When the boss of denim brand Levi’s admitted he went a decade without washing his favourite pair of 501 jeans, it sparked outrage in the fashion industry.
At the time, CEO Chip Bergh claimed he refrained from putting them in the washing machine in fear that it would wear down the material.
But now it turns out that his decision not to wash will be having a far bigger impact than he’d ever had hoped for.
From the catwalks of Paris to the cattle ranches of Mexico, our passion for denim has created such microfibre pollution that wisps of the world’s most popular fabric are now embedded in some of the planet’s most remote ecosystems.
A new study found these fibres – essentially microscopic pieces of plastic, just like the microbeads you find in cosmetics – in an array of aquatic habitats, from temperate lakes to the Arctic wilderness for the first time.
Denim fibres were also found inside the digestive tracts of rainbow smelt, a type of fish caught in Canada’s Great Lakes, where jeans accounted for about 23% of all the microfibres found.
Swallowed by fish and other sea life, microplastic travels up the food chain, where it ends up on our plates.
The researchers have also found that when a pair of used jeans is put into a washing machine, it sheds between about 50,000 and 60,000 microfibres.
The fibres are treated with chemicals to dye them and to make the fabric more durable.
While the effects these substances might have on wildlife are still largely unknown, the discovery that around 20% of the microfibres found in the Arctic sediment were tiny filaments of cotton from blue jeans is a concern.
Worryingly, it also suggests these fragments of chemically treated cotton will take months to break down – taking longer in colder environments.
While washing clothes less frequently, like Chip Bergh, and new technology such as washing machine filters will help reduce microfibre pollution, prevention is the best cure.
Retailers must be urged to look at changes to the manufacturing process, such as reducing the likelihood of fibre breakage.
This will only occur if the Government makes legally binding targets to ensure the fashion industry is transformed to provide clothing that is made to last.
This would be a crucial step in finally waving goodbye to the cheap throwaway culture we’ve all become accustomed to.