Most textile and wool products have a label listing the fiber content, country of origin, and identity of the manufacturer. In view of recent concerns about ocean pollution, a few states have passed bills to require polyester clothing to have a label warning consumers about washing their garments to prevent fiber pollution.

Current Legislation

Connecticut recently passed The Act Concerning Clothing Fiber Pollution, House Bill 5360, making it the first state to implement a law aimed at combatting microfiber pollution. Based on the House Bill, a working group of representatives from the apparel industry and environmental community was convened to develop an awareness and education program about microfiber pollution. The bill’s text requires representatives of specific influential organizations in the apparel industry to be part of the working group. The consumer awareness and education program must include consumer-oriented information explaining the process by which microfibers are shed from clothes and enter the waterways, best practices for consumers to eliminate and reduce the shedding, and information on efforts that members of the apparel industry—including brand labels—are undertaking to reduce or eliminate microfibers in clothing.

In New York, A10599 has been referred to the Committee on Environmental Conservation and, if passed, would require an additional care label by January 1, 2020 on clothing made of more than 50% synthetic material. The required care label, on clothes for which (1) such label would not violate federal law and (2) hand washing is either recommended or required, must state that the garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed and that hand washing is recommended. For all other clothing, the care label must explain that the garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed.

California’s legislation (AB-2379), which is similar to the New York legislation but has been tabled for now, would require that new clothing made from at least 50% synthetic material include a care label that informs consumers that the clothing sheds plastic microfibers when washed. It would also require a visible label at the point of sale that says, “This garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed, which contributes to marine plastic pollution.”

Industry Response and Takeaways

Companies have reacted to the research on microfiber pollution in a variety of ways. For example, Patagonia has helped fund research studies into the issue. It sells a filter bag called the Guppy Friend that is intended to capture microfibers from clothes being washed in a washing machine. Tersus Solutions, a water-less textile processing platform, has made considerable efforts to develop a waterless washing machine that uses pressurized carbon dioxide to clean clothing. Some companies such as Eileen Fisher have donated to the research that first brought this issue to light. The Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group, which represents over 250 companies, has started to examine the issue along with marine-debris specialists at the Ocean Conservancy.

Critics of the current legislative efforts believe they are premature and that the existing research does not yet show what impact synthetic microfibers in clothing truly have on microfiber pollution, unfairly blaming the problem on the apparel industry. They also argue that there is not yet a viable solution to solve the problem and that washing clothes by hand is not necessarily going to reduce microfiber pollution.

It is nonetheless important for the fashion industry to keep an eye on the pending legislation in New York and California as well as programs the working group in Connecticut implements. For example, if New York or California, which both make up a large part of the United States apparel industry, pass any labeling laws related to synthetic microfibers, it’s likely that these labels will essentially be required nationally.

While labeling laws would impose much more immediate and strict requirements on the apparel industry than the working group in Connecticut’s potential programs, the working group’s recommendations could not only have impacts on future legislation but also on consumers’ perception of synthetic microfibers in clothing. These impacts would be in addition to the publicity generated by the pending legislation in New York and California and the working group’s proceedings in Connecticut have already garnered.

It is possible that more states could follow in the path of Connecticut, New York, and California, though a lot may depend on if the pending legislation in New York gains ground or if the California legislation is brought back for a vote. If either one passes, we could be seeing more legislation related to microfiber pollution in the next few years in other states, and with it the possibility of more requirements for apparel companies to follow.