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An Interview with Cassia Patel: Fast Fashion and Microfiber Pollution


Conversations with Change Makers is a series of interviews with exceptional individuals: trailblazers, activists, visionaries, entrepreneurs and eternal optimists – people, who’ve dedicated their lives to create a better world and who inspire others to follow suit.


The second guest in PlanetCare’s Conversations with Changemakers was Cassia Patel.

Cassia has formal training as an environmental engineer, underwater research biologist, and in sustainable design. A unique set of skills, which, coupled with her love for the ocean, she is translating into amazing work she is delivering for Oceanic Global.

This international NGO engages new audiences in ocean conservation and empowers them to create positive change. In her role as the Program Director, Cassia oversees Oceanic Global’s grassroots initiatives, policy reform efforts, educational programming, and manages The Oceanic Standard.

PlanetCare has been working with Oceanic Global on a few of their initiatives. We are very grateful Cassia agreed to tell us more about their work; especially the campaigns on fashion and microfiber pollution, which are always of special interest to the PlanetCare community.

We hope you’ll enjoy the conversation as much as we did. It is captured in this video and you will also find a transcription below in this blog post.

Interview Transcription

[Masa] Hi, everyone, and welcome to PlanetCare’s ‘Conversations with Changemakers’. I am super honoured and super happy to have Carsia Patel here with us. 

Cassia is the program director of Oceanic Global, which is a global NGO that engages audiences in ocean conservation. Her work with Oceanic Global includes overseeing their grassroots initiatives, policy reform efforts, educational programing, and managing The Oceanic Standard (TOS), a free set of industry-specific resources for adopting sustainable practices that meet both business and environmental needs with a focus on eliminating single-use plastics and improving waste management.

Cassia has formal training as an environmental engineer, underwater research biologist, and in sustainable design. Cassia has formal training as an environmental engineer, underwater research biologist and in sustainable design.

Welcome, Cassia and thank you so much for being here with us today.

[Cassia] Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be on here today and thank you for the kind introduction.

The only thing that I'll add is just for those who are so far unfamiliar, that Oceanic Global’s focus is really on behavior change. And we think about this both, the community level as well as the industry level.

And through working with PlanetCare it has been incredible to see how you're facilitating that at both levels. So what you can do at home, as well as what you can do with your business to tackle this overwhelming issue that we will be diving into today of microplastic fibers. I just wanted to give a shout out to PlanetCare as well.

And thank you for having us.

[Masa] Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure working with you as well. I'm just super happy that our community will have the opportunity to get to know a little bit more about yourself and all the amazing work you're doing with Oceanic Global. 

With all the brilliant work that Oceanic Global is doing, we could definitely be talking for days. But since that's not an option, I was hoping to talk more about an issue that's especially close to the PlanetCare community.

Last September, Oceanic Global ran a campaign about microfiber pollution from clothes. The campaign also coincided with the New York Fashion Week. Can you tell us a little bit more about this campaign? Why did you decide to run it and how was it received?

[Cassia] Absolutely. Surrounding Fashion Week and and adjacently surrounding Climate Week, we launched a campaign to raise awareness about microfiber pollution. As I’m sure PlanetCare’s community is well familiar with 60% of our clothes are made out of synthetic fibers which shed into our water system through doing laundry.

And that much of that synthetic plastic ends up getting caught in our own water cycle and is coming back to us in drinking water. And actually, 83% of drinking water globally has plastic contamination. In the US we're actually at 94% of all drinking water having plastic contamination.

83% of drinking water globally has plastic contamination

And we're really learning about how that impacts human health and how it disrupts our developmental stages. Essentially plastic and associated chemicals have what's called endocrine disruptors, which basically interfere with the body's ability to communicate with itself.

And that can cause developmental defects, that can cause cancers. A recent book called Countdown by Shanna H. Swan actually highlights how the consumption of plastic and associated chemicals actually leads to decreased fertility in men.

So in more ways than one, this is impacting the next generation and something that really comes to the forefront as we think about plastic pollution. It's more than an environmental crisis. It's a public health and a human rights crisis.

Plastic pollution is more than an environmental crisis. It's a public health and a human rights crisis.

- Cassia Patel

And I think that's embodied specifically as we think through the challenges posed by microplastic fibers. So we really wanted to raise awareness of this. In particular to highlight that daily choices that we're making, whether that's in fashion or in washing our clothes, are having an impact on the environment and of ourselves.

So we launched surrounding Fashion Week with relation to textiles and clothing and to just highlight what this challenge is and also to highlight solutions. And we did partner up with other groups in our space, in the fashion space, and our ambassadors who are able to help spread this message on their platforms and channels and to engage their audiences, for many of whom this was a new concept.

