The Biodegradable Illusion: Breaking Down the Greenwashing Trend in Fashion

By Aleksandra Mengüverdi

The term “biodegradable” can be misleading because it implies that a product will naturally break down and be environmentally friendly. Due to the absence of proper legislation governing the requirements of its use, the term is widely overused, contributing to the problem of greenwashing. In response to these concerns, France prohibited the use of the term “biodegradable” on finished products in January 2022 to prevent misunderstandings. Similarly, the EU Parliament and Council collaborate on a new directive, fostering optimism for regulating sustainable indicators, like “biodegradable”, within the EU by the end of 2026.

In a survey conducted by the online retailer OnBuy, it was discovered that the word “biodegradable” is the most compelling term for influencing people’s purchasing decisions, as reported by 74% of respondents.

However, the question remains: do consumers truly understand the meaning of “biodegradable”?

In fact, all materials, whether synthetic or organic will eventually undergo biodegradation, but there are no standardized criteria specifying the duration of this process, the resulting breakdown products, or the necessary environmental conditions for decomposition. The timeline for biodegradation can vary significantly, with some materials breaking down in as little as six months, while others may require up to 1000 years, creating a wide spectrum. Certain materials necessitate elevated temperatures and specific humidity levels to decompose, and while some biodegradable materials transform into harmless substances like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass, others leave behind toxic residues.

Furthermore, there is a frequent interchange of the term “biodegradability” and “compostability,” which requires clarification. It’s important to recognize that while all compostable materials are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. Therefore, it’s crucial not to confuse these two terms.

leaves from sleeve

To start, it is essential to differentiate between biodegradability and compostability.

Biodegradation is reliant on environmental microorganisms and takes place only under circumstances, which include sufficient moisture and heat. Although biodegradable materials eventually return to the natural environment and can completely vanish, they may still potentially leave behind undesirable and harmful residues.

Compostable materials must adhere to specific criteria to earn the “compostable” designation, including the extent of decomposition and the time required for this breakdown. To be labelled as “compostable,” a product should undergo a decomposition process wherein 60-90% of the material transforms into CO2, water, and biomass within 180 days in a commercial composting facility, without leaving behind any toxic residues. Additionally, these products contribute nutrient-rich organic material known as humus, fostering a fertile soil environment conducive to new plant growth.

However, there are currently no universally established criteria that a product must meet to qualify as biodegradable. The biodegradability of fabrics is primarily influenced by the type of fibres used and the extent of chemical usage in the textile production process. Synthetic or non-organic natural materials, as well as treatments, coatings, membranes, garment accessories, threads, and decorative additions, may contain harmful substances that can impede biodegradability and potentially release toxic emissions into the environment once the material has decomposed. Numerous promising technologies are accessible, which have the potential to overcome these challenges and enhance the compostability of the product.

Archroma has introduced EarthColors®, a line of high-performance dyes made from non-edible agricultural and herbal industry waste, such as leaves and nutshells, which are both compostable and environmentally friendly. Colorifix on the other hand, has made significant advancements in dye technology by leveraging DNA sequencing and the natural colour spectrum, harnessing genetically engineered microorganisms to produce biodegradable dyes. Meanwhile, Algaeing has developed 100% biodegradable algae-based coatings and dyes. MerchYou has achieved a notable milestone by discovering the first compostable water-based inks for prints, which meet the rigorous standards of the Cradle to Cradle® Platinum certification. Finally, COEX® introduces patented innovation that makes natural fibres inherently flame-retardant without the need for additives, resulting in 100% natural and biodegradable fireproof fabric technology.

It is crucial to ensure biodegradability for finished products, considering its entire supply chain, rather than merely highlighting it as a property of the raw fibre.

An exemplary product designed with inherent biodegradability is the “T-shirt of Tomorrow”, developed by Qwstion, which will naturally break down in compost or even a flowerpot. This T-shirt is crafted from organic Bananatex® abacá plant-based fabric, remains undyed and chemical-free, and has obtained Cradle to Cradle® certification, including the sewing thread. Currently in its pilot phase, the product is actively integrating community feedback to refine the final version, with a planned release in 2024.

