Helena Jackson explains her quandary
As my son left nursery for the last time, my thoughts turned to school uniform for his new start. I thought it would be a quick task to find the right sizes and colour and put the clothes away until September.
However, I was disappointed and surprised that the fabric choices were so limited. Polyester. Easy-care. Stain-resistant. Weatherproof. Crease-resistant. Teflon-coated. Non-iron. Hardwearing. All laudable properties, you might think, but these clothes are not for me. I was after something breathable, soft – goodness me, maybe even organic –for the clothing his growing body was to spend 35 hours or more in in a week.
I visited every local supermarket and high street store that sold school uniform. There are all manner of different fits and styles, but the vast majority don’t offer cotton trousers at all. Instead, I was greeted with polyester and polycotton, both derived from crude oil in a process that has double the carbon footprint of creating cotton.
How did it happen that the standard offering for school trousers for all ages is made of plastic – a fabric that is not breathable, that prevents the playground sweat from dispersing and traps in heat? But, more than that, a fabric that is coated in the same stuff we fry our eggs on – non-stick, so that the dirt and grass and mud children generally attract is a little easier for us to wash?
I’m not sure I’d be comfortable wearing something made of plastic covered in Teflon. It is certainly not something I look for when choosing my clothes. A tablecloth, perhaps. Art apron, maybe. Yet it seems beyond acceptable that it is now the norm to clothe our children in it. I wanted to check whether I was overthinking this. Other mums I spoke to hadn’t considered this at all, so I did some research.
Each time synthetic fabric is washed it sheds thousands of microscopic fragments of plastic, microfibres, into the water. Some are removed at water-treatment works, but around 40% get through to rivers and seas. Their tiny size means they are ingested by fish and other aquatic life. These can bioaccumulate and concentrate toxins higher up the food chain. Even non-fish-eaters have cause for concern, as a 2017 study showed that microfibres were present in 83% of drinking water samples from five continents. If you want to know more, The Story of Stuff Project has a great video on this.
Plastic in the water doesn’t sound great, but what does it actually do? A study of crabs that had eaten microfibre-contaminated food showed altered behaviour. The plastic broke down even more in their bodies, leaching chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA). You may have heard of BPA – it is actively excluded from many food-grade plastics such as water bottles, as it mimics hormones. It has been linked to fertility issues, male impotence and heart disease, and children are more sensitive to its effects.
This in itself is a worry. But there is more. Plastic in the body absorbs pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a group of banned chemicals that persist in the environment. Various large-scale studies on animals and humans have identified health effects from PCBs such as their being potentially carcinogenic. Plastic microfibres also constitute up to 85% of human litter on beaches. They are now the most abundant form of debris on the planet. We are contributing to this in our millions – the garments of 8.74 million school pupils in the UK are washed each week.
Stain-resistant and fire-retardant coatings
Teflon is one example of Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs), or Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS), used as a stain repellent, among many other functions. They are released to land, soil and air during production and use, and persist in the environment – so much so, that they are found in blood samples worldwide.
A 2018 study from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed health risks from these substances, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and an increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. The US Department of Health and Human Services noted that they may also affect growth, behaviour and learning in children, increase cortisol (the stress hormone), and affect the immune system and hormones. This evidence has led some companies to phase out PFCs from cosmetics and other uses, and Teflon has launched a non-fluorinated ‘EcoEliteTM’ version of its product, but it is not exclusively used, and many retailers still sell school uniforms coated in PFAS. The impact of these coatings on clothes-washing habits is minimal: a survey of 600 parents of primary-age children showed that the coatings had no impact on the frequency of washing, and they are often guaranteed to remain on the fabric for only around 20 washes.
Crease-resistant, non-iron and mould-free fabrics
Another thing to look out for is formaldehyde, a carcinogen used to preserve corpses and to give clothing a wrinkle-free look or prevent mould developing during transit. You might see it labelled as ‘stay fresh’, ‘antibacterial’ or ‘fungus-resist’ in tights and socks. Although it may cause irritation as skin rashes or allergic reactions, formaldehyde is water-soluble, so it tends to wash off clothes.
It is estimated that 300,000 tonnes of used clothing enters landfill each year in the UK. Clothing consumption equates to 5% of the UK’s carbon emissions, so extending the lifespan of our clothing makes a big impact on the environment. Polyester and coated fabrics are not built for life. They are hard to patch or darn and are often destined for the bin once a hole emerges. This is a huge waste of resources, in addition to all the impacts noted above.
Less-harmful clothing – what are the options?
- Look for second-hand. The more a garment is washed, the more it is likely to shed its chemicals, so although the chemicals may have entered the watercourse, you are not adding to the problem, and your child’s skin and body systems will thank you. Once your child has outgrown the uniform, pass it on to friends or see if your school holds a second-hand uniform sale.
- If you are handy with a sewing machine, buy some non-plastic fabric and make your own school trousers. If you cut the legs longer than currently needed, you can let the hem down as your child grows, making the trousers last longer.
- Opt out of buying a polyester uniform and go for non-coated, sustainable cotton or other natural fibres where you can.
- Wash all new clothing – one recommendation is to wash synthetic clothing three times – before it is worn. Using a Guppyfriend washing bag will help catch many of the microplastic pieces that break off in the wash.
- Ask your favoured retailer for healthier options. M&S has a Skin Kind (non-coated cotton) range, and John Lewis stocks limited 100% cotton school garments, but both are only available online. Ask why this is not a standard in-store option. Find out why other retailers don’t offer non-coated cotton school uniforms at all. We are the ones with buying power. Let’s use it for the health of our children and planet.
The number of retailers offering school-suitable items and selling them cheaply has exploded in recent years – but price and style, though important, are not the only considerations. The cumulative impact of these chemicals on the body and developing mind is unknown, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. I want the choice of healthier fabrics as standard alongside the colour and fit of garments.
With even organic cotton being eco-intensive (in terms of water use), there are no easy solutions. That’s why the best option is to enhance the longevity of use by passing clothing on and buying second-hand where you can. Long-term, my aim is to start a conversation with the major retailers of school uniforms to take responsibility for and reconsider the full impact their clothing is having. To get engaged in this conversation, please join me on my blog: plasticbiscuit.home.blog. I’d love to hear what responses you get.
Helena Jackson is mum to two and co-founded Stork and The Bees Cloth Nappy and Sling Library in Hertfordshire when on maternity leave with her second child. Plastic Biscuit followed soon after as a place to flesh out the thoughts on plastic, waste and responsibility literally keeping her awake at night. She loves to seek out charity shop bargains and bake at home.
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