It was exciting to be able to share that awareness and highlight solutions like PlanetCare, highlight solutions like going thrift shopping or fixing your clothes. And choosing clothes that are non-synthetic as well, and to see where those options might exist. So, yeah, so that was wonderful.

[Masa] So since you timed the campaign to run during the New York Fashion Week, were you able to start a conversation with any of the big fashion brands? Do you feel they want to address the issue?

[Cassia] That's a great question. So we're definitely seeing a lot of fashion brands responsive to this and responding to this; I think in addition to the challenge of synthetic fibers. There is a lot of awareness and press building around the other environmental impacts of the fashion industry overall.

And this is something that brands are responding to because their fans, their consumers are bringing this up and responding to that as well. Which is showing the power that we have as consumers, the power of our dollars in the way that essentially every time we spend money and spend our dollars, we're voting on what we support and what practices we support throughout the supply chain, throughout the lifecycle of that product and how it was created.

And as that's coming to light, we definitely are seeing a greater interest in promoting sustainable fashion, exploring what that looks like. And it's becoming this large creative space of alternatives.

Actually the earrings that I'm wearing here are made out of repurposed aluminum cans that this food bank is able to sell and raise money to buy food to donate to a homeless shelter. 

So there are these beautiful stories that are popping up or people are finding circularity, and finding both social and environmental purpose in the work that they're creating.

I will say there's no specific brands that I'll call out today, but there are companies that have been approaching us, to ask us for input and consultation, particularly with relation to swimwear, as we are an ocean-focused nonprofit. And so there tends to be quite an overlap in an interest with those who spend time in the water and a lot of people asking about how to create sustainable swimwear and what that looks like.

And of course, swimwear and athletic wear, these are use cases often for synthetic materials that can fit the flexibility and the stretch and the style of being outdoors and of being active. And so that's where it does get more challenging because for the most part, things that are made from synthetic materials are shedding those microfibers, even if it's made out of recycled or repurposed, upcycled PET plastic water bottles or other forms of plastic.

And there is an incredible material called Econyl that's created from upcycled fishing nets. And that's created by Aquafil, the textile manufacturer. And that's something that a lot of swimwear companies are starting to use. And Aquafil actually have tested this fabric for microplastic shedding and from their test they have not seen microplastic shedding. So that's really encouraging to see that.

But I think that's just something that I would pose to the industry at large. Now that we know this is an issue, there are no certifications or standards that exist for us to understand how these materials are impacting microfiber pollution.

So these are tests that manufacturers need to be running. And also beyond just the textile manufacturer, but also the product manufacturers to see the fashion brands who are creating the swimwear or the clothing to run tests to see if those products are shedding microplastic fibers. And that's the only way ultimately we can really know whether or not they are contributing.

And so I think just kind of shifting the narrative now that we know this is a challenge, how do we address that and how do we find solutions? So those are the types of things that we talk companies through. We definitely try to recommend alternative fabrics. We try to push people in other directions. What we do see a great use for upscale plastics like PET or others that have been known to shed are long lasting materials.

Like I actually have some headphones here. And this is a brand called House of Marley, but they're created out of repurposed, recycled aluminum and wood elements. But with headphones, there are some items that the plastic is really difficult to eliminate or to replace. And so this is an item that's a long lasting, durable good. And that you could be using upcycled plastic for. Building materials is another great example of that. So in general, we just try to move away from using upcycled plastics for items that are going to be put through the wash many times, like clothing and swimwear and athletic wear, where, you know, there is going to be shedding. So those are just a couple of considerations.

[Masa] Amazing. And what do you think that would need to happen for the global fast fashion trend to turn around? Have you seen any change happening?

[Cassia] Yeah, absolutely. And I'm glad you called that out in particular, because there definitely is. But again, it depends on what bubble you're in. But there definitely is a slow fashion movement that's growing. One organization who's been talking a lot about this is actually called Slow Factory. And so it's great to just see that transition away from fast fashion.

I think at this point there's been a lot of growing consumer awareness of the harmful impacts of fast fashion, just in the way that it's designed to be almost single use - it's designed to be used for a season and thrown away. 

Our work at Oceanic Global we spend a lot of time educating businesses and working with businesses as well as communities to help people move away from single use plastics, the issue being the single use aspect primarily, which falls, which falls true for other materials as well. Single use paper and wood and aluminum is also not the world that we that we hope to be building.

So the concept of fast fashion being nearly single use, of course, will inherently have waste. Having such cheap prices will inherently cause unfair labor practices to be prevalent. So moving away from that concept of accumulation of stuff and accumulation of commodities as well, transitioning to more of a slow fashion mindset is a natural solution and also just more human scale and pace with how we've been living and working.

