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Jul 12. 2019

Ecodesign Reflections on Outdoors by ISPO Part 1: Design Against Ocean Plastics?

Last week, we visited Outdoor by ISPO, the largest outdoor trade fair in Europe, which gave us an excellent opportunity to catch up on what’s new in the outdoor industry and, particularly, the latest eco-initiatives. Over a short series of ‘blogs, we’ll be discussing the main themes in evidence at Outdoor by ISPO – starting today with ‘design against ocean plastics’. It’s a thing, you know.

What’s that we hear you cry? There’s nothing new about that? And you’re right. A quick internet search will reveal numerous products made from recovered ocean plastics (as a quick aside, one of our favourite examples is Brodie Neill’s Gyro Table). End-of-pipe initiatives were also in evidence at Outdoor. Adidas’s range with Parley for the Oceans continues to grab the headlines (along with the prizes), whilst Dachstein and prAna both displayed new product lines made from Econyl regenerated nylon – which includes discarded fishing nets amongst its feedstock. We applaud these innovations – they’re raising consumer awareness of the issue, whilst diverting plastic waste from the ocean and dealing with some of that already there. That said, recycling can only ever contribute partially to addressing the ocean plastic pollution problem. Firstly, marine plastic is a complex mix of materials, only some of which can be regenerated into valuable materials. Secondly, even marine plastics that are recyclable in theory, they might not be recyclable in practice. It’s tempting to think of plastic bottles bobbing along on the current, just waiting to be scooped up. In reality, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is better likened to a plastic ‘soup’ of plastic fragments (‘microplastics’) that have been degraded over time by the combined action of sunlight and wave motion, with the odd piece here and there that is still recognisable as a product. What’s more, about 70% of this debris sinks to the sea bottom. It’s almost impossible to collect these microplastics and even if we could, it’s highly unlikely we could turn them into materials that we could make performance products from. And finally, unless designers are very thoughtful about which products they choose to use recycled ocean plastics in, there might only be a very temporary reprieve from microscopic plastic pollution - which brings us nicely to the topic of microfibres.

In contrast to the gradual accumulation over time of most types of microplastics, some textile materials will release microfibres (microscopic ‘threads’) during the production, use and end-of-life phases of their lifecycle. Scientists aren’t yet clear on the environmental impacts of microfibres, but they do know that they are pervasive; synthetic and natural microfibres have been identified in the air, in rivers and in marine environments. Microfibres are a particular concern for the outdoor industry; it has been suggested that the ubiquitous outdoor fleece is a significant contributor to microfibre pollution. We’re sure the brands won’t mind us saying (actually, we’re not sure, but we’re going to say it anyway), that they were caught napping a little the last time a major environmental issue affecting their products raised its head, and there seems to be a real desire to get ahead of the game this time. Some brands have already taken measures designed to eliminate microfibre release; we visited Polartec’s stand to take a look at their Power Air fleece fabric in the flesh, which they claim sheds ‘five times less than other premium mid-layer weight fabrics’. Meanwhile, Vaude revealed that they have extended their undyed wood cellulose fleece across their whole product range, based on the assumption (not yet proven) that any cellulosic fibres shed during laundering will break down harmlessly in marine environments. A different approach has been taken by Icebreaker’s ‘Tees for Good’ campaign , which raises awareness of the role that washing plays in microfibre shedding. The campaign encourages users to embrace the natural odour management properties of merino wool and wash clothing less regularly. That’s a lot of culturally ingrained behaviour to change right there - but we admire their enthusiasm to take it on.

However, without good information about microfibre release across every stage of a product life cycle, it can be difficult for brands to decide how best to tackle the problem. That’s why we think that the plan of work presented by The Microfibre Consortium (TMC) was one of the most exciting things we saw at Outdoor. TMC is a collaboration of industry and academic partners that is working to develop cross-industry understanding of microfibre release, thereby helping the industry to develop practical ways of minimising or avoiding microfibre release. The plan of work takes something approximating a lifecycle approach to the microfibre problem. The effect on shedding of fibre type, textile engineering, garment construction and production processes are all under the microscope - or rather examined using a robust and repeatable test method developed by researchers at the University of Leeds which, hopefully, will go some way to tackling the data variability that’s currently seen in microfibre studies. Supporting evidence-based decision-making? We like.

If there’s one teeny, tiny criticism that we might level at the TMC, it’s that the plan of work focuses predominantly on technological innovation in the early stages of the product life cycle and doesn’t make full use of the knowledge and skills of the industry’s designers. In our Horizon 2020 project, PRESTIGE, we’ve seen that collaboration between designers and technologists generates ideas that participants report they would not have considered independently; and when you introduce the values, needs and behaviours of users - well, that’s where the magic happens. But that’s a topic for another day - and possibly for our next reflective blog on ISPO, which will address life cycle thinking and the role that design for durability might play in the outdoor industry.

Header image :"Plastic in the Ocean Artwork at Sky Central, London" by zoetnet