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Biodegradable Fashion: Challenges and Future

We all have heard the terms degradable, biodegradable, and compostable in the advertising campaigns of various fashion brands and houses but many consumers do not fully understand what each of these terms means or how these affect our environment. But consumers need to be acquainted with the explanation of these important terms about the fashion market and industry so that they can make choices that simultaneously make them happy with their clothing purchases and have the least harmful environmental impact. 

 

What does biodegradable mean?

 

When a product breaks down into its natural base elements by microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, etc, or other organic processes in the soil. Most fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods are biodegradable under the right biological conditions. These conditions involve water and oxygen and well-informed consumers as improper ways of disposal of wastes also affects the disintegration process.  

 

Also, there are specific qualifications in the US, 60 per cent of the item must break down within 180 days by using a commercial compost facility and this is set according to ASTM International (a global standards development organization, that sets specifications for testing and materials). 

 

What is biodegradable fashion?

 

Fabric made out of natural fibres is just the beginning of the biodegradable fashion industry and it shouldn’t stop there. The cloth-making process involves many hazardous steps like dyeing and pigmentation using synthetic colours and finishing methods that are non-biodegradable. Biodegradable garments are made of 100% natural textiles which are made using natural fibres, organic dyes from vegetables, seeds, roots, and other plant derivatives instead of the typical petrochemicals, and hands-on finishing methods. That 100% includes no use of inorganic toxic chemicals, which would take years to degrade into the soil and pollute the soil. This is what biodegradable fashion stands for.

 

What are some of the biodegradable fibres? 

 

Here are some of the most biodegradable fabrics:

 

  • Organic cotton: Conventional cotton degrades soil quality as it accounts for 16% of all insecticides, 7% of all herbicides, and 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers worldwide whereas 80% of all organic cotton is grown with water from rainfalls. It’s non-GMO and grown without using any synthetic chemicals or methods so it biodegrades in one week to five months.
  • Hemp: Hemp is cut and stripped manually from the hemp plant and then woven into threads of hemp fiber which becomes softer over time, making it even easier to biodegrade.
  • Peace Silk: Also known as Ahimsa silk which means that it’s cruelty-free as this type of silk is produced without harming the silkworms. According to PETA, conventional silk is biodegradable but not sustainable as about 3,000 silkworms are killed by boiling them live to make just 1 pound of conventional silk, whereas peace silk production allows the metamorphosis of the silkworm to a butterfly to be completed thus no cruelty towards the living organism.
  • Linen: Linen is one of the oldest ethical fibres in history, extracted from flax plants, and is biodegradable, and recyclable. It is strong, moth resistant can withstand high temperatures, etc. but is expensive because it’s hard to weave and its production costs twice as much as cotton.
  • Jute: Jute fabric is a natural fiber, very durable, 100% biodegradable as it doesn’t require any fertilizers or pesticides to grow, is compostable, and recyclable. Due to its cost-effectiveness, high density, heat resistance, and moisture absorbent, it is the most used fabric globally after cotton.  
  • Ramie: Ramie is used as a substitute for cotton as its also a natural fiber obtained from ramie plants. It is originally from China, Indonesia and India are very versatile but expensive due to labor costs during cultivation and production.
  • Soy fabric: This is an eco-friendly fibre obtained from the hull of soybeans leftover from food production which makes this cruelty-free, renewable and sustainable. It is luxuriously soft with a cashmere-like feel with a little bit of stretch and is truly biodegradable. 
  • Lyocell: Lyocell is extracted from renewable resources such as wood which is composed of micro-fibrils of 40–50% cellulose and 15–25% hemicellulose. However, clothing production requires complex processes that use tons of water, energy, and chemicals.
  • Bioplastics: Bioplastics also known as biopolymers or bio-synthetics are mostly biodegradable and renewable alternative fibres that are made from biological sources as an alternative to fossil-based synthetic fibers. Usually made of food waste or other renewable carbon resources such as corn, potatoes, rice, soy, sugarcane, wheat, vegetable oil, seaweed, starch, and other agricultural wastes that help these to decompose around a period of six months and create water, carbon dioxide, methane, biomass, and inorganic compounds as by-products of the decomposition process.
  • Bioengineered Spider Silk: Also known as micro silk, it is vegan leather made from mushroom mycelium. It is inspired by spider silk’s tensile strength and durability and is made by Bolt Threads, a California-based tech startup. The company developed technology to replicate spider silk proteins using genetically engineered yeast which are fermented before being isolated, purified, and then spun into rayon-like fibers. It has the potential to biodegrade because it is made from proteins.

 

How is biodegradable different from compostable? 

 

Materials that are constructed entirely of organic material i.e. produced without the use of chemicals, pesticides, or synthetic substances are compostable. Both compostable and biodegradable materials are supposed to decompose and return to the earth’s soil, however, compostable materials go one step further by providing the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down. But compostable products require a specific setting to break down entirely, whereas biodegradable products break down naturally within landfills. A compostable material needs to be biodegradable but a biodegradable material doesn’t need to be compostable.

 

What are the challenges in biodegrading a clothing item? 

 

All materials eventually break down, but for mediums like synthetics, it can take centuries. The amount of time an item takes to biodegrade can vary from one fibre to another and the right conditions are required to be provided.  For example: according to Ellen MacArthur’s study, The degradation process of cotton in a landfill can take up to 5 months and polyester up to 200 years. So time in general proves as a major challenge.

 

Biodegradation speed also depends on the components within a garment. A blouse may be made of a fabric from organic fibres which makes it biodegradable but the 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. Just because the fabric part breaks down quickly doesn’t necessarily mean the whole product will biodegrade cleanly.

If the apparel products are not made from biodegradable fabrics and are smothered and buried in heaps of trash without enough natural elements, they will give off methane gas during the decomposing process, which is a greenhouse gas contributor. 

 

Is biodegradability the future of fashion?

 

The idea of producing entirely compostable garments with the small availability of biodegradation plants limits the influence of biodegradable clothing initiatives on the fashion industry as people are taking time to get used to the sustainable way of fashion. However, if we give some time to initiating steps towards this concept then it can make a huge difference in the fashion industry’s impact on the environment.

Photo by Cesar La Rosa on Unsplash