And I think also, if there are silver linings of this past year and in the way that Covid has had a global response on the ways that we live and we gather and we shop, there's definitely been a transition to sourcing locally, to seeing what's available within your own community, especially as global supply chains were paused or delayed or halted in some cases. And we did have to look locally and to build a sense of community to address those challenges. 

That's true for food. That's also true for products and services and materials. And so I think in that moment, also thinking through how can we make sure that thrift shops and second hand stores and the ability for clothing swaps, this continues to be front of mind as we reopen and feel comfortable with the fact that Covid does not spread on surfaces and it does only spread through aerosol droplets. And so finding those solutions.

So just to pick that up, as we think about solutions, really thinking about supporting thrift shops and second hand markets and clothing swaps and highlighting how these are all things that can be a part of building that sense of community, local sourcing and repurposed items.

And also just want to highlight as we think about solutions, we often talk about the five Rs. The first R being to refuse, to say no to items that you don't need, to living within your space and your surroundings, responsive to natural resource limitations, to what we have available to us and what we need also. So being very conscious of what we need versus what we don't need.

And I think for fast fashion, a lot of that is we're getting marketed things that we don't need, but we want to stay up with the trends that are changing from season to season. Clothing is not designed to last very long. So it dematerializes on its own. The shoes in particular. If any have been buying fast fashion shoes you'll see that the soles start to fall off after a certain period of time.

And so these are not items designed to last, which is why we're then forced to continue to buy new ones. But choosing items that are long-lasting and that can be fixed. Also getting into mending and fixing items is a great way to go around that. 

So the first step is to refuse. The second step being to reduce. So again, to reduce that consumption. The third step being to, and you can fill in the blank here - there's really so many R words. But to repurpose, to repair and to return in some cases and to see how we can be mending and fixing and keeping clothes that we've had for a long time. And they start to build their own story and life with that as well. So that could be its own fashion statement. 

And then, where it needed, the rest of the five Rs just to highlight but a little bit less relevant in this case. But the next one is rot, which relates to composting. So how can we be treating organic waste? And the final one is recycled. So thinking about recycling as the last tier in that totem pole of what we're thinking through.

And there are opportunities to up-cycle items, which essentially means that they have a higher value than they originally did, whether that is serving as building materials or serving as what. Whereas if they came from like plastic sachets and they're turned into building materials, that is an increase in value.

But most often our recycling systems, specifically with relation to plastic, as well as for textiles, is down-cycling. So we're taking clothing and clothing scraps from all these fast fashion materials and turning that then into carpets or into insulation. And so these are things that do have value, but there really is nothing else that can be created from them.

We can't, for the most part, at least with single use plastic items that habitually used, so a PET plastic water bottle cannot alone be turned into another PET plastic water bottle without some virgin material. And there are developments on chemical recycling that are taking place but at the moment, this is what is most widely available in terms of infrastructure.

So with recycling it gets very complicated. And we think about that one as the last tier and really focusing on how to reduce and refuse and repurpose before we get to that stage.

[Masa] Amazing, thank you, that's such a great answer. I was also hoping because with Oceanic Global you address so many ocean-related issues, do you feel that the awareness about, or the urge maybe, to do something about microfiber pollution is there? Or are people still pretty much unaware that this is a problem and we all have a far way to go still?

[Cassia] Yeah, great question. I think it really does vary, and so you know earlier I mentioned we all exist within our own bubbles and within our own spheres. And I think for those that are engaged within the environmental movement and within the environmental sphere, those that are already here at the table and listening and who care, I do feel that this issue of micro fibers has risen to the surface.

We're also seeing companies like Patagonia that have statements on their website and whole research teams dedicated to how they can be minimizing or managing their microfiber pollution because many of their clothing still is made from synthetic materials. Because there are very few alternatives at the moment for some of those weatherproof, flexible, breathable fabrics that are necessary if you're climbing Mount Everest, let's say or even if you're just going swimming.

But I think what's exciting, though, is that those companies are making these statements. And so for those that are already not at the table and engaged, as we were saying, this is then an opportunity for them to learn more about a brand that they're already bought into and how they can understand the scope of this issue.

I do think there's a long way to go, though, for general public awareness about these challenges and responses. And like I was saying earlier, a major part of that can be policies. So if we do have ways to standardize and define how we are addressing these challenges and how to understand these challenges, I think that can then also lead to greater awareness as companies have to respond, as that might impact certain consumer behavior. 

And that's really the way that we can start to build momentum. But there definitely is a long, long way to go. And I think part of that is also just inherent in the fact that for a lot of these materials there are few immediate alternatives for some of the activewear and then the sports solutions.

So it can feel challenging or overwhelming to think about it. Especially once you start to unpack the whole issue and you learn about how many of your clothes that you already have are made of synthetic materials. And kind of going along that hierarchy of priorities. The most sustainable option is not to purge your existing wardrobe and buy a totally new one. It's to keep the clothes that you have for longer. So I think that's where it can just get a little bit more complex, even for those that have been exposed to the challenge.

