use.
How putting fish in fashion could help
One possible alternative requires us to return to the restaurant and the fish that is served there. Fish skin or fish leather has been used for clothing by indigenous people from Arctic societies and is a by-product of the seafood industry.
Currently, almost 32 million tonnes of waste are related to the seafood industry, as more than 50% of the fish caught for consumption are discarded. A substantial amount of that waste is the skin. Furthermore, fish skin requires less resources to cultivate than other materials which means potentially reducing landfill and releasing pressure from the cotton and polyester production.
Fish skin is also described as being more durable, breathable and resistant than cow leather and can be used for many purposes ranging from boots to coats or bags.
So, instead of polyester and other synthetic fabrics polluting the oceans and the fish in them, we could turn the tables and reduce this pollution by using the seafood industry by-product, fish skin, in fashion items. Thus, we go from having fashion in fish to putting fish in fashion.