Styles that Don’t Last Forever: Which Fabrics are Biodegradable?

Styles that Don’t Last Forever: Which Fabrics are Biodegradable?

Biodegradable fabrics

In the sustainable fashion sector, the concept of biodegradable fabric is becoming a common topic. A key part of a sustainable industry, biodegradable fabric offers an alternative to the clothing pollution caused by the synthetic fabric sector. But what is biodegradable fabric, and which fabrics are biodegradable?

What is Biodegradable Fabric?

Generally,  biodegradable clothes are made from natural materials. These materials can decompose back into the natural world when they are no longer needed. This helps to reduce pollution levels and provides a more sustainable end of life for clothing.

It’s important to note that biodegradable fabric is intrinsically environmentally friendly at the point of disposal. It may not necessarily be sustainable right through its lifecycle and can still raise concerns of animal welfare and human rights issues along supply chains if not managed well. 

Due to the complexity of the sustainable fashion sector, materials that aren’t biodegradable (such as recyclable materials) can still be sustainable.

However, while biodegradable doesn’t guarantee that material is ethically or sustainably made, in light of the clothing waste problem, it is an increasingly important component of a sustainable textile industry.

A Clothing Waste Crisis

Each year it is estimated that 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created. Shockingly, by 2030, this number is expected to rise to 134 million tonnes each year.

The excessive waste created by the clothing sector causes widespread environmental harm. Investing in biodegradable fabrics offers a way to mitigate the waste generated by the industry. It provides a way for the fashion choices of today to not still be polluting the world in decades to come. 

To learn more about waste in the fashion sector check out our article on UK clothing waste statistics. 

Thankfully, there are a variety of common fabrics that are biodegradable and likely to be found in your wardrobe.

Which Fabrics are Biodegradable?

Both fabrics that have been common in the fashion sector for generations, and clever new fabric innovations can be biodegradable. While the way that fabric is produced, dyed and manufactured impacts if it can safely and naturally decompose, some core fabrics generally tick the right boxes for being truly biodegradable.

1.      Organic Cotton

Cotton bud
The cotton bud. Photo by Marianne Krohn on Unsplash

While conventionally grown cotton may lose some sustainability points due to the chemicals required for its production, organic cotton has no such issue. A completely natural product, organic cotton is highly biodegradable, if natural dyes are used, organic cotton can even be composted!

2.      Hemp

Hemp grows incredibly easily. Photo by Crispin Jones on Unsplash

Due to hemp’s affiliation with the cannabis plant, it has been slow to catch on in some markets, but it is a highly sustainable fabric. This versatile fibre comes from a crop that grows without the need for herbicides and has a low carbon footprint. Hemp will even soften over time, and at the end of its life will completely biodegrade.

3.      Lyocell

Sustainable lyocell. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

With the base product of wood pulp, usually from sustainable eucalyptus, beech or bamboo trees, lyocell is taking the sustainable clothing market by storm. Despite being 100% biodegradable, lyocell is highly durable. A lyocell product is likely to be a wardrobe favourite for years to come, and when it can be worn no more can break down back into nature. 

4.      Organic Linen

Organic linen
Organic linen biodegrades quickly. Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

Farmed without the use of herbicides, pesticides and other chemical nasties, organic linen ticks all the right sustainability boxes. Despite accounting for only 1% of the linen market, organic linen is impressively durable and versatile. However, much like cotton, conventionally farmed linen that has been exposed to chemicals often can’t safely biodegrade. For a full comparison of cotton and linen, see our article here.

5.      Silk

Silk is biodegradable but has ethical issues. Photo by maadhuri g from Pexels

Due to silk’s natural origins, it gains a place in the biodegradable fabric market. Silk, however, runs into ethical issues on the animal welfare front. Conventional silk production commonly involves killing silkworms and silk moths in often inhumane ways. As many as 15000 silkworms may be killed in the production of just one metre of silk.

So, is silk biodegradable? Yes. Is it ethical? Not necessarily.

6.      Bamboo

Bamboo stalks
Bamboo is antibacterial and biodegradable. Photo by Ranurte on Unsplash

A versatile and naturally antibacterial fibre, bamboo has seen rapid growth in the sustainable clothing market. A natural carbon sink, biodegradable, and quick to grow, bamboo is a fabric that can be a highly sustainable choice.

However it should be noted, bamboo viscose doesn’t pass the biodegradable test due to its need for high levels of processing.

7.      Wool

Biodegradable wool
Wool is biodegradable if left natural and grown organically. Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

When grown organically and not treated with harsh chemicals, wool is a versatile and biodegradable option. Due to its animal-based origins, its use has raised concerns in some animal welfare groups and it is a product that requires a large amount of land to produce. However, wool doesn’t contain microplastics, can be produced organically, and best of all won’t be littering the world for generations to come.

8.      Jute

Jute textile
Natural and biodegradable jute. Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

Jute is often used in materials such as hessian. Jute plants reach maturity quickly and absorb carbon dioxide at a greater rate than most trees. Used in clothing and homeware markets jute is natural and biodegradable.

9.      Abaca

Abaca plant
The abaca plant from the Philippines. Photo courtesy of www.textilelearner.net

Often found in the Philippines, Abaca is a leaf fibre derived from the Abaca plant. It is similar to burlap or hemp and requires leaf stalks to be stripped, pulped, washed and dried to make a viable fibre for textile production.

10.  Fabric Innovations

Algiknit textile
Algiknit from kelp. Photo courtesy of www.commonobjective.co

As sustainable fashion grows, new fabric innovations are always coming onto the market. Many of these, such as mushroom leather, fabric from algae (such as Algalife and Algiknit), from protein fibre (such as Spiber) and Le Qara made from microorganisms from flowers and fruits are entirely biodegradable.

