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UBC students Iselle Flores Ruiz (left) and Yuanji Sun (right) prepare to analyze water samples.

The “inconvenient truth” behind synthetic vegan fashion

“The biggest problem with the clothing industry when it comes to the environment is the chemicals that are used”

By Naomi Holzapfel , in City , on November 29, 2017

Ocean-friendly vegan fashion is growing in popularity amongst Vancouverites, as retailers try to advocate clothing alternatives that are both animal- and eco-friendly.

One such retailer is the Vancouver-based sustainable and biodegradable fashion boutique Movement Global on Kitsilano’s popular Fourth Avenue retail strip.

Sales associate Alexandra Onea at Movement Global reaches for free-of-plastic fleece.

This boutique ensures that its clothing is free of the microplastic and nanosilver commonly found in synthetic vegan clothing, because it turns out that these ingredients contribute to the pollution of British Columbia’s waters and harm its aquatic life.

Vancouver’s ocean-weary fashion trend

The boutique’s sales associate, Alexandra Onea, explained that Movement Global wanted to “fill a space in the market for eco-friendly clothing, to provide fashion for those who want to be environmentally conscious.”

To reduce the pollution of British Columbia’s waters, stores such as Global Movement tackle this issue by manufacturing clothing from Canadian-grown organic cotton and bamboo, eliminating the use of chemically produced fabrics that can contribute to ocean pollution.

“The biggest problem with the clothing industry when it comes to the environment is the chemicals that are used,” said Onea. This problem is shared by chemically produced synthetic vegan clothing, which remains a popular but deceptive clothing alternative for many consumers who are unaware of the polluting traces that these fabrics can leave behind.

The unintended consequence of synthetic vegan fabrics

Some synthetic vegan fabrics do not only consist of plastic but can also contain nanosilver, which are nano-sized silver particles that have gained popular usage in fabrics because of their anti-bacterial quality.

These particles are easily detached from fabrics.

“Every time that you wash your synthetic clothing, you shed a little bit of plastic [or nanosilver] down the sewage,” said Iselle Flores Ruiz, a University of British Columbia student currently researching pollutants in the Georgia Strait.

The abrasion of synthetic clothes during washing-machine cycles removes small silver nanoparticles and plastic fibers, so-called microplastics, which “are so small that wastewater facilities won’t be able to trap them, so they end up being washed into the water,” said Ruiz. “This definitely has an impact on the environment.”

The harmful traces left behind in British Columbia’s waters

According to Cheng Kuang, a UBC student researching nanosilver in the Georgia Strait, this problem has started to make itself visible in this body of water, although it is still at very low levels.

UBC students Iselle Flores Ruiz (left) and Yuanji Sun (right) prepare to analyze water samples.

“So far, from the data that we’ve got, we know that the Strait of Georgia contains a pretty low concentration of silver nanoparticles,” Kuang said. “But silver is actually very toxic at very low toxicity levels and is toxic to organisms.”

Ruiz explained that microplastics can also be toxic to organisms because of their size, not just their chemical make-up.

“Because microplastics are so small, shrimp, for example, mistake them for food,” said Ruiz.

The shrimp containing microplastics can also be eaten by fish, which results in the spreading of the pollutant through a process called biomagnification. This means that with every shrimp containing microplastics that a fish eats, it will consume every pollutant that each of the shrimp ate.

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“As you move up the food chain, the percentage of the pollutant keeps increasing,” said UBC professor of marine biochemistry Roger Francois. “The new organism will always absorb a fraction of the contaminant that was in the previous organism.”

Kuang stressed that it is not just microplastics but also nanosilver that can be biomagnified.

“Organisms do take up nanosilver, and it does get into their bodies, and there is a potential for it to be biomagnified,” said Kuang.

Eco-friendly steps towards healthier waters

Despite this harmful pollution that well-intended synthetic vegan clothing can leave behind, for now, “British Columbia’s water quality is among the best in the world,” said Malindi Taylor, the executive assistant of Taylor Shellfish Canada, which collaborates with the provincial and federal government to regulate water quality.

This focus on clean water is a reflection of the importance British Columbians accord to the environment. Vancouver is the second-most environmentally friendly city in North America, according to the US and Canada Green City Index. Canadian Social Trends findings show that British Columbians are more likely to choose or boycott products for ethical reasons, with Vancouverites ranking among the top four ethically driven consumers, even when it comes to clothing.

Given these findings, it is no surprise that stores like Movement Global pop up in Vancouver, said animal-law lawyer Victoria Shroff.

Others say that there will be more of the same, as British Columbia’s residents continue to look for ethical choices when they shop in an effort to keep their water clean.

“The ocean has become a gigantic draining pot for all of human industry and human life,” said Taylor. “With time, that will definitely become an issue.”