And that's why solutions like PlanetCare, to give you another another shout out and throw back, are so wonderful because that is something people can input while still using the same clothes that they've been using, which are most likely going to be primarily synthetic and to be able to capture that. And to see first hand how many microfibers their wardrobe is producing.

And so I think that's a major educational moment there, too, because it can be very theoretical and philosophical as we're talking about this broader concept, especially as we're talking about global health and plastic pollution and decrease in men's fertility. Like these are all massive issues that are really hard to pinpoint.

But if you see in your own home, this is the amount of microfiber pollution that I'm producing from my clothes. And you can see as you slowly start to transition or go to thrift shops or clothing swaps or have to retire certain clothes and transition to organic materials and to non-synthetics, does that start to change? And so I think just that in itself can be a really major awareness point.

But I will add the policy focus to that, because I do think that’s how we can access a broader public that may not stumble across this on their own.

And I'll also just share just to give it a shout that we are currently partners to the Conservation X Labs in Microfiber Innovation Challenge. So this is a call for all innovators, entrepreneurs, solutionists to share their ideas and responses to how we can tackle this issue from an upstream perspective as well.

So thinking through how can we be redesigning materials as well and how can we be looking at different stages of that value chain to shift the narrative around this issue.

So I think efforts like that are certainly helping with awareness as well, because they've developed some incredible educational and awareness campaigns and materials that went alongside that, for people to just better understand the scope of the issue and how they can be involved and what different solutions look like.

[Masa] Amazing. And just before we wrap things up, Cassia, you've already done such a magnificent, magnificent job of highlighting what can each and every one of us do to address the microfiber pollution issue through your through this conversation.

But maybe a final call to action. What would your advice to a person who really loves fashion be? You know, what can they do to change personally, but also to fuel systemic change?

[Cassia] Yeah, absolutely. So for those that do love fashion or really express themselves through their clothing and through accessories and their visual identity. There are definitely so many ways, I think, to add your own flavor and your own creativity, especially if you're moving away from fast fashion, which are very cookie cutter designs and mass produced and mass marketed.

So for those that are into expressing themselves and taking on their own flavor and flair, I do think that fixing all of things, shopping vintage, thrift stores and second hand markets, that's where you can get your own statement pieces and really bring that to life.

So I do think there's a lot stylistically, and I'm certainly not a stylist, that you can get at with this movement and will be more unique and more in your own voice. And so actually, I don't think that one excludes the other. I think you can absolutely still maintain a strong fashion sense while achieving sustainability. Maybe there's even ways that that becomes easier.

And and I would just just challenge those that are really interested and excited to see if there's ways they can be fixing and mending old things, creating new things. I know a lot of people have been sewing their own masks or contributing to the community in that way. And they're definitely so many opportunities to repurpose materials that you have as well to create accessories like shopping bags or some incredible examples where you see the tops of cans are being used for high fashion purses and shopping bags.

And so I think there is a lot that is out there. So, yeah, I think this is an invitation for everyone to be creative about what this looks like for you. Everyone has their own journey. There's no cut and paste solutions other than starting with just catching what's in your laundry machine to begin with.

But as a part of that broader transition and the only other thing I would add there, too, is that we always have a choice about the brands and the companies that we support. So every time you are making a purchase, you are explicitly telling the world that you support this company and all that it does. So I would just encourage everyone to also do their homework and to research the ethos and the full intention of different companies.

More and more companies have a full on sustainability page on their website as well, or have had to respond to it because of people like us who care, who ask them, who push them. Especially if there's a brand that you love and you want to see them be doing better, reach out to them, give them feedback. If there's any way or platform you can do that, to offer that response.

There’s actually a new app that was just created called Remark. And it's a way for people to give feedback to businesses and to companies, whether that's restaurants or food delivery companies or if it's fashion brands. And they will help you figure out the point of contact and how to get that email or phone call through if you let them know what message you want to share to who. So that's a really incredible resource. And in general, I just cannot emphasize enough the power that we have to make these things shared.

I know we’ve spoken a bit about the opportunity for industry leadership, the opportunity for policy reform. Both of those things sit on a foundation of grassroots action and the desire at the base level. So if we're able to express that desire and what we want to see and how we can visualize the world we need to see, then the policy and businesses will catch up and provide that. So, yeah, use your voice.

Masa Sprajcar-Rancic
Masa Sprajcar-Rancic
Masa spends a significant chunk of time on empowering people to live more sustainably by merging her knowledge of environmental sciences with behaviour change insights. When not at work she loves spending time outdoors, so you’ll most likely find her on her bike or at her allotment.

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