Biodegradable clothes play a crucial in the sustainable transformation of the fashion industry. They are essential for conscious consumers buying eco-friendly clothing around the world.
But what is biodegradable fashion? What does it means when clothes are biodegradable?
Most fabrics used for clothing production degrade over a long enough time in relevant environments, including wastewater treatment plants, composting, landfill, soil, or seawater.
However, even if a material is biodegradable, it isn't necessarily environmentally friendly.
Many fabrics receive harsh treatments during textile processing, washing, and dyeing. They release hazardous chemicals and toxic gases as they decompose in the environment.
The most sustainable biodegradable clothes contain organic and natural fabrics that degrade in a short time without endangering ecosystems or human health.
To help you make conscious decisions as a well-informed consumer, here is the ultimate guide to all types of biodegradable clothes and fabrics used for clothing.
What is biodegradable fashion?
Innovation in biodegradable fashion could help make the industry more sustainable. It solves many issues related to clothing pollution at the end of its lifecycle.
The textile and apparel industry is one of the largest polluters globally. It has a catastrophic impact on people and the environment and is responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and waste.
Biodegradable fabrics are formidable options to produce environmentally friendly apparel. They have a bright future in the fashion world, despite some disadvantages.
Plastic and synthetic textile wastes are quickly becoming a global environmental and social issue. They aren't renewable, biodegradable, or compostable.
Most plastic materials used for fashion, such as polyester, nylon, elastane, acrylic, polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyurethane, take hundreds of years to decompose.
And as they break down, they release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the environment.
Biodegradable fashion prioritizes fabric materials that decompose in a short time in natural environments, between a few days to a few weeks.
What textile fabrics are biodegradable?
Clothes are biodegradable when they decompose through bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoid pollution.
Biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter. It happens naturally with the help of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.
How long degradation takes depends on a lot of environmental conditions, such as humidity and temperature.
Fashion products must ensure that they biodegrade quickly enough in a landfill, even when lacking light, water, and microbial activity usually necessary for degradation to occur.
Buying and wearing more eco-friendly fabrics, including materials that biodegrade quickly, is one of the best ways to reduce fashion's environmental impact.
As a consumer, you have the power to change what's happening in the fashion industry today. The first step toward a more sustainable future is getting informed on fabrics to prefer when shopping for new clothes.
Here are some of the most biodegradable fabrics to help you discover more sustainable options for your wardrobe:
- Organic cotton
1. Organic cotton biodegrades in one week to five months.
Conventional cotton is one of the worst natural fibers. It's wasteful, polluting, and damaging to human health. It ruins biodiversity and soil fertility.
Regular cotton farming pollutes the air, water sources, and soils. It endangers ecosystems and human lives. It accounts for 16% of all insecticides, 7% of all herbicides, 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers worldwide.
The better alternative is organic cotton. About 80% of all organic cotton is grown with water from rainfalls, which reduces pressure on local water sources. It's non-GMO and grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
2. Linen biodegrades in two weeks to six months.
Linen is a popular natural fiber used in fashion made from a renewable resource: the flax plant.
Clothing pieces made from linen fabric are well-known to be luxurious and exceptionally fresh in hot weather. It's a very sustainable material that is also breathable, soft, and comfortable.
Linen is a natural fiber, biodegradable, recyclable. It's one of the most environmentally friendly and socially responsible materials.
But linen is expensive because it's hard to weave. Linen fabric production also costs twice as much as cotton production.
3. Hemp biodegrades in four weeks to eight months.
Hemp is one of the most sustainable fabrics in the world. It has many advantages but also a bad reputation.
Hemp fabric contains natural fibers made from a renewable resource: hemp plants.
Hemp fibers are stronger, longer, more absorbent, and more durable than cotton fibers. They are also versatile, soft, breathable, lightweight, resistant, anti-bacterial.
Hemp farming is also much more eco-friendly. It prevents soil erosion, removes toxic compounds from the land, and absorbs large quantities of carbon dioxide.
Hemp plants quickly grow in about 100 days, depending on variety, soil, and climate. And hemp textiles biodegrade in 30 days in natural soil up to 240 days in compost soil.
4. Jute biodegrades in four to twenty months.
Jute fabric is a great eco-friendly alternative to reduce the environmental impact of your clothes. It's also one of the cheapest natural fibers.
Jute fabric is the most used fabric globally after cotton for many good reasons. It's cost-effective, high density, heat resistant, and moisture absorbent.
Jute is a natural fiber, very durable, 100% biodegradable, compostable and recyclable. It doesn't require any fertilizers or pesticides to grow, as opposed to cotton.
5. Ramie biodegrades in six to twenty-four months.
Ramie is one eco-friendly fabric revolutionizing the fashion industry. It's strong, durable, lightweight, and breathable but not very flexible or elastic.
Ramie textiles contain natural fibers from the ramie plant. Ramie is originated from China, India, and Indonesia and used for clothing for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest fiber crops.
Ramie is used as a cotton substitute today. It's very versatile but isn't popular because it remains expensive due to labor costs during cultivation and production.
6. Lyocell biodegrades in six to twenty-four months.
Lyocell is a fantastic choice for eco-friendly and sustainable clothing. It's a semi-synthetic, man-made fiber, also called regenerated cellulosic fiber.
Lyocell is primarily made from cellulose extracted from renewable resources such as wood.
However, lyocell clothing requires complex production processes using tons of water, energy, and chemicals.
Because of the various processing stages during lyocell production, the fibers can take between a few weeks to a few years to biodegrade, depending on the environmental conditions.
Cellulose biodegrades quickly under six weeks with optimal soil moisture of -33 kPa and soil temperature of approximately 25 ºC.
However, researchers also report that the more fabrics are treated, the slower they decompose. And semi-synthetic materials like lyocell receive heavy treatments to make them softer, stronger, and elastic.
7. Bioplastics biodegrade in six to twenty-four months.
Bioplastics are manufactured fibers made from biological sources. They are also known as biopolymers or bio-synthetics.
Bioplastics are mostly biodegradable and renewable alternatives to fossil-based synthetic fibers. Biobased plastics are becoming more popular, especially in the fashion industry.
Biodegradable bioplastics are biobased, 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.
Biodegradable bioplastics take a few days up to six months to decompose fully, much faster than fossil materials. They create water, carbon dioxide, methane, biomass, and inorganic compounds as they decompose.
However, innovation, technology advancements, and infrastructure developments are required to make the whole plastic industry entirely biobased, circular, and regenerative.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.