While not every sustainable fabric innovation is biodegradable, those that are, offer a unique opportunity to reshape the textile industry. Novel fabrics designed with purpose, style and sustainability in mind.

What Can Impact Fabric Biodegradability?

The biodegradable aspects of fabric can be complicated by the complex supply chain of textiles. Many naturally derived fabrics, while they may start life organic and biodegradable, are treated with chemicals, compounds and toxins, or blended with fibres, ultimately making them non-biodegradable.

Whether fabrics are biodegradable depends on more than just the base fibre of a textile, but how fabrics are treated along the supply chain.

Leather Tanning

Leather tanning
Leather tanning is highly toxic to workers and the environment. Photo by Deepak Sharma from Pexels

The modern leather tanning process is well known to be hazardous to both the environment and human health. While the gentler practice of vegetable tanning doesn’t impede leather’s biodegradable qualities, the far more common chrome tanning process does.

Used for 90% of the world’s leather tanning needs, chrome tanning pollutes the environment and can cause health issues such as birth defects and respiratory issues. The chemicals used in chrome tanning can leach back into the environment, making this leather unsafe to naturally biodegradable.

Although chrome tanned leathers are still likely to decompose, as they do they can release toxins from the tanning process into the environment, causing further environmental harm. The process that leather undergoes in production can also slow its rate of decomposition with some treatments meaning leathers won’t decompose for up to fifty years

For more on the sustainability of leather, see Is leather bad for the environment: the unsustainable truth.

Synthetic Dyes

Synthetically dyed fabric
Synthetic dyes are not biodegradable. Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Much like the leather tanning process, synthetic dyes can turn a biodegradable fabric into a non-biodegradable one. As well as their non-biodegradable properties, synthetic dyes can cause skin and respiratory ailments and some are known carcinogens.

When leached into the environment these dyes disrupt ecosystems and cause water pollution. The base components used in synthetic dyes impact how a textile interacts with the environment. When these dyes are used to colour fabrics, it often impacts their ability to effectively and safely decompose without causing environmental contamination.

Similar to leather tanning, natural fabrics that have been coloured with synthetic dyes may still decompose, but as they do will cause environmental harm as they release toxins and chemicals. If synthetic dyes (for example dumped by factories and not on clothing) contaminate environments however through spills or dumping, these base components will not decompose. 

Chemical Additives

While fabrics such as conventional cotton and wool will still biodegrade, even when having been treated with harsh chemicals, they will release these chemicals back into the environment as they break down. These dangerous toxins can damage soil, pollute water bodies and are harmful to animal life.

Fabric Blends

Jeans on hangers
Stretch denim is a blended fabric and is not biodegradable. Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Blended fabrics are common in the fashion industry, often created to make a textile more versatile and fit-for-purpose. A common example of this is stretch denim used in jeans: to create this blend, elastane or spandex is woven with cotton fibres. However, the addition of non-biodegradable synthetic elastane makes the entire textile non-biodegradable. Polyester and cotton blends are also common and mean that the fabric will be unable to biodegrade.

Fabrics that Last Forever

When exploring which fabrics are biodegradable, you quickly discover that some fabrics simply, are not. These ‘forever fabrics’ once produced are going to be littering the world’s surface for generations to come. Viscose and synthetics such as polyester and fleece are plastic based and as such will not naturally biodegrade.

If you are wondering if widely used nylon is biodegradable, you will also be disappointed to know that nylon fibres aren’t breaking down any time soon. Synthetic fabrics, despite being overrepresented in the textile industry, can take up to 200 years to decompose.

The Landfill Problem

Landfill
Landfill is a massive problem in other parts of the world. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Landfills are well known to be environmentally catastrophic. While textiles will still often decompose in landfill, they will do so at a slower rate and in a more environmentally harmful way. As products decompose in the oxygen-free environment of landfills, they produce methane gas. This gas traps 20 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

By composting clothing rather than sending it to landfill, it undergoes decomposition in a bacterial and oxygen rich environment. This improves rates of decomposition and cuts down on environmentally disastrous methane emissions.

How Do I Compost My Clothing?

Unfortunately, at the moment, clothing is not welcome in our household green bins and must go into the yellow bins found at the recycling bank. However, if you are lucky enough to have a compost heap, or space to make one, you can follow the instructions here to compost your biodegradable clothing!

How Long does it Take Fabric to Decompose?

The time it takes a fabric to biodegrade largely depends on the fabric and the conditions it is in. Bamboo, for example, may take up to a year to biodegrade, whereas, in the right conditions, cotton may disappear back into nature in as little as a week. Cutting fabric into smaller pieces, particularly in the case of linen may also increase decomposition.

The conditions fabric is exposed to are really important for the rate of biodegradation. Linen, which can take longer than cotton to decompose in some conditions, biodegrades at a faster rate than cotton when buried in the soil.

Fashion Today, Nature Tomorrow

Poppies in a field representing nature
Biodegradable fabrics get back to nature and keep our world beautiful! Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

As pollution levels increase around the world what happens to our clothing after we are finished with it is an important consideration. When chosen unsustainably, the fast fashion styles bought today could end up polluting the world for generations to come. Biodegradable materials, although not the only solution to the fashion waste crisis, do provide a vital piece of the puzzle.

When purchasing biodegradable textiles and disposing of these responsibly, you are ensuring that today’s fashion never has to become tomorrow’s problem.

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