Biodegradable pants breaking down after being thrown out. Image: Oliver Nanzig
The fashion industry is one of the three biggest contributors to global warming, behind the oil and meat industries.
Consumers buy 80 billion items of clothing globally every year according to fashion documentary The True Cost. Only 10% of that clothing ends up donated to charities, recycled or re-used. The other 90% ends up in landfill, creating methane gas and warming the planet more and more each year. (Source: The True Cost documentary)
In fact, many fashion fabrics have the potential to be recyclable, like cotton, wool, cashmere, silk, bamboo and linen – unless dyes are added or they’re mixed with other types of fabric.
We have the means to manufacture clothing from recycled materials, even to make fabric that’s completely biodegradable, but most clothing brands choose not to because of higher production costs. The few companies who do manufacture clothing from recycled materials are mainly in the US and Europe. I spoke to Aqua Vida, an American based biodegradable workout and swimwear store. Founder and creator Jana Mars says, “The raw materials are priced at a premium and are not available locally.”
Image: Aqua Vida
The clothing is manufactured in Brazil and is created out of recycled scraps, wastewater, raw materials found in water and heat that is generated in the production phase. Jana Mars says, “Our profit margins are much lower than apparel companies that produce using harmful production processes and unfair labour practices, as well as traditional polyamides. You have to have a conscious and a responsible frame of mind to sacrifice profits for the greater good.”
The company says it makes the world’s first biodegradable polyamide yarns, a nylon or polyester fabric. Blended with 10% bio-based spandex, the clothing completely decomposes within three years of being composted.
Jana Mars says clothes made with the biodegradable fabrics don’t change during their lifetime. “Even when stored, they have a shelf life as long as conventional polyamides. It’s only in anaerobic landfills or your own compost bin, that its unique composition allows bacteria to gain access to, and digest the waste materials.”
Freitag, another biodegradable brand based in Zurich, says on its website that it makes its own fabric from truck tarpaulins and natural fibres like hemp, flax and modal, which are all grown in Europe. An algae-based fabric dye is also used to colour the clothing. While the colour can change shades over time, the fabric is free of toxins.
Both brands say their clothing feels completely normal. Aqua Vida claims its clothes are also more comfortable, softer and longer-lasting than regular clothing, while still being affordable, with prices ranging from $28 to $68.
In comparison, many brands of clothing are very cheaply made in sweat shops then marked up for a pretty penny. Some even start to fall apart quicker than you can wear them, yet refuse to deteriorate completely, no matter how far they’re shoved beneath the earth.
Online clothing store, The Iconic, sells many brands including Wrangler, Tony Bianco, Calvin Klein and Adidas. It also creates and stocks its own line. But it doesn’t sell any biodegradable or recyclable clothing on its site.
In an email response, Samuel from the management team says, “The Iconic is deeply committed to social and environmental responsibility. Right now we are focusing on ethical sourcing within our supply chain, environmental sustainability of our own operations and strengthening our community engagement.”
Image: Aqua Vida
Aqua Vida has been operating since 2014. While Jana says sales are growing each year as more people become eco-conscious, she admits their sales are lower than most clothing companies because most people aren’t environmentally aware. “There is an educational element to what we sell. So before someone purchases from us, they must first understand our mission and why we do what we do. This takes time that many customers are not willing to invest.”
I asked five Melbournians aged 16 to 52 whether they would be prepared to buy biodegradable clothing. All said they would like to do more for the environment but that more brands would need to make biodegradable clothing for them to change their whole wardrobe.