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Biodegradability: Is It Just Another Buzzword?

Eco-Conformism: Part 1

Welcome to the first part in this two-part series called "Eco-Conformism," a collaborative article by myself and Anatt Finkler of Global Denim.

The saying “news travels fast” has a whole new meaning. News doesn’t just travel fast, it travels instantly. And this is why we have a major problem with buzz words becoming instantly popular. Biodegradability and compostability claims have been thrown around like there’s no tomorrow. But, with no education surrounding these claims, how are we expected to dispose of or recycle these products responsibly?

First of all, biodegradable does not mean compostable. Even though biodegradable materials return to nature and can disappear completely, they can sometimes leave behind an unwanted residue, whereas compostable materials create something called humus that is full of nutrients and great for plants. So when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, helping the growth of trees and plants. For more on the differences between the two check out this post.

Whether an item is compostable or simply biodegradable, it requires to be placed in an environment that facilitates its breakdown. Just as with traditional recycling, composting rates depend greatly on the infrastructure available, and compared to recycling, very few of these facilities exist for the big demand of unsold and throw away clothing the industry is facing. So these claims become more a problem than a solution because of the lack of education and infrastructure around it.

With all of these variables, it is so important for businesses to clearly communicate what they mean when they say "biodegradable" or “compostable.” For brands to label themselves “compostable,” 60-90% of the product must break down into C02 within 180 days in a commercial composting facility. However, there are little to no regulations stating how long it takes for something to degrade to be considered “biodegradable,” so tell us what the benefits of your biodegradability claims actually are! Additionally, brands need to provide education on how to properly dispose of their products or refer them to facilities that can do so for them. If you’ve bought an item labeled compostable or biodegradable, send the brand a message asking them where you can dispose of it properly.

But let's not forget, compostability and biodegradability have to be the very last step of the process! We have to design for a Circular Economy.

According to the CFDA Guide for Sustainable Strategies “One current goal for sustainability in fashion is the creation of a circular product cycle and economy. Circularity, also known as the Cradle to Cradle approach, is the idea that products not only cause no harm but actually benefit people and the environment along the entire product’s life cycle. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future “where design is a positive, regenerative force, producing effects that we want to expand rather than shrink.” In addition to having a positive impact, products create no waste - all materials are either infinitely recyclable or biodegradable.”

Designing for circularity can take many forms depending on the purpose of the product. We can look at this from 5 different approaches: durability, longevity, reparability, disassembly, and recyclability.

When designing for longevity, durability, and reparability, the aim is to extend the use of a garment. On the other hand, when designing for disassembly, recyclability, or biodegradability, the aim is to ensure that products and materials return to the system and can be regenerated.

Quoting the GFA “The design approach for a product will depend on its specific function. A product’s intended use should guide its longevity and circularity. Products designed for longevity require, for example, taking the durability of the material chosen into consideration. Whereas biodegradability might be prioritized for garments that are intended to have a short lifespan.”

Denim for example is a durable fabric. It is made to last and intended to be repaired, but it can also be recycled at the end of its life! A good pair of jeans should be made to endure the test of time and the wearer’s life. So, we started to question if advertising a jean as biodegradable or using its biodegradable components as marketing, even makes any sense?

After getting to chat with David Breslauer, Cheif Science Officer of Bolt Threads, we came to the conclusion that using renewable materials as inputs is always positive, but they must be sourced in a responsible and regenerative manner and ensure they don’t jeopardize the quality of the end product. The aim right now is to design cleaner and with greener materials that have longevity and recyclability in mind to finally achieve circularity.

Come back next week for actionable steps you can take on how to design for circularity with biodegradable materials. In the meantime, find me on Simply Suzette for daily facts and tips, and STAY DILIGENT FRIENDS!


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