Two-thirds of the world’s surface is ocean. It is our planet’s defining characteristic: the reason that life even exists at all. But this beautiful habitat is in crisis. Heavily polluted by industries of every kind, acidifying rapidly, and used as a litter bin for the world’s plastic waste, the ocean really does need help! As you might have guessed from our name, we set up TWOTHIRDS in 2010 to do something about it. One of the ways TWOTHIRDS helps to reduce our clothing’s impact on the ocean is by making use of innovative fibres and textiles. Take Recover™ recycled cotton: a low impact, high-quality recycled fibre.
We’re super stoked to be using this sustainable material, and will get round to explaining why a little later in this article! First, let’s make sure we understand fashion’s impact on the ocean.
Ocean Issue #1: A Material World
One of the first things we clocked pretty early on in our search for more sustainable fashion, is that the materials many fast fashion brands use have a negative impact on the planet, and by extension, the ocean.
Take the top 2: cotton and polyester. Both require significant amounts of water to be produced. For cotton, this is less than has frequently been claimed, but enough to be of concern - especially as conventional cotton production is tied to the use of artificial pesticides and insecticides. These can seep into river ecosystems, potentially reducing biodiversity and causing eutrophication (when water systems are unusually nutrient-rich - making it more difficult for marine life to survive), a common consequence of non-organic farming. To save the ocean, we’ll need to prevent eutrophication.
The fashion’s industry’s dependence on polyester is also a problem. Polyester is derived from fossil fuels, the extraction of which is environmentally devastating. When oil is refined into plastic, it also releases potent greenhouse gases, contributing to a warming planet. What’s this got to do with the ocean? Well, the ocean is the biggest natural carbon sink - absorbing 2/3s of all human-made heat since the industrial revolution and a whopping 25% of all human-made carbon dioxide.
But the ocean doesn’t get anything out of this dodgy drawdown deal. Instead, carbon dioxide absorption contributes to acidification, which bleaches corals and can have a devastating effect on marine life. We’ve always maintained that a lower carbon footprint should be a priority for a fashion industry seeking to protect the ocean.
Recover™ can help with many of these material issues.
Ocean Issue #2: Dyeing To Look Good
Textile dyeing is notoriously heavy-hitting on marine ecosystems. As this book entry (from 2021) states: “the use of synthetic dyes has a negative impact on all life forms.” The authors note that “the presence of sulfur, naphthol, vat dyes, nitrates, acetate acid, and certain auxiliary chemicals together make the textile effluent highly toxic.” Worryingly, this cocktail of chemicals sometimes enters waterways untreated. Severe cases of river pollution from clothing production have been found in Bangladesh and China, where rivers have sometimes run black and red with dye.
All rivers lead to the ocean, so the fashion industry’s excessive use of toxic dye has an impact on the chemical make-up of the ocean. Do we really want carcinogenic chemicals running into the rivers and oceans that are home to so many amazing creatures? Or would it be better to save them.
Fortunately, fibres like Recover™ offer us a way out…
Ocean Issue #3: Microfibre Pollution
No discussion about sustainable fashion is complete without microfibres! All clothing sheds microfibres, but it’s the synthetics that are at fault here. Polyester and elastane garments are made from plastic, which sheds microscopic particles when washed. A single laundry load (of 6kg) can apparently release as much as 700,000 microfibres. These tiny pieces of plastic are too small to be filtered out of water treatment sites, so continue to flow into marine ecosystems where they are consumed by microorganisms. As soon as plastic enters the food chain, there’s a problem. Polyester microfibers have been found in human organs as well as the seafood that humans consume.
Microfibres are a tiny, yet not insignificant, part of the vast issue of ocean plastic. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year, which gets swept into garbage patches by currents and gyres. This plastic isn’t going anywhere: it takes aeons to fully biodegrade and is more likely to be consumed first.
Fashion’s unhealthy obsession with low cost virgin synthetics has to change if we are to save the ocean.
Recover™: The Ocean’s Ally?
What we love about Recover™ is its circularity: the way it makes use of the odds and ends of the textile manufacturing process to create something truly useful and wearable. Recover™ is sourced from post-industrial cotton textile scraps and pre- and post-consumer cotton clothing. It’s collected, sorted, shredded, and turned into a high-quality cotton fibre that has found its way into many new TWOTHIRDS garments. Important here is the method: Recover™ is always mechanically recycled.
Recover™’s life cycle assessment - verified by EcoReview in 2022 - has yielded some interesting results. For example, compared to 1 kg of conventional cotton, Recover™ uses up to 2,116 litres less water. Due to the lack of chemicals involved in mechanical recycling, the eutrophication impact is also reduced. Which means that the overall water impact of Recover™ cotton is much lower than conventionally grown cotton. Its carbon footprint is 1.75 kg lower than that of 1kg of conventional cotton, again helping to alleviate the enormous pressure put on the ocean as the largest carbon sink.
Importantly, Recover’s RColorBlend product™ is also coloured in an innovative way. Rather than vat dye their textile, the company blends their (recycled) cotton fibres together with a carrier fibre like organic cotton or recycled polyester, on a small scale. The carrier fibre has been low impact dyed so as to reduce water pressures. This process is then repeated on an industrial scale to produce a full spectrum of vibrant colours. RColorBlend prevents the need for the final product to be “overdyed” further downstream, reducing possible side-effects on rivers and oceans.
RColorBlend results in two fibre standards: 50% recycled cotton and 50% organic cotton (REarth) or 52% recycled cotton and 48% recycled polyester (RBlue). While the former stops the garment from being implicated in microfibre pollution, the latter transforms single-use waste plastics (typically bottles) into wearable sustainable clothing. There are pros and cons to both blends but on the whole they are undoubtedly much less damaging to the ocean than conventional cotton or virgin polyester blends. A great option to help save the ocean across impact areas like water and eutrophication, emissions and dye.