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Comfort Catastrophe: Your Fleece Jacket Is Bad for the Environment

Mega soft, microplastics.

fleece jacket

Welcome to Counterpoint, a series in which we challenge commonly held ideas about well-known products. This time: fleece jackets.

First, let me introduce you to this story's villain, fleece. More specifically, the microplastics it sheds. See, most fleece jackets are made from polyester. And polyester (aka polyethylene terephthalate) is plastic, which derives from a chemical reaction between air, petroleum, and water. But wait, I know. I can hear you now. People use plastic for everything. Why are my fleece jackets the problem?

Due to their size, the microplastics fleece jackets shed are harder to corral. If you see a water bottle floating along the shoreline, you pick it up. Or, if there is a herd of them floating a few miles offshore, a conservation crew can scoop them with one swift sift. Microplastics usually measure out to no more than a few millimeters (five at max). For context, a pea is roughly 10 mm across. The tip of a pencil is roughly 1 mm across. They're hard to see and even harder to address. But, microplastics are everywhere.

“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight]," researchers in a 2016 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation determined. That's bad news. And this isn't a problem we should shelve and address further down the road. Scientists found microplastics in table salt; fish caught miles from California's coast; and shorelines where effluent and other wastewater is routed.

Activists are worried we're underestimating the reach of clothing-derived microplastics, even in the face of such grave realizations. Any damage done to the environment eventually impacts us, too, especially if we're unaware of the potential problems. But sooner than most realize, some argue, we'll learn that plastics have infiltrated our diets, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.

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So, what's being done about it?
patagonia fleece
Henry Phillips

Why can't brands just stop using polyester? Patagonia's Manager of Materials Research and Development, Ryan Thompson, puts it best: "Polyester has undeniable benefits... In historic alpine insulation systems, the material of choice was almost always wool. The transition to polyester happened because we could offer an economical alternative to wool with similar performance and comfort characteristics. It’s durable even at light weights and it’s easier to maintain, because it’s machine washable and dryable.”

Polyester performs. It's why Patagonia introduced the material to outerwear in the'80s. It's also why they've held onto it for so long, having only recently set forth a plan to replace virgin polyester with recycled polyester made from bottles and manufacturing waste. But the brand's progress is worth celebrating: 64-percent of its new products are made from recycled materials. That's a fair amount of progress internally toward an end goal of overhauling the apparel industry, but it's nothing in the grand scheme of things. Patagonia's not the only culprit behind microplastic pollution. All clothing releases fibers during the wash.

"Textiles shed between 31,000 and 3,500,000 fibers per load during normal laundering in household washing machines," Patagonia found. But while nylon, spandex, and other stretchy, synthetic materials shed, none do like fleece. "'Fluffy’ textiles like fleece, as well as textiles made of spun staple yarns and textiles pre-treated with brushing are the highest-shedding types," the brand's aforementioned study also determined. Water treatment plants can only really capture around 60- (the rough average) to 80- (the optimistic take) percent of microplastics in the water they refine. That leaves a whopping 20- to 40-percent of a few million. Yikes!

There's hope, though, for those of us who retreat to high-pile jackets whenever winter appears from around the bend. Studies have found that some jackets shed a whole lot the first time you wash it but then do so less abundantly with each subsequent wash. Sure, flushing a wad of microplastics away with the first wash isn't worth celebrating, but this leaves room for pre-treatments that could eliminate that initial shed. Beyond scientific developments, there are also fleeces being made from alternative materials. There are natural woolen ones, too, which shed far less and decompose faster. If we can sway consumer interest away from polluting polyester fleeces, more brands will become aware of the problem and explore opportunities to innovate upon their own products — see: switching to wool or recycled polyester. Shop options from a few early adapters below.

50% recycled polyester
Men's Classic Retro-X Fleece Jacket

It'd be wrong to leave Patagonia off this list. The brand popularized fleece outerwear and is now taking significant strides toward making it more sustainable.

50% Wool
Pocket Polar Fleece Crew

Ditch your typical zip-front fleece jacket for a pullover fleece crew — specifically, one with a bright red pocket.

100% Recycled Polyester
Denali 2 Jacket
The North Face

To me, this jacket screams middle school, which was like '07-'08 for me. But, it's plenty cool nowadays, still. It's gotten plenty of cosigns from rappers both US- and UK-based.

60% Wool
Fleece Jacket

This one's less structured than other jackets on this list, but it's made from 60-percent wool. A win for sure.

100% Recycled Polyester
Thermal Boa Fleece Jacket
Snow Peak

Japanese outdoors brand Snow Peak made a massive statement with its 100-percent recycled polyester fleece. This one's eco-friendly and fashion-forward. 

85% Recycled Polyester
Alpine Sherpa Jacket

85-percent recycled polyester. That's B, B+ territory. Vuori's certainly trying and that's more than you can say for most brands. 

100% Recycled Polyester
Dawn Patrol 1/2 Zip Pullover

There's no true affiliation between us, Gear Patrol, and this jacket, dubbed Dawn Patrol, but we certainly approve of its 100-percent recycled polyester construction.

Beyond Buying a New Jacket, Here's What You Can Do
  1. Don't wash your fleece as often (or at all). Sure, certain circumstances call for a deep clean, but be mindful of the impact of repeat washes.
  2. If you must wash your fleece, do so using one Guppyfriends' Washing Bag. The patented, medical-grade nylon sleeve zips shut and stops microplastics from escaping into waterways.
  3. Purchase and install a lint trap that filters out fabrics in the pathway between your washing machine and your septic tank.
Good for 50+ Washes
Washing Bag

If you must wash your fleece, put it in this bag first. You get around 50 washes out of one, and it catches 85-percent of particles.

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