Google’s online dictionary defines swag as: “a curtain or piece of fabric fastened so as to hang in a drooping curve, or money or goods taken by a thief or burglar.” In Australia, swag became “… the bundle of personal property carried by a traveler, usually wrapped in a kerchief, an article of clothing, or the skirt of an apron.” Hence, the jolly swagman.

Most of us recognize a more recent use of the word, as an acronym for “stuff we all get,” the party favors given out at birthdays, conferences, and fundraisers.

The Sierra Club’s mission is,

“To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth;

“To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources;

“To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment;

“and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”

For a $40 donation to help with all that exploring and protecting, Sierra Club will send you a “… soft, cozy jacket, made in the USA of black, anti-pill fleece.”

What the club does not mention in their fundraising pitch is that, just by wearing and washing your soft, cozy jacket, you will add millions of somewhat microscopic plastic fibers to the general environment, including the air around us. More than one-third of the microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic clothing.

These tiny pieces of plastic cannot be digested by living creatures, cannot break down and decompose like natural fibers; they work their invisible way into the smallest parts of the smallest organisms, clogging the respiratory and reproductive organs of plant and animal, alike. Fibers used in medical masks are adding to this lung-clogging problem as we speak, exacerbating respiratory issues for those who are into COVID for the long haul.

Charlotte Birkmanis, a marine biologist specializing in sharks, told fashion and lifestyle writer Bailey Calfee that, “an astounding 35 percent of microplastics in our oceans are from the laundry of synthetic textiles.” She said as many as, “… 700,000 plastic fibers could be released from the average load of laundry, with up to 40 percent of this entering our waterways.”

All those microfibers add up to a whopping 85 percent of washed-up anthropogenic debris and only 6 percent of plastic entering our oceans are visible to the human eye.

“It’s even in our drinking water,” said Birkmanis, “with 83 percent of tap water from five continents containing plastic particles, and 93 percent of water containing microplastic.” She said the particles can spread disease, gathering into minuscule nests of fibers that provide habitat where microbes colonize. Sea creatures as small as periwinkles, as passive as kelp, and as large as sharks, have increasingly been found to be infested with microfibers. Consumed by humans as food or in our air, such plants and animals may impact human health as well, which sometimes seems to be all we featherless bipeds care about.

Sierra Club is, of course, not the only organization to use fleece as an incentive.

Work for your boss long enough and you are likely to get a soft cozy vest with your company’s logo proudly embroidered right above your heart. In 2018 the Wall Street Journal said the fleece vest was, “… the capstone of a new corporate uniform …” worn by “… nervous interns ordering supersize coffees at Starbucks (and) silver-haired executives in the elevator … It has become as ubiquitous as the take-out salad in humdrum workplaces and is slowly supplanting the suit and tie as essential office wear.”

Climate Ride, a nonprofit that “organizes life-changing charitable biking, running, and hiking events to raise awareness and support sustainability, active transportation, and environmental causes,” gives fleece to the top three fundraisers at the “… uniquely positive, life-affirming, and transformational …” cycling events they use to raise money to help save the planet.

Along with environmental advocates, groups that seek to prevent disease are big distributors of this hidden-in-plain-sight contributor to global health complications. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia uses fleece to promote its mission, as do those seeking to cure Crohn’s Disease, colitis, and a brain malformation known as Chiari.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society uses fleece vests as a reward to those who support its Harborfest events, held all over the US to bring sailboat captains, lobster boat racers, tugboat crews, and enthusiasts together in “… the movement to create a world free of multiple sclerosis.” For a donation of $2500, you can “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” wearing a jacket much like the one that the Sierra Club will send you for 40 bucks.

How did we get here, to this world of a wearable and socially acceptable way to choke the life out of the only home we have? A path that impacts the health these worthy advocates are working to improve?

According to the organization Plastic Free July, each of us ingests about 250 grams of microplastics a year — that is one heaping teaspoon of plastic every week.

The first PVC production in the UK was in 1940 and now, only seventy years later, plastic is everywhere. After an 18-month delay, due to COVID-19, Maine has just reinstated its ban on plastic bags, and shoppers act as if this outrage will bring down capitalism as we know it.

In addition to being a soft, cozy material, Google’s online dictionary offers this definition of the word fleece: “to obtain a great deal of money from (someone), typically by overcharging or swindling them.”

Meanwhile, according to the journal Applied Physics Reviews, microfiber- and nanofiber-based shirts and socks are being designed to monitor patient’s cholesterol, blood pressure, asthma, obesity, and other vital signs that we are somehow unable to keep track of any other way.

Maybe they will make one that features a full zipper and the Sierra Club logo.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a bi-weekly basis.