Tons of brands are implementing unsustainable practices to produce cheaply made clothing to keep up with the demand. Plastic is used everywhere and anyone across the planet. According to the National Geographic, 91% of plastic isn’t recycled and it’s estimated that over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ends up in the trash on its way to a landfill. it’s predicted that if human beings continue manufacturing plastic at a rapid pace, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. The long-term effect of plastic production and waste could result in extinction of wildlife, industries coming to an end and health problems, therefore, investing in sustainability is the best way.
The Challenges of Synthetic Materials
Let’s take a look at Polyester, one of the commonly used fibers used for clothes. To make polyester fiber, the synthetic capsules are forced through small holes creating a long thread that can be created into anything but in regards to clothing the material is combined with natural materials like cotton or wool.
Did you know that about 63% of textile fibers used in the world contain synthetic fibers? Polyester is a non-biodegradable plastic that is combined with materials like cotton and linen. Fast Fashion brands across the world have been increasingly adding synthetic to quickly produce mass amounts of clothes.
Most man-made or synthetic materials with a plastic base are non-biodegradable therefore, will take years to start to compost into the ground. This not only creates a build-up of waste in landfills around the world but also effects the food chain, people and ecosystems.
Top 5 Biodegradable Materials
Although it may feel like we are overwhelmed with lots of information about fashion and sustainability, it’s also important to keep note of biodegradable.
Hemp – one of the most sustainable materials.
Hemp is in fact a weed and grows without help with just a little water. Traditionally the plant was used for rope as its flexibility, strong, and resistant to water damage. Hemp was and still is considered for practical solutions and everyday activities however, now many are realizing the plant’s capabilities and how it can be used as a primary material for clothes.
The plant grows everywhere and anyway and only takes 11 weeks to mature. Hemp is fairly expensive and hasn’t been used in fashion until recent years. The material can be combined with other materials such as cotton or linen. Hemp is much more resistant than cotton. It is hypoallergenic to the skin. Hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics currently available. The plant is very naturally resistant to pests, therefore, the growing process is low maintenance.
Last year, the global industrial hemp market was forecast to reach US$10.6 billion, by 2027 the global industrial hemp market size is expected to reach USD 15.26 billion.
Silk is a natural biodegradable fiber that is produced by various insects when building their cocoons or webs. Commercially silk is produced by the Bombyx mori and the mulberry silk moth. Silk has been produced like this for centuries and originally was founded in China. Silk is highly absorbing, strong, shiny, versatile and hypoallergenic. The challenge with silk is the processing stage, as this may conflict with some vegan beliefs. After the silkworms are collected and ready to spin a cocoon which is around one kilometer of silk. it is treated with boiling water or hot air is used to remove the insects and avoid damaging the silk fibers. This process is seen as unethical, but surprisingly, does not include as many chemicals as other material processes. When the silk is dyed or manipulated this is where it will have a negative effect on the environment.
Organic silk involves less chemicals than the conventional silk. Another difference compared to normal production might be that during the production of organic silk, silkworms continue their natural lifecycle; however there is no official standard for organic silk therefore if you do come across organic silk you may need to do some deeper digging!
Cotton accounts for about 25% of textile fibers used in the world. Cotton is 100% biodegradable and on average takes around 5 to 6 months to degrade in the right conditions unlike plastic alternatives. Cotton can be locally grown and doesn’t take long to produce an end product. Yet organic cotton is much better eco-friendly option. Although cotton is one of the best and most affordable materials to make garments, the cotton industry is extremely demanding, think about it most of us wear cotton clothing every day.
Overall, organic cotton is generally better than standard cotton, as It has impact on the environment. Wilby explains that cotton is “very water intensive to cultivate and process”, taking between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt. Therefore, although biodegradable demanding on the environment because of the necessary water and soil depletion.
The bamboo plant is known for its strong, flexible, lightweight and versatile properties. There are many different species of bamboo that hold slightly different strengths. However overall, the plant is renewable, therefore replenished by natural sources like sunlight, wind. When the bamboo is in good conditions it will grow rapidly and considered as extremely regenerative and reliable.
One of the main reasons why many companies use bamboo is because of its biodegradable properties, at the end of a products life, bamboo will biodegrade within 4 months – 3 years, opposed to plastic which is non-biodegradable.
Being aware of wildlife when sourcing bamboo is also so companies have the option to source bamboo away from animals, especially Pandas, to avoid disrupting their natural habits.
Wool has been used for centuries around the world. Wool is biodegradable, resilient, durable, breathable and retains temperature especially warmth. Wool can also absorb lots of moisture. The term ‘organic wool’ focuses on how the wool is farmed or produced. Producing wool normally includes chemicals used on the skin of the sheep to keep insects and infections away this process may also harm the sheep.
Organic wool is produced without using chemicals, including preventative treatments insects. Organic wool often removes or involves a gentle mulesing stage (where wool is removed from the skin in certain areas to avoid infections)
Although recycled plastic is not biodegradable there are still some key advantages to purchasing recycled plastic. For example, 100% regenerated nylon, Econyl yarn and recycled fabrics are sourced from finishing nets or rescued plastic from the ocean.
Also, some brands (like UPSAINT) are making clothes from recycled plastic bottles, thus keeping waste from reaching the ocean.
So, by using recycled fabrics and plastics sourced from the sea or landfills, this delays the material going back into landfills and slows down mass-production of single-use plastic.
How can you tell if an item is biodegradable?
- Research – Before you make a purchase simply check the company and find out what materials they use. Their website or shop should display information about the items and material used. Sustainable brands proudly and openly communicate materials they use. In addition, sometimes gathering a list of sustainable companies will help you make more sustainable decisions.
- Check the labels – Clothing labels tell you everything you need to know about the item and the materials that are used. As well as the materials used, some brands will include where are manufactured, sizes and most importantly instructions on looking after the item which will help you extend the garments life.
- Quality – Biodegradable materials have durable and long-lasting properties. You can often feel when the quality is poor, so don’t doubt your initially thoughts.
- Natural coloring – Generally, sustainable clothing will be in a natural color, without dyes or additional embellishments. Chemical dyes affect communities and eco-systems due to the harmful toxins and chemicals, so sustainable brands will avoid dying the item.
If you are unsure about the colors sometimes the company will expose what they have used to produce the color.
Your official guide to biodegradable materials. Remember to always research and check items if you’re unsure!