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The Path to Sustainable – Moving from Synthetics to Natural Fibers

Heather “Anish” Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail. Find her on Instagram @AnishHikes or her website, Anishhikes.wordpress.com.

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One afternoon in elementary school I was absolutely crushed to learn that turtles and other wildlife could be killed by our plastic trash.

Our teacher showed us–using blunt-nosed safety scissors–how to save turtles by snipping each ring of a plastic six-pack Coca-Cola holder before putting it into the trash. Since I spent many hours of my childhood talking to the turtles (and frogs, deer, raccoons, etc.) I encountered in the riparian area behind my parents’ house, I went home from school that day zealous to cut apart anything I thought might hurt my woodland friends.

Fast forward 30 years. I no longer drink soda, but when I run across those holders as litter, I still snip them open before I throw them away. I eschew plastic shopping bags so that a sea turtle doesn’t mistake them for a jellyfish and die from their ingestion. I still spend many hours out in the woods, bundled up in fleece made from recycled plastic bottles talking to my friends.

Heather "Anish" Anderson

So, it was with compounded sadness that I realized that–despite my efforts from a tender age to remove macroplastic waste from the environment–my healthy, active outdoor life was poisoning not only animals, but also people…through the creation of microplastics shed by the clothing I wore to engage in these pursuits.

If you Google “Microplastic Pollution,” you’ll find ample information out there about this enormous problem. This article that was published by Outside Online back in 2016 has in-depth facts, figures and information on the microplastic problem. Rather than rewrite what’s covered there, I want to focus on the journey I’ve taken since learning about this issue that has led me to using natural fibers for not only every day, but also in activewear.

As an incredibly active person, I had to accept my culpability in the microplastic problem and fossil fuel fabric industry. That fleece made from recycled macroplastics was the source of millions of these microplastics released into the environment over its lifetime–predominantly through washing it in a machine. I looked at my hiking, running, and mountaineering wardrobe. It was almost entirely made from synthetics…acrylic, polyester, nylon, spandex, etc. Each of these items, arguably my most worn and most washed clothing, was releasing microplastics. Thus, making them doubly unsustainable–synthesized from fossil fuels and then releasing bioaccumulative pollution into the environment forever.

I also grew increasingly concerned about the toxicity of these fabrics, both for those creating them, and also for me as I sweated into them for hours (even days!) on end. The more I learned the more I realized that the environmental pollution resulting from our synthetic textile industry and fast fashion forms a complex, intertwined, and detrimental web that’s wreaking devastation on the environment and its inhabitants–for things like yoga pants.

Clearly this problem was too big to be solved with a pair of blunt-nosed safety scissors.

“I’m just one person. I can’t do much. But I am one person and I can do something.” I remind myself that my choices added to other people’s choices can add up to real impact. The size of the problem doesn’t negate the need to start being the change. So began my journey into textile sustainability.

I have been a lifelong thrifter. If I weren’t, this would have been the first step of the journey. Purchasing used extends item lifecycles. It also reduces demand for new. However, I realized that thrifting, like snipping can holders, made me feel good…. but it wouldn’t solve the root of the problem. I personally needed to reduce consumption, choose more sustainable clothing, and repurpose textiles until they couldn’t be repurposed anymore.

So, my first step was to reframe my purchase mentality away from simply recycling-based (thrifting) to reduction and recycling-based. I began to look at clothing not in light of trends or good deals, but in light of investment and function. Before I buy (which is still mostly secondhand), I ask if I am committed to maintaining and using this garment until the very end of its lifecycle.

After commitment to reduction came evaluation and management of what I owned. I continued to mend to extend the life of garments. I’ve also found new ways to repurpose items into mittens, headbands, gaiters, patches, and more. I started taking responsibility for and managing the microplastics given off by my clothing.

The next step in my journey has been challenging and exciting. I started choosing Natural. I used to be the one that picked up synthetic dresses to hike in at thrift stores. Now, while I’m still using some of those finds until it’s time to retire them, I’m not actively seeking out synthetic replacements. Instead, I’ve turned toward 100% natural fibers–certified organic if possible.

Heather Anderson in the Clouds

No, I’m not hiking in cotton now! Instead, I began researching and discovering how sustainable and natural fabrics could be used successfully in activewear. I was surprised to find that there are more options than merino!

I have found that hemp, linen, silk, wool, alpaca, thrifted cashmere, as well as OEKO-Tex certified bamboo and lyocell all have applications in outdoor use. Some of these fabrics work better than others, especially in humidity. I’ve had excellent luck using thin merino wool for base layers and innerwear in all temperatures. The Appalachian Gear Company All-Paca Hoodie is a perfect mid-layer. Lyocell and bamboo have excellent wicking capabilities. Linen and hemp function well in hot, arid conditions. Hemp even has inherent UV protective properties!

While each natural fabric has its own strengths and weaknesses, a common strength is the need to launder them less often–meaning less electricity, water, detergent, etc. Their greatest common strength is that when I do wash them, they do not shed microplastics. In that way they do not contribute to the plastic poisoning of the Earth.

Personally, I love to sew and have started looking into sourcing the fabrics to make my own hiking apparel. It’s often easier to locate sustainable and certified GOTS and/or OEKO-Tex fabrics than items made from them (*In the general sense, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification is the most stringent and looks at many aspects of the fabric’s generation. OEKO-Tex is less so, but also very good.) Sewing is also a way to invest yourself in an item more than simply buying off the rack. When you’ve put your time and effort into creating something, it makes it easier to take care of and use longer.

Although I repurpose worn out apparel into smaller functional items and then to rags, eventually they must be disposed of. For blended fabrics there are options for textile recycling available that can be found online. 100% natural textiles can be composted. There is a certain sense of fulfillment in knowing I can return my clothing to the Earth when it is time.

My investigation into sustainable clothing brought to light even more issues and depth of complexity than I anticipated. Who made this and how were they treated? How were the animals treated who provided the base fibers? Were ecosystems damaged to grow the textile crops? Are the dyes damaging to me, the workers, the environment? Is the processing water recycled?

Heather "Anish" Anderson

While it’s enough to make you want to forget the whole thing, staying the course and making the best choices I can with the information available has been key for me. The issues centering around textile pollution are complex and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I’m not trading my raingear for oilskins. I’m still wearing sneakers not moccasins. We live in a world where plastics exist, but I believe that the mindful choosing of when and how much of them to bring into my life–as well as their proper management and disposal–can bring some balance to something that is incredibly out of control. 

Finding my own path has been a difficult, yet rewarding, journey. Like that day in elementary school, I have found my eyes opened to more and more layers of truth that are behind something as simple as what we put on to go for a hike.

Heather "Anish" Anderson
 

 

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