On the other hand, the Vollebak brand has designed The Wooden T-shirt, an innovative garment made from eucalyptus wood and seaweed, with its colour derived from wood waste, which is the cleanest biodegradable black pigment on Earth. Additionally, it incorporates a groundbreaking 100% compostable stretch fibre that decomposes in just six months, unlike conventional elastane, which is toxic and takes 200 years to degrade. This unique shirt can be safely composted, benefiting the environment.

Whether an item is compostable or simply biodegradable, it needs to be placed in an environment conducive to its decomposition.

A biodegradable garment devoid of toxic components can naturally and safely decompose in the environment or in a well-maintained landfill without adverse environmental or human impacts. However, when placed in a landfill filled with non-organic waste, they may not readily biodegrade due to the absence of oxygen, microorganisms, light, and moisture required for this process. In situations where biodegradable garments break down anaerobically (without oxygen), they emit two potent greenhouse gases: methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide generally remains within the landfill, but methane, which is 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, escapes into the air and contributes to global warming.

Compostable materials require specific composting conditions. These materials can be categorized as “home compostable” for use in garden composting and “industrially compostable” for processing in composting facilities. Unfortunately, items labelled as “industrially compostable” cannot be used in a home composting system. The garden composting process is aerobic, relying on oxygen-dependent microorganisms for decomposition, whereas industrial composting facilities use anaerobic methods, employing bacteria that don’t require oxygen.

Even if your wardrobe exclusively comprises natural, toxin-free, organic fibre clothing, composting them can still pose challenges, unless you possess a personal backyard compost bin. Textile biodegradability is a complex issue, leading many composting facilities to refrain from accepting textile waste, even when it’s marked as “industrially compostable.”

To tackle this problem the KENT brand, which specializes in producing compostable underwear, has taken steps to guarantee that their products can be disposed of in either home or industrial compost settings. They’ve initiated the Compost Club program, collaborating with a regenerative organic farm in Southern California to redirect waste from landfills and transform discarded briefs into nutrient-rich soil. Through The KENT Compost Club, they offer their customers, especially those without access to home composting, the convenient option to return their products to the brand using carbon-neutral shipping for composting.

The current fashion industry does not consider decomposition in its product design and planning, missing a significant opportunity. To unlock the full potential of biodegradable textiles, internationally recognized certifications must be implemented throughout the entire supply chain. While certifications are well-established in the plastic industry, the textile sector appears to have overlooked this aspect. Although there are global standards for compostability, there doesn’t appear to be any specifically designed for compostable textiles.

Australia is on the verge of establishing a pioneering standard for compostable textiles. Stephanie Devine, the creator of the Very Good Bra, partnered with sustainability experts, academics, and industry leaders to establish a standardization for compostable textiles to Standards Australia. The proposal gained approval from Standards Australia’s production management group, and they are now progressing to a development phase to define composting criteria for textiles. Devine emphasized that for a compostable clothing system to succeed, brands must actively participate by designing qualifying products and implementing take-back schemes for a seamless customer-to-composter process.

Moreover, to facilitate the broader adoption of industrially compostable clothing, there is a need to expand the number of composting facilities, establish comprehensive collection schemes, develop suitable infrastructure, and enact government regulations. Implementing standardized composting guidelines for textile waste could be a solution to enable consumers to dispose of old clothes safely. Additionally, brands should offer educational resources on proper at-home disposal or direct consumers to facilities equipped for this purpose.

The fashion industry seems to be largely neglecting the significant potential of compostability and its wide-ranging advantages. It’s an underestimated solution that aligns with nature’s inherent recycling process, without the need for electricity, energy, or chemicals. The benefits of incorporating composting into the fashion sector are substantial. Textile composting reduces landfill waste and mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, originating from landfills. Furthermore, it improves soil quality, minimizes erosion, preserves water resources, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, contributing to the restoration of our planet and the reversal of climate change. Ultimately, compostable clothing’s absence of harmful substances further enhances its positive influence on the health and well-being of both fashion supply chain employees and consumers.