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Ocean Plastic: Women Who Bear the Brunt, Women Who are at the Front

Did you know that women are disproportionately affected by ocean pollution and climate change? The fashion industry has a lot to answer for as fibres from clothing contribute to an estimated 1.4 million trillion teeny tiny plastic pieces in the ocean each year.

This plastic then becomes microplastic, and women suffer the macro-consequences. Thankfully, women in fashion are leading the fight against the microscopic threat.

Microplastics cause health problems for women

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles. Any plastic particle that has a diameter of less than 5mm is considered to be a microplastic. Thousands of chemicals are used to make any plastic product- but scarily, scientists know very little about the effects of these chemicals on human health. However, two chemicals- bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates– have been thoroughly studied. Scientists have discovered that both are endocrine disruptors.

Essentially, endocrine disruptors interfere with our natural ability to produce hormones. Even more scarily, they have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and issues with the immune and nervous systems.

Microplastics disproportionately affect the health of women. In 2015, Chinese scientists found that BPA interferes with glands linked to puberty and can cause physical changes to the uterus and ovaries. These changes have been linked to infertility and ovarian cancer.

Phthalates have been nicknamed the ‘Everywhere Chemical’ because they are so widely found. Studies indicate high levels of phthalates in ‘organic’ foods, menstrual pads, shampoo, makeup and clothes packaging from the fashion and beauty industry.

These products are overwhelmingly used by women. A study of more than 250 women of childbearing age, linked phthalate to miscarriages. Scientists have found BPA in breastmilk and microplastics in placentas.

Furthermore, women who are assigned female at birth tend to store more body fat, which increases the quantity of plastic-related toxins that their bodies can store. Microplastics really have it in for women.

Our oceans and microplastics

I hope you were as mesmerised by the enticing, yet poignant, magic of ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Seaspiracy’, as I was. Both were a great reminder of how vital oceans are to our existence. Oceans cover 72% of Earth’s surface and absorb over half of our atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Yet, our oceans are a relatively unexplored marvel, teeming with a diverse array of biodiversity, mystery, and beauty. The ocean yields us food and pleasure, and its bounty provides a livelihood for millions of people.

But our oceans are amidst a not-so-glamorous crisis as a result of the fashion industry. An astonishing 85% of all textiles go to landfill each year, but these textiles don’t just sit happily in a huge, ugly pit. Their synthetic components break down into minuscule pieces which infiltrate into our rivers, our seas, and eventually into our oceans in the form of microplastic.

Merely the act of washing synthetic clothing causes a stream of pollution through the water ways. Once entered into the food chain by marine flora and fauna, microplastics can make their way into the human body.

Particles are predicted to soon outnumber populations of zooplankton, which underpin marine life and help to regulate climate change. Microplastics are already damaging the health of women, and our ocean’s ecosystems.

Women disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change

Poor women and children are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, despite their dispassionately low contribution to the problem. Gender inequalities mean that women are 14 times more likely to die from an ecological disaster than men.

Climate change causes more frequent desertification and flooding, meaning that women are often left with additional agricultural and household duties. According to CARE, an international NGO, “women work 2/3 of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s goods, and earn 10% of the world’s income; of the world’s one billion poorest people, women and girls make up 70%”. Climate change and microplastics are directly affecting women.

“Women work 2/3 of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s goods, and earn 10% of the world’s income; of the world’s one billion poorest people, women and girls make up 70%”. CARE

Female fashion designers are innovating

Thankfully, at the top of fashion’s food chain, female designers are swimming in sustainable solutions. Iris Van Herpen unveiled a couture dress constructed from Parley for the Oceans’ recycled fabric. Parley for the Oceans is an initiative encouraging creatives to prioritise ocean sustainability in their work. They construct their garments out of discarded plastic waste. The high-quality fabric was semi-transparent; therefore, creating a “translucent and fragile interconnectedness” to the skin. The piece was truly magical.

Stella McCartney has also been experimenting with fabrics made from ocean waste in her Econyl sportswear range. Likewise, RiLey Studio used Econyl to craft their sleek sportswear. Jasmine Linington drew aesthetic inspiration directly from the ocean, creating pieces from actual live seaweed. Her resulting textile is 100% biodegradable, carbon-neutral, and her sequins are successfully iridescent.

Although these pieces are just a drop in the ocean, they send out the message that the fashion industry is finally beginning to acknowledge its duty to protect our oceans and our women.

A drop in the ocean can make big waves

Women have bared the brunt of pollution and climate change for too long. The fashion industry must be held accountable for the damage microplastics have done, and are doing, to our oceans and women.

Although, women are not just victims: female fashion designers are making waves in anti-pollution innovation. Fast fashion brands must now step up their game too. The demand for environmentally conscious clothing is there, with “72% of Generation Z women stating that is it imperative to buy brands that are environmentally friendly”– people want clothing with a conscience.

The fashion industry must recognise that by assimilating recycling into their supply chains, they are future-proofing not only their female customer base, but the health of our oceans and women.


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