The Micro Dilemma
Ethic-ettes is a series I write about the problems small businesses have when moving towards ethics and sustainability. Sometimes the problems are small, sometimes they're systemic; the solutions, though, are never easy or clear, but they are worth discussing and recognising, that's a start.
For the longest time, as my mother and I learnt the art of clothes manufacturing, our handcrafted blockprinted cottons and hand loom ikkats used to be joined by a rather more contrasting companion… and no I do not mean contrasting in colour, I mean contrasting in a more conceptual sense.
For the longest time, our apparel pieces used to be lined with a micro fibre, polyester lining: this is the story of what the problem was, how we are solving it, and why YOU, dear customer, should most definitely continue reading.
Now the lining is a rather quizzical piece of fabric, especially when you see it in the context of India… For a country so heat-laden, where soul-drying loos (dry northern winds) rattle their way across drying earth and barren desert, why would we ever double up! Though the ever popular Muslins and cottons perhaps remain too diaphanous for the casual summer afternoon promenade!
Essentially we end up with two duelling practicalities: should we keep the garment as light and airy as possible or as opaque as possible?
Herein we return to micro, and how it was our go-to lining for much of our early manufacturing. It was perfect: light, moisture-wicking, soft and ultimately opaque as the blinds on an aircraft!
Our customers fell in love with the textile, who wouldn’t seek relief in hot and humid Mumbai (unsustainably though it may come)?
But ultimately, we made a decision: NO MORE MICRO! Not even when a customer requests it! But what exactly is the issue with polyester? I am a sincere believer in not drawing conclusions sans research and would be loathe to equate anything synthetic with inherent badness…
Polyester is a plastic, try burning the edge of a polyester fabric and you’ll notice it melts rather than disintegrating to ash, and most plastics are derived from petrochemical byproducts. This is what makes fashion one of the most carbon-adding industries in the world. But more simply than dumping carbon into our atmosphere, there exist other issues too, which make polyester not just unsustainable to make but to use. It is not just our responsibility to not make it, but also the markets to not use it.
Every time you wash polyester, by hand or by machine, the fabric sheds micro-plastics into our water systems1, micro plastics which we cannot extract and have become so uncontrollably widespread that it can be found in up to 80% of all humans bloodstreams… these toxic minutiae have pervaded ocean life and are so new a phenomenon, no study exists to evaluate the long term impacts of these horrid particles on human or wildlife health (though laboratory studies show possible allergic reactions and death in human cells).2
Ultimately, a non-biodegrading material that negatively impacts the environment from every stage of its life: from genesis, to use, to disposal is not one we wished to be associated with. Customer may be Queen but we consider sustainability the high Empress!
But what’s the alternative? Many in the marketplace tout organic cotton as a stunningly green solution. And whilst it certainly biodegrades and doesn’t eject nasty chemicals all over the planet, cotton is one of the most water intensive plants in the world: 1kg of cotton required 22500l of water, and without reliable certifying mechanisms, small businesses find it difficult to trust suppliers claims of “organic” cotton. Cotton, as you have it, tends to like chemical fertilisers and Indian farmers tend to fertilise more than mechanised counterparts abroad…3
So unless small businesses have control of their supply chain, which we do not, it becomes impossible to find alternatives that remain cost effective.
Our current cotton lining fabric costs twice the beloved polyester, and yet what’s at stake is too important to fumble about, and if we have to eat into our profit margins to create a product that is not just craft-conscious but simultaneously climate-cognisant, we’re doing no one but ourselves a favour.
And whilst some of our older stocks continue to have micro, we mention this clearly in product specifications and assure you that the dreaded textile is on its way out.
We believe in the discerning customer, and we hope that you might join us on the no-polyester bandwagon, difficult though it may be!
We remain on the hunt for better linings, perhaps the only question is: would YOU be willing to pay more for it!?
1Achlim, Yasmina."Just How Bad is Polyester?". ourgreenplanet.org, 2021. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/just-how-bad-is-polyester/.
2Carrington, Damian." Microplastics found in human blood for first time". The Guardian, March 24, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/24/microplastics-found-in-human-blood-for-first-time.
3Leahy, Stephen." World Water Day: the cost of cotton in water-challenged India". The Guardian, March 20, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/cost-cotton-water-challenged-india-world-water-day.