Photo credit: Harvest & Mill
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At this point, most of us know the fashion industry has a waste and contamination problem. Hardly any clothes produced today are made entirely from materials that don’t pollute our soil, waterways, and oceans. As we’ve reported before, they usually contain some form of plastic, which can stay in the environment for hundreds of years, clogging up ecosystems with toxic dyes and finishes, synthetic microfibers, plus man-made trims.
To mitigate this damage, some brands are starting to manufacture with biodegradability in mind. This means using materials that could breakdown through microbial action into the basic elements found in nature. To be considered truly biodegradable, the product must be decomposed completely within one year of disposal at the most (though it could be as little as 28 days by some standards) by fungi or bacteria and then end up blended back in with the earth.
Biodegradable fabrics include cotton, silk, bamboo, wool, linen, alpaca, Tencel, hemp, cashmere, and rayon viscose. When untreated, certified organic, and not blended with other materials, these fabrics can biodegrade without leaving any harmful chemicals.
Vegetable-tanned leather (with no coating) can biodegrade, contrary to some vegan alternatives that are usually manufactured from or blended with synthetic petroleum-based materials. Pure acetate can biodegrade but for eyewear, it’s usually blended with synthetic materials.
Components in Fashion That Could Inhibit Biodegradability
Non-biodegradable fabrics include polyester, acrylic, polyurethane, PVC, elastane, and nylon. These materials are partly derived from coal and petroleum and can stay in a landfill for hundreds of years.
When designing for biodegradability, you have to keep in mind the biodegradation speed of all components within the garment. Just because one part breaks down quickly doesn’t necessarily mean the whole product will biodegrade cleanly. A blouse could be made from cotton fiber, which is inherently biodegradable, but its dye could leave microscopic amounts of pollution in the soil once it degrades, or it could contain other synthetic materials in its stitching, labels, buttons, or other components. Here’s what to look out for:
These are used in textiles to color the original raw material of the product. Today most fabrics are colored with petroleum-derived synthetic dyes that are not necessarily safe if they leak into the environment. Some contain heavy metals such as lead that are hazardous when inhaled or come into contact with the skin. Companies like Algalife have been innovating in this sector, developing dyes that are made from algae, a natural pigment source. We suggest you look for companies that use only low-impact dyes or go with natural, non-dyed colors.
Many fabrics are coated with chemical treatments that provide stain-, water-, fire-, or wrinkle-resistance. Research has shown that certain finishes, such as PFAS, possess hazardous properties that are persistent in the environment.
Sewing threads are often made from polyester or cotton wrapped around a polyester base. That makes it more sturdy, but also potentially a “microplastic” that pollutes the environment.
Zippers and Buttons
These trims are most commonly made of plastic or metal that doesn’t degrade quickly. We’ve recently noticed more eco-friendly alternatives such as Knopf Budke’s buttons, which are made out of coconut shells, mother of Pearl, buffalo horn, bone, stone nut, and wood.
The production of conventional sequins pollutes the environment due to its polyvinyl chloride (PVC) component. Recently the fashion industry has seen some innovation like Bio Iridescent Sequin, a non-toxic, biodegradable alternative made from 100% plant-based cellulose.
Fibers are often blended to improve the feel, performance, or durability of the fabric. When biodegradable fibers (such as cotton or wool) are blended with non-biodegradable fibers (such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, or elastane), the mix is no longer biodegradable — even if the added amount of non-biodegradable fibers is minimal.
While biodegradable clothes seem to check off the sustainable practice box, it does not mean your first choice when you’re done with your clothes should be to dump them. You should use your garments until you can’t anymore. But if they are biodegradable, it’s not as big of an issue if it does somehow end up in the ocean, river, or side of the road before its time, as many do. Paired with better take-back systems and toxic chemical management, pursuing a completely biodegradable clothing where possible could move us toward a much more sustainable and less polluting industry.
So if you are interested in buying biodegradable clothes that you can stick in your backyard compost, here are some options:
Started in 2012, Harvest & Mill creates basics using U.S.A grown, exclusive and organic cotton. Its designs are available in natural, undyed, unbleached and clean finish fabric, allowing for it to be compostable. Harvest & Mill says it can trace its materials all the way back to the organic cotton farms.
Headquartered in Austria, Wolford is a company that focuses on tights, bodysuits and underwear, as well as women’s clothing and accessories. In 2018, it released a biodegradable and recyclable collection that showcases style, sensuality and functionality.
A pioneer in sustainable Fair Trade fashion, People Tree creates products that meet the highest ethical, and environmental standards. Its versatile, contemporary and playful designs are often made from fully biodegradable materials to reduce pollution in the environment.
Houdini designs its sportswear with circularity in mind from the start. The brand never blends naturals and synthetics, allowing for easier recyclability and decomposition. And mentions all of its fabrics used for this season are 100% recycled, recyclable, renewable, biodegradable, or Bluesign certified.
Freitag has an extensive selection of 100% compostable and unique products, mostly made from a raw material called F-ABRIC, which is developed in-house and made of the bast fibers hemp, flax and Modal.