The Problem With Athleisure Overflow
Microfibers from synthetic clothing are filling our wardrobes and the environment
A young woman wearing heather gray joggers and a matching oversized sweatshirt is walking a blond Chihuahua. The dog is clipped to a royal blue leash and dressed in a royal blue tracksuit. Its ears protrude from a slouchy hood that pools around its twiglike neck, and what looks like the Adidas logo wraps around its narrow body. Upon closer inspection, the brand is actually Adidog, an athletic/leisurewear line for dogs. The Chihuahua makes a stop and lifts a leg; the woman pulls at its leash before it finishes. A stream of piss dampens the hem of the tiny tracksuit as the dog and woman continue down the street.
Later, she presumably will throw the mini tracksuit, her joggers and sweatshirt, and other polyester-laden things into a washing machine. Polyester, as a synthetic material derived from plastic, doesn’t biodegrade and instead breaks down into tiny pieces of microplastic. When synthetic clothes—like most athleisure items—are washed, they shed microfibers of microplastic that, at less than 10 micrometers in diameter, are finer than a strand of hair.
“Our clothes are falling apart in the wash, and those little bits are going down the drain, into the ocean,” says Rachael Miller, founder of the Rozalia Project, an ocean conservation group, and creator of the Cora Ball, a microfiber-capturing laundry ball.
Deirdre Clemente, a fashion historian and a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, credits the rise of athleisure to the popularity of sportswear. In decades past, Clemente says, sportswear stayed on the playing fields, but the new flexibility of “business casual” has allowed workout clothes like sneakers and leggings to make their way into the office. “Athleisure blends that line between casual wear and sportswear,” she explains.
On-the-go upper-middle-class women—moms flitting from morning yoga to a PTA meeting and then a kid’s soccer practice—helped boost the trend in its earliest stages, Clemente says, with their demand for clothing that’s “multifunctional, durable, and practical” and yet sleek and stylish. Athleisure brands like Lululemon, Outdoor Voices, Athleta, and many others primarily create clothing using synthetic materials like nylon and polyester because of their durability, moisture-wicking properties, and stretchability. Clemente thinks athleisure isn’t just a fleeting trend but a major cultural shift in the way people dress. Designers seem to agree, according to the more comfortable looks from the spring/summer 2019 runways.
A biology research group has estimated that a single synthetic garment sheds about 1,900 microfibers per laundry cycle.
This increasing frequency of everyday athleisurewear is leading to more plastic in the ocean. A U.K. biology research group has estimated that a single synthetic garment sheds about 1,900 microfibers per laundry cycle. Another study determined that the Hudson River alone empties about 300 million microfibers into the Atlantic Ocean every day. When fish eat the microfibers, they also ingest the persistent organic pollutants that give athleisure and other clothes their waterproof or flame-resistant qualities. The most common pollutants include plasticizers and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which have been linked to memory deficits, thyroid trouble, and birth defects in studies on animals. The effects on humans are largely unknown due to the limited publication of peer-reviewed studies, partially because microfibers “are everywhere,” as Miller says. Scientists risk contaminating collected samples with the microfibers that are also released into the air from furniture, carpets, and clothing—including their lab coats.
In fact, Matthew Savoca, a postdoctoral researcher at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, says the highest risk of human ingestion comes from breathing in airborne microfibers from synthetic clothing or those that have collected in everyday dust. Miller echoes Savoca’s statement and notes, “They’ve been found in table salt, honey, beer, tap water, and bottled water.” A 2017 study by data journalism organization Orb Media found that 94 percent of tap water sampled in the U.S. contains microfibers.
Kirsten Schoonmaker, a fashion design professor at Syracuse University, says polyester is the biggest culprit of microfibers “because it is cheap, malleable, and demand is continuing to increase.” In 2014, Reuters reported that imports of synthetic clothing surpassed cotton for the first time in decades, largely due to the growing demand for fast fashion and athleisure. By 2025, the polyester market is expected to reach almost $40 billion, making it the fastest growing textile, according to San Francisco-based market research company Grand View Research.
Schoonmaker says she dresses primarily in wool and cotton in her daily life to avoid microfiber shedding. She acknowledges that people need the fabrics they wear to meet different needs, and synthetic fibers are sometimes the most practical. “I have a nylon jacket I’ve had since I was 16 because the fabric is so durable,” Schoonmaker admits, pointing out that when it comes to buying synthetic materials, it’s important to consider the longevity of the piece. A high-quality synthetic windbreaker that can be worn for years and requires minimal washing doesn’t take as much of an environmental toll as a flimsy poly-blend tank top that falls apart after two washes.
The cheap and cyclical nature of fast-fashion athleisurewear only serves to magnify the occurrence of microfiber shedding. In a poll by online trend database WGSN, over 6,000 U.S. teenagers said that when it comes to fashion, they primarily buy streetwear and athleisure. The limited budgets that teens often have can lead them to build a wardrobe not with pricier high-quality, long-lasting items but with ones from fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21, ASOS, and H&M, where second-skin leggings, baggy tees, and cozy tracksuits can be had for dirt cheap prices. But the clothes are cheap for a reason: The synthetic materials they’re made with tend to degrade after even a single wash.
Without a doubt, fast fashion is claiming a stake in more than just teenager wardrobes. The U.S. consumerist obsession with having more and more combined with the ease of shopping and accessible costs has made a boon for athleisure sales, which totaled $9.6 billion last year, a 17 percent increase from 2016. As a consequence, thrift stores overflow with fast-fashion merchandise. As Clemente notes, “You walk through any Goodwill, it’s just packed with athleisure.” And unsold (or unusable) items often end up in landfills, where the synthetic microfibers continue to be shed into the atmosphere.
Now is the perfect time to look at how we as consumers, scientists, and designers can start to solve the problem.
To slow the fast-fashion cycle, consumers can buy first from overflowing secondhand stores. Laura Markley, a civil and environmental engineering PhD student at Syracuse University, says she found her favorite jumpsuit, a beige cotton-linen-blend number from sustainable designer Esby, at a steep discount on a resale account on social media. Morgan and Kennedy Mason, who are fashion influencers and advise companies on integrating sustainable business practices as co-founders of the Greenverse, say they frequent thrift stores and resale apps to buy unique pieces at prices that rival those at fast-fashion retailers. “You don’t have to go to a boutique-y store,” Kennedy says. And on Instagram, the hashtag #thrifted has more than a million tagged posts of fashion influencers flaunting their eclectic finds.
Microfibers are and probably will be ever-present. But Savoca, the Stanford researcher, says now is the perfect time to look at how we as consumers, scientists, and designers can start to solve the problem. “We can mitigate the issue of microfibers now,” he says, “as opposed to what humans usually do, which is mess stuff up at first and then be like, ‘Oh crap, we gotta fix that.’” Savoca says a growing field of scientists is working to nail down all the sources and effects of microfibers.
As for the prevention of microfiber shedding, conservationist Miller believes in a four-pronged approach: working with the textile industry to make clothes more sustainable and resilient, urging the laundry industry to develop new ways of catching microfibers, figuring out ways for wastewater treatment facilities to catch more microfibers, and pushing consumers to be more mindful.
Until a consumer shift occurs and the textile industry takes accountability for the growing number of microfibers it contributes, we may, as fashion historian Clemente puts it, “end up dying in a sea of athleisure.”