What would happen if fashion focused on natural solutions instead of plastic?
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Could biodegradable clothing become another answer for making fashion more sustainable? Several designers think so and are redesigning for circularity with clothing you can compost. Instead of accumulative landfill waste, clothing decomposes within a matter of months… even in our backyards. Stacy Anderson, founder of the organic intimates label KENT is one designer thinking about biodegradable clothing. “We worked with LA compost to put our briefs to the test, and they will disappear in only 90 days,” she says about her line of ‘supernatural basics.’
Considering that ‘cotton is the fabric of our lives’, biodegradable clothing seems like it would be commonplace. As a natural fiber, it’s biodegradable. But most clothing isn’t cotton. It’s plastic-based materials like polyester and nylon. Plastic isn’t biodegradable. And, these materials are often blended with plastic.
To rethink fashion’s impact when it comes to a piece of clothing’s end-of-life, it pays to understand what biodegradable means, why most clothing isn’t biodegradable, and learn from the designers offering natural solutions.
What Does Biodegradable Mean?
Biodegradable refers to substances that decompose naturally by bacteria or other living organisms. They are broken down (or degraded) into their basic substances through nature’s natural process. Animal or plant products are considered biodegradable. Our food items can degrade within several weeks and even items like paper or cotton can degrade within the course of several months.
According to Erin Houston, Co-Founder and CEO of Wearwell, a sustainable and ethical clothing platform, biodegradable clothing follows the same process and can “easily be broken down by our environment when it reaches its end of life.” Clothing like “cotton, linen, and silks are great examples of this. You can even toss them in a compost bin and they’ll degrade over a few months in those conditions!” Cotton can decompose within 5 months. Silk takes 12 to 24 months. And, most biodegradable clothing will decompose within 2 years or less.
Items that aren’t biodegradable tend to be man-made substances that have undergone chemical processes. These processes prolong their lifespan and make them more durable. But, how long is too long? The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that even though commercial plastic has been around since the 1950s, every bit of plastic created is still around today except for plastic that has been incinerated.
Why Isn’t Clothing Biodegradable?
Economics, technology, and convenience play a role in the choice of fabrics used. “Most clothing isn’t biodegradable because it’s a synthetic like polyester, or a blend, like cotton with spandex,” Erin says. It’s no coincidence that the most inexpensive fabric is also the most widely used within the fashion industry. Polyester, a man-made plastic-based fabric, is the most widely used fiber in the world and it is also one of the biggest polluters of the fashion industry. Man-made fibers and textiles use an estimated 342 million barrels of oil yearly, emit 14.2 kg of CO2 per kilogram produced, pollute water with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, and can take anywhere from 20-200 years to decompose.
“For the last 40+ years, the introduction of spandex, polyester, elastane, and other synthetic, petrochemical-based plastic fibers have turned clothing into non-biodegradable products,” Stacy explains. “Even if blended with natural materials like cotton or silk, they still prevent those fabrics from fully degrading,” Stacy explains how natural fibers can take longer to decompose when blended with synthetics. “And at the same time, they release microplastics with every wash.” Have you ever read a clothing label stating that an item is 50% cotton and 50% polyester? When two substances- manmade and natural- are combined they can become durable materials that serve a variety of uses. The problem lies in the fact that they also become non-biodegradable.
Dyes play another role in how long it takes for clothing decompose. Biodegradable clothes are made from natural, plant-based dyes. However, much like how often polyester is used within the fashion industry, polyester dyes are used too. These commercial dyes use 35000+ different chemicals that are often petroleum-based and non-biodegradeable even when used on natural fabrics.
Yet, while polyester is durable and cheap, durability doesn’t translate to clothes that will last longer in your closet. The fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose, but the clothes themselves are made so quickly and cheaply that the poor quality accelerates their trajectory to landfills. Loose seams, pilling, and loss of shape are some of the reasons that cheap clothing is tossed into the trash. An estimated three out of the five 100 billion garments made annually will end up in a landfill within the year.
Brands Working Towards Biodegradable Solutions
Some brands are working on solutions to treat our clothing the way that nature intended- to decompose naturally without creating waste. In the beginning of October, KENT began offering a first within the fashion industry- a compost take-back program. “Not only are KENT briefs 100% compostable at home and both commercially, but the company aims to make it easier for customers to compost by offering a program for them to easily return items,” Stacy explains.
Harvest & Mill, another U.S-based brand offering everyday basics like tees and sweatpants, uses organic cotton, and natural and commercial low-impact dyes for their items. There are also limited editions where naturally colored cotton is used to avoid the use of dyes. “We champion organic heirloom color-grown cotton as a sustainable alternative to the dyeing process.”
Wearwell’s platform focuses on diverting clothing that can still be worn away from landfills. “Wearwell’s secondhand program, wearwellagain, gets clothing that was sustainably made in the first place into a new closet,” Erin explains. “But, when we receive items that can’t be resold, we responsibly donate them or recycle the materials. Anything you can do to delay its arrival at the landfill is helpful to the environment.”
As sustainability moves away from a buzzword to a necessity within the fashion industry, it will take multiple solutions to move it away from its current make-and-waste model. Compostable and biodegradable clothing is one solution that could minimize the use of fossil fuels and chemicals in our clothing while minimizing waste. It’s as Stacy explained about her use of natural or plant-based materials in her line of intimates. “These are the ‘back to earth basics’ of our dreams, and we hope they are for many people too!” Isn’t it about time that we’re all dreaming of how we can waste less and create items that go ‘back to the earth?’