At WIRED, we often have microplastics on our minds. But in between debating whether to carry bamboo or stainless steel utensils to reduce waste or comparing the merits of different travel mugs, we often overlook an important source of microplastic waste: Our clothes.
That’s right. Every time you throw your fashionable, functional high-pile fleece in the wash, it could shed up to around 100,000 synthetic fibers per cycle. The fix isn’t going to be as easy as banning microbeads in cosmetics. I’ll make other sacrifices for the planet—I’ll fly less and bike my kids to school—but you will pry my sportswear out of my cold, dead hands.
It’s why Swedish outdoor clothing brand Houdini has collaborated with fabric experts Polartec to create the Power Air Houdi, a garment that signifies the start of a new approach to sportswear manufacturing. The goal is what David Karstad, Polartec’s vice-president of marketing, calls a truly circular garment—one that’s made from recycled materials, in a process with no harmful byproducts, and is recyclable at the end of its life.
The lightweight mid-layer uses Polartec’s Power Air fabric, which sheds around five times fewer fibers than fleece garments. I’ve been wearing it while traveling, hiking, and working at home, and I also took it snowboarding on a brisk 18-degree day. It keeps me warmer than I would have possibly believed. Most importantly for my family’s nostrils, I can wash it without fear.
Bumps in the Road
Unlike a fluffy, high-pile fleece, Power Air works by encapsulating insulation in hundreds of tiny bumps, with channels running around them for greater breathability. The fabric is knitted from one continuous piece of elastomeric polyester yarn, which has similar durable, stretchy qualities to Spandex and Lycra, but produces fewer harmful byproducts in the manufacturing process.
The hoodie weighs about 20 ounces, which is comparable to other fleece layers and even lighter than my Helly Hansen Lifaloft. It’s slim and stretchy, with a scuba hood, two zippered pockets, long sleeves with thumb loops, and a two-way zipper down the middle. It’s soft and discreet enough to wear as a skin-to-skin everyday layer (I’m wearing it over a T-shirt as I write this). Unlike fluffy fleece, you don’t have to stay far away from Velcro or the odd piece of Scotch tape, lest they rip away some of the fibers.
It might not be as overtly sporty as an oversized North Face Denali jacket, but that might be the point. Houdini designer Sara Normark, who designed Houdini’s first hoodie in 2002, noted that a lot of people only ski or snowboard for two weeks out of the year.
“It’s so sad to make clothes that someone will only use for that amount of time,” she said.
By designing clothes that will function equally well at a café or on the mountain, you can keep your wardrobe down to a few hardworking pieces.
When winter storms roll in, a long line of grubby, bestickered Subaru Outbacks and Honda Elements make a pilgrimage from Portland, Oregon, to the slopes of Mount Hood. On one such day, I casually remarked to my husband that it was strange—the thermostat said it was 18 degrees outside, but I didn’t feel cold.
He raised one eyebrow. “Aren’t you wearing hundreds of dollars of high-tech fabric right now?” he said.
It’s true. The Power Air is so thin that I was afraid it wouldn’t be warm enough with a base layer. l had put a down layer over it. But after one run, I was sweating and ripped the down layer off. In terms of insulating capabilities, Polartec compares it to Patagonia’s popular R1 pullover. It was much, much warmer than I was expecting.
Mike Rose, Polartec’s vice-president of product development, did note that the elastomeric yarn still isn’t quite as stretchy and durable as Spandex at the moment. But I had no complaints. The scuba hood was stretchy enough to wear under my helmet and still twist and turn my head. While its insulating properties were astonishing—I wear several wool layers while sitting in my 70-degree house, so staying warm on an 18-degree lift is hard for me—the Power Air Houdi was also breathable. I didn’t need to open my jacket while working hard in the chutes or in the trees.
All of this comes at a staggering cost of $250, which is $100 more than the Patagonia R1.
I want to discourage anyone from thinking that you have to spend exorbitant amounts of money to wear eco-friendly clothing. You don’t have to buy an expensive hoodie to prevent microfibers from releasing into the waste stream. You can buy a fiber-trapping washing machine ball or fiber-trapping bags instead. You can also buy fewer clothes, wash the ones you do have much less often, and hang them up on the line instead of throwing them in the dryer.
Still, it’s encouraging to think that soon, these innovative technologies may make their way from high-end sportswear to gear that is slightly more affordable and accessible. I can replace my plastic coffee cup or plastic forks, but warm, dry outerwear is indispensable.