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Why clothes should be designed to turn into dirt

It’s not enough for fashion to be ‘sustainable’—the materials need to be able to break down in a matter of weeks.

Why clothes should be designed to turn into dirt
[Source photo: Balena]

The fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting. Some 92 million tons of textile waste are created globally every year, and the majority of these garments are made out of nonbiodegradable and polluting plastics. As dump sites overflow and toxic waste seeps into our oceans, the question is: Can fashionable ever be sustainable?

We think so, but it’s going to take a lot of work and demand a whole new mindset from manufacturers and consumers alike to get there.

There’s been increasing interest in the development of sustainable materials on the part of fashion houses, with various brands announcing green initiatives, and footwear companies utilizing more materials like cotton and natural rubber, promoting their biodegradable properties. While these initiatives are certainly helping create new, more “Earth-friendly” trends, this step in the right direction may be much smaller than people realize.

The problem is, though these natural materials may be biodegradable—meaning they will eventually break down in nature or in landfills—it will take years, if not decades, for this to occur. In other words, while these items will decompose, we can’t control the length or effect of the process, so they’ll likely continue to gunk up our surroundings for as long as we live, if not longer.

[Photo: Balena]

For our clothes and footwear to be truly sustainable, not only do our materials need to be recyclable but there also need to be processes in which they can break down into their natural elements in a matter of weeks, not years. That means creating fabrics and materials without toxins, within an environment where the biodegradation process can be precisely controlled. We must establish practices in which our clothes can reliably decompose, whether in industrial composting centers or other approved facilities, in such a way that fosters a swift, clean, and total breakdown.

While it may sound impossible, the good news is that advances in modern composting technologies provide an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, and other decomposing organisms to turn a broad range of organic materials into fertile soil. Ultimately, the quicker that waste is able to decompose, the less time it spends polluting our Earth, and the sooner farmers can take advantage of its fertilizing properties. Unfortunately, too few innovators in the industry are making strides toward developing 100% compostable polymers for everyday fashion products.

Part of what’s slowing down this material revolution is the lack of a circular model in which, after wearing your garments ragged you’d know exactly where to take them for this type of biological recycling, or as we call it: biocycling.

How do we convince consumers to return their end-of-use clothing to such a take-back point on the way to biocycling, rather than just tossing them into the trash? Some perceive this as circularity’s Achilles’ heel. However, if brands are truly eco-minded, there are a number of innovative ways to collect products once consumers are done with them. Organizations and companies like TerraCycleSave ItKENT Compost Club, and Recircled are already working—in some cases with big brands—to innovate large-scale collection for recycling and composting for such circular economies. Perks like discounts on new items can help incentivize and standardize such behavior.

As mentioned, fashion already does have biodegradable options from brands like Bottega Veneta and Stella McCartney, just none with the kind of advanced materials that can break down in weeks rather than years. Plastics that biodegrade swiftly do exist in other areas, including packaging—check out innovators such as Tipa and Cove, two companies creating biodegradable single-use containers and water bottles. The problem is, what we really need is a viable intersection of the two: biodegradable polymers, created specifically for the fashion industry. The merging of these two trends (along with the increasing normalization of biocycling) stands to be the game-changer so many have been waiting for.

Unlike fashion trends, which often change with the season, these types of shifts in manufacturing will take time to implement, as will shifting consumer behaviors. Buying less and using hand-me-downs are just part of the solution, because people are never going to stop buying new clothes. If we really want to make fashion fun, functional, and Earth-friendly, we, the manufacturers, need to be part of the solution as well.

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