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Can Biodegradable Denim Solve the Industry’s Notorious Waste Problem?

The apparel industry has a waste problem of epic proportions. Every year, Americans alone chuck 32 billion pounds of textiles in the trash with the same casual ease as they would a banana peel or an empty juice box, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That works out to a mountainous 381,500 truckloads’ worth, or roughly 6 percent of all municipal solid waste generated in the country.

But what if all of it could just go away? That’s a tack that a small but burgeoning movement of denim makers is counting on.

In 2015, Freitag, a Swiss brand best known for making bags out of recycled truck tarpaulin, debuted what it claimed to be the world’s first 100 percent compostable jean. Part of a line of European-grown and -produced workwear, the five-pocket design contains no polyester trims, nylon threads or Lycra blends, only bast fibers like hemp and linen. Rivets are verboten. To button up, it eschews plastic in favor of tagua nut, the so-called “vegetable ivory.” The only exception is the main pant closure, which demanded something more robust.

“For a long time we searched in vain for a resilient biodegradable button,” Elisabeth Isenegger, public relations lead at Freitag, said. “Now it is made of metal, but it can be unscrewed and removed from the garment at the end of one life cycle and reused in the next.”

Workwear has to be tough and durable and Freitag’s denim was designed to be no different. Toss it into a compost pile, however, and it’ll degrade completely within a couple of months, without leaving behind any harmful residues. The fibers conform to the strictest of Oeko-Tex standards, meaning minimal chemicals are used during cultivation and processing. “It came from the ground and is 100 percent safe to give it back to the ground,” Isenegger said.

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Freitag didn’t have the easiest time developing its jean. From research and development to enacting a supply chain that didn’t exist before, the entire operation took five years, “with many ups and downs along the way.” But every second of it was, in the company’s opinion, well spent. “We all know that the environmental impact of the conventional textile industry is massive,” Isenegger added. “So the only solution will be to rethink textile production as whole.”

Defining biodegradable

Indeed, starting with biodegradable and compostable components can help a brand shrink its waste footprint from the get-go, said Tricia Carey, director of business development for denim at Lenzing, an Austria-based fiber producer.

Though the terms are used interchangeably, whether something is biodegradable or compostable isn’t just a matter of semantics. Anything, given sufficient years or even centuries, will eventually be set upon by Mother Nature.

Compostables have stricter parameters, however. “Compostable products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants,” Carey said.

There can be crucial regulatory distinctions, too. The lyocell and modal fibers in Tencel, which are derived from the pulp of trees, conform to European compostability standards that require a material to, among other things, whittle down to less than 10 percent of its initial mass within six months, becoming visually indistinguishable from any surrounding organic matter. Tencel fibers disintegrate within four months and are fully biodegradable in marine conditions as certified by Vincotte, a Belgian inspection and certification group.

As a rule of thumb, natural fibers are readily biodegradable; synthetics derived from petroleum are not. The extent to which a jean biodegrades depends on its proportion of materials like polyester, nylon and elastane, the last of which puts the stretch in stretch denim and gives it a softer, more flexible feel. Little wonder then that today’s denim wearers, accustomed to both the freedom of motion and lower costs synthetics confer, are now loath to surrender them.

“More recently, we have seen an increase in the use of synthetic fiber in denim, and this significantly retards biodegradation,” said Jesse Daystar, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Cotton Inc., the trade association for American cotton growers and importers. The proportion of jeans incorporating stretch fibers, he noted, rose from 44.7 percent in 2011 to 78.6 percent in 2018, and those containing some degree of polyester more than doubled from 18 percent in 2011 to 46.3 percent in 2018.

A biodegradable cocktail

But it isn’t just the composition of the denim itself that can slow its dissolution. Trims, threads and hardware can also interfere with a garment’s slouch toward oblivion. “In designing for biodegradability, you have to consider the biodegradation rates of all the components,” Daystar added.

This is an issue that Italy’s Candiani is pondering right now. The denim mill already produces a biodegradable textile comprising 100 percent cotton and residual-free dyes and finishes. Compostable denim, especially compostable stretch denim, on the other hand, is another challenge altogether, albeit one Alberto Candiani, the firm’s global manager, says it’s “very close” to cracking.

