Compostable clothing is the newest way to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. But is it truly a sustainable trend? In this sustainable fashion guide, once more, we go in depth!
As the world becomes more conscious of the need to be sustainable, many industries are exploring new and innovative ways to reduce their environmental impact. One such industry is the fashion industry, and the newest sustainable trends are starting a conversation about compostable clothing.
Historically, the fashion industry has been more concerned about its outward appearance than its environmental impact. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the apparel industry is the second largest consumer of water and is responsible for 2–8 percent of global carbon emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater.
But the environmental impact of fashion is as far-reaching as the social influence of the most prominent Instagram fashion influencer. Not only do 92 million tons of clothing waste end up in landfills annually, but synthetic textiles are non-biodegradable and release harmful gases into the air for up to 200 years as they break down. These synthetic materials also shed microplastics into our rivers and seas when worn and washed, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution.
What is Compostable Clothing
As consumers become more engaged in the environmental impact of their choices, the fashion industry has begun changing its manufacturing methods, textiles, and labor practices. These changes are driven by a desire to be more sustainable and address the growing issue of fashion waste.
One of the newest sustainable fashion trends is compostable clothing. Compostable clothing is made from natural fibers that can break down and decompose in a composting environment. Compostable means that instead of taking up space in a landfill, compostable clothing will break down and return to the earth while enriching the soil.
Compostable clothing is not a new concept. Most clothing was compostable before the advent of synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon. However, these synthetic fibers have become so ubiquitous in the fashion industry that natural fibers like cotton, wool, bamboo, or hemp are now considered a sustainable choice.
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Compostable vs. Biodegradable Clothing
Using biodegradable materials is a rapidly growing trend in the sustainable fashion industry. But how do these materials differ from compostable materials, and are the differences significant?
Biodegradable products are materials that break down and degrade in the environment over time. These materials tend to be natural fabrics, just like compostable materials. In fact, all compostable clothing is biodegradable, but only some biodegradable clothing is compostable.
To be considered a compostable material, the material must not only wholly biodegrade within a specific amount of time, but it cannot leach toxic chemicals as it decomposes. To avoid leaching toxic chemicals, the textiles used must meet specific standards:
- 100% natural and grown organically
- Not dyed with traditional petroleum-derived dyes
- Not treated with chemical finishes such as stain-resistance
- Not constructed with synthetic thread
In addition, the garment cannot include embellishments, such as zippers or buttons, that cannot be removed before composting.
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Benefits of Compostable Clothing
The benefits of compostable clothing are clear. Composting your clothing reduces the amount of waste in landfills, reduces the overall carbon footprint of your wardrobe, and protects you from exposure to harmful dyes and chemicals.
The materials used to construct compostable clothing have a more negligible environmental impact than synthetic materials or other materials not grown organically. Not only are organically grown fibers grown without harmful pesticides and herbicides, but organic farmers use less water than conventional farmers and use regenerative practices that ensure soil health.
Compostable clothing is safer for the consumer because it cannot contain toxic dyes or fluorinated polymers that impart stain and water resistance. These polymers, a type of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been detected in the blood samples from over 99% of the US population.
Widespread use of PFAS is a concern because their presence has been linked to various illnesses, including cancer, thyroid disease, and ulcerative colitis. Compostable clothing keeps these substances out of our soil and water systems and away from our bodies, where they can be absorbed across the skin.
Cost of Compostable Clothing
Cost is one of the main barriers to the widespread adoption of compostable clothing. The materials used to construct compostable clothing, such as organic cotton or hemp, are more expensive than synthetic fibers. In addition, the lack of consumer awareness of the benefits of compostable clothing means few consumers are willing to pay the price difference.
Not only are synthetic textiles less expensive to produce, but manufacturers can keep costs down because they are not held responsible for their product’s ultimate disposal. One solution for bringing the cost of compostable clothing closer to the cost of fast fashion is to pass legislation similar to SB 54; legislation recently passed in California to address plastic waste.
SB 54 requires the cost of recycling single-use plastic to be passed to the producer, not the taxpayer. And while critics of the law correctly claim that this additional cost will ultimately be passed onto the consumer, the impact is essential: single-use plastic will become more expensive and closer to the price of more sustainable options. However, the consumer’s tax dollars will no longer pay the cost of collecting and recycling these single-use plastics, and fewer plastics will end up in landfills.
Adopting this “extended producer responsibility” model for the fashion industry would mean that clothing manufacturers would become responsible for the cost of collecting and disposing of the tons of clothing waste that ends up in landfills every year.
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Caring for Your Compostable Clothing
You may wonder how long compostable clothing will last if it breaks down quickly and easily in your backyard compost pile.
Luckily, compostable clothing will last as long as other items made from natural fibers. Yes, compostable clothing is made of 100% natural textiles to break down in your compost pile more easily. And compostable clothing does not use harmful dyes or treatments, so it can break down without releasing toxic chemicals. However, compostable clothing requires the presence of microorganisms to complete the breakdown process.
Of course, you can take the following steps to make your clothing last as long as possible
- Wash less often
- Wash in colder water
- Use gentle detergents
- Hang to dry
- Steam instead of ironing
Just be aware that compostable clothing does not contain antimicrobial finishes, so you may need to wash them more frequently than treated fabrics.
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When you purchase compostable clothing, the retailer should explain the proper method for composting it. Some brands can be safely tossed into your backyard compost pile. Other brands must be composted at industrial locations that are actively managed and use higher temperatures to complete the composting process.
If you’re interested in jumping on the compostable clothing trend, but need a compost pile of your own, check out our composting guide for beginners.
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As the fashion industry grows, the need for sustainable solutions is becoming more urgent. Compostable clothing is one way to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Although compostable clothing may cost more upfront, it is an investment in a cleaner and healthier future.
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