“We are working with several different biopolymers and biosynthetic fibers to make this happen, with the support of universities and local mad scientists,” Candiani said. The mill plans to take an all-encompassing approach that not only employs the least amount of water, energy and chemicals but also makes certain any generated waste can also be composted for use as, say, fertilizer for agriculture.

While biodegradable clothing might promise to relieve consumers of the guilt of contributing to already-overburdened landfills, the reality is not so simple.

“A number of factors, including light, water, oxygen and temperature determine the rate at which this biodegradation of organic compounds occurs,” Giusy Bettoni, CEO of C.L.A.S.S., a Milan-based eco-textile consultancy, said. This is a cocktail only an industrial composting facility can typically provide, which is to say that compacted and oxygen-starved landfills offer less-than-optimal conditions for matter to break down.

Still, the concept isn’t one consumers intuitively grasp.

After C&A rolled out its compostable T-shirt in 2017, it had to explain to customers that it didn’t want them to literally bin their clothing.

For C&A, “compostable” serves as shorthand for saying all of the shirt’s components, from its dyes to the threads, can be safely cycled as biological nutrients without polluting the environment. That doesn’t mean dumping it should be a person’s first impulse.

“You want to use the garment until you can’t use it anymore,” said Charline Ducas, unit leader of global circular economy at the retailer, which has headquarters in Belgium and Germany.

“Then at the very end of the product’s use, if you can’t do anything more with the product or it lands up somewhere where there are no recycling facilities, you can compost rather than throwing it in your waste bin,” Ducas said.

Selling biodegradability

When C&A began developing what it dubbed the “world’s most sustainable jean” a year later, it chose to focus not on biodegradability or compostability but on Cradle to Cradle principles, which Jeffrey Hogue, the company’s chief sustainability officer, describes as a more holistic and scientifically supported approach to designing low-impact products.

The jean consists of organic cotton denim, nontoxic dyes, cotton interlinings, cotton thread and a biocompatible elastane from Roica by Asahi Kasei that breaks down without discharging harmful substances.

Divested of its metal hardware, the garment could biodegrade, but C&A chooses not to promote it as such. Again, that isn’t the point.

“If somebody asked me today, ‘Hey are your garments biodegradable?’ I would tell them they’re Cradle to Cradle,” Hogue said. “Which means they’re produced with 100 percent organic cotton and 100 percent renewable energy; they’re produced with water stewardship and high levels of social fairness in mind; they’re designed for their next life, meaning they can be taken back and recycled; and all of the materials that have been used are nontoxic.”

That’s a better story, he affirmed, than “my jeans disappeared in my compost pile.”

From an economic perspective, biodegradability might not even make sense. Certainly, you can’t sell something that isn’t there. “Garment-sorting facilities look for two main things: they’re looking for products to resell because you can get the highest amount of money for them, or they’re looking to recycle. For them, there’s no value in biodegrading something,” said Annie Gullingsrud, a circular-fashion consultant and the author of “Fashion Fibers: Designing for Sustainability.”

Municipalities don’t know how to handle textiles yet, either. Composting facilities can’t differentiate between a biodegradable garment versus a non-biodegradable one, so if an item of clothing happens to wind up in the mix, it’ll be picked out as a contaminant and disposed of as garbage.

Source Denim, a Los Angeles-made line of 100 percent cotton biodegradable men’s jeans, encourages its customers to send back their denim, whether it’s for free repairs or so the brand can recycle unwearable pieces.

The company has found that designing for biodegradability provided benefits that have spilled into other areas as well: By optimizing its materials, Source Denim was able to reduce its water use by 60 percent, chemical use by 50 percent and carbon emissions by 40 percent compared with conventional denim.

But make no mistake, the company produces its jeans to go the distance, at least during use. Biodegradable doesn’t mean disposable, or anti-heirloom.

“We’ve built the jeans to be durable, so it’s not like they’re going to melt away in the rain within a month or anything like that,” Soo-Rae Hong, the founder of Source Denim, said.

For Hong, thinking about biodegradability means looking at end-of-life management through a more critical lens. Will a garment linger in a landfill for the next thousand years, and if so, why? What can be done about it?

“If it’s because we’re putting in synthetics, then by reducing them we’re also cleaning up the supply chain,” she said. “We just prioritize that nothing, in terms of the materials we’ve put in those jeans, is going to outlast humanity.”