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Understanding Biodegradable Clothing

Fashion reflects culture, attitude, and creativity, but it comes with a significant waste problem. Picking up steam in the 1960s, synthetic, petroleum-based materials make up a large portion of our garments. These fabrics might keep costs down and offer some conveniences, but their production contaminates waterways and soil, and they take centuries to break down. In the process, fabrics like polyester, acrylic, nylon, polyurethane, and elastane release greenhouse gases and other harmful chemicals. Between these two points, washing and wearing synthetic fabrics contributes to our planet’s microplastics problem.

Biodegradable clothing is gaining visibility as an alternative to the traditional product lifestyle. Today, the majority of clothing will make its way to a landfill: In fact, the United States alone throws away 8.5 billion pounds of clothing, or about 40 million tons of garment waste. This comes from our own wardrobes – specifically pieces we wear once or twice – as well as retail practices like trashing or burning unsold merchandise. Rather than have these fabrics and treatments remain in a landfill, biodegradable clothing presents a solution: Fabrics, plus treatments, break down in a year’s or less time in the earth, a landfill, or compost environment without releasing toxic chemicals.

- HyperNatural
- HyperNatural

What is Biodegradable Clothing? 

“We have an unsustainable clothing waste problem on our hands, made worse by a massive growth in polyester materials, and non-biodegradable synthetics derived from petroleum,” explains Chris Kolbe, co-founder of HyperNatural, a biodegradable menswear clothing brand utilizing regenerated Supima cotton and crab shells and jade for performance treatments. “We need more biodegradable options; we simply cannot continue as an industry.” 

In the present, a report from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) points to the global fashion industry as a source of close to 10 percent of carbon emissions, as well as about 100 million tons of wastewater. This impact comes from three general sources. One, how fabrics are produced: This includes petroleum-based materials, as well as the large amount of water needed to grow cotton, land cleared for producing leather, and the treatments added to make clothing perform a certain way, be it keeping wearers cool or resisting stains. 

Second is the pace at which we consume. While slow fashion, secondhand, and upcycled items are presented as alternatives, these trends get overshadowed and offset by the rate at which retailers introduce new styles. Especially with artificial intelligence-fueled research, retailers now launch several thousands of new styles per month. 

Third, most items – whether direct or after passing through multiple wearers – will eventually end up in a landfill. Despite North American and European efforts to emphasize clothing recycling, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that textiles make up nine percent of solid waste in the U.S. Currently, less than one percent of clothing gets recycled, and as more recent investigations have shown, the clothing you hand or send in may end up as waste in the Chilean desert or coast of Africa.

- David Gandy Wellwear
- David Gandy Wellwear

Biodegradable clothing attempts to introduce a terminal system. Rather than an endless circular economy or a system producing waste through a landfill and greenhouse gases, the composition of biodegradable clothing is intended to decompose without releasing environmentally damaging chemicals that pollute our world’s ecosystems and jeopardize human health. 

To be truly biodegradable, the materials and treatments making up clothing, shoes, or accessories need to break down and decompose via bacteria, fungi, and algae. Temperature, light, and humidity may affect the timeline, but ideally, the item breaks down completely within a year or less. This encompasses not just the fabric but also fasteners, threads, labels, dyes, and treatments without releasing toxic substances that contribute to our carbon emissions problem. 

As a subset, compostable clothing is intended to not only break down in just a few months’ time but to also improve soil quality, either by providing nutrients or acting as a bio-based pesticide. In the present, compostable clothing, just like plastics with similar claims, can either be placed in a home or industrial compost facility to degrade.

- Foret
- Foret

Yet, as some brands jump on the bandwagon, biodegradable clothing remains in its infancy, with multiple hurdles to address to become truly widespread: 

Dyes: Today, you’ll spot natural fibers dyed with petroleum-derived substances. In turn, this process affects how fully natural fabrics decompose and causes the dyes to leach into the environment. 

Blended fabrics: 100-percent cotton can feel stiff and heavy. In turn, blended fabrics offering stretch and flexibility took off in the ‘90s and make up the majority of garments. Consumers take these properties for granted, be it for how trousers or a shirt fits and moves with the body or how quickly something can be ironed. Getting consumers on board with this trend means replicating these attributes with materials and components that decompose without releasing greenhouse gases. 

Treatments and finishes: From water-resistant, waterproof, or stain-resistant properties to wrinkle resistance to fire protection, fabrics in the present go through a number of treatments based upon their purpose and predicted level of performance and longevity. However, these treatments are nearly all chemical based and end up releasing PFAS into the environment through washing and wear. 

Construction: Fabric is frequently the focal point of discussions surrounding biodegradable clothing. Yet, garments require threads to be held together, have zippers, snaps, and buttons, and often include a tag or two. Thinking about footwear, synthetics make up the entire sole unit. Biodegradability needs to factor in these elements to truly eliminate waste. 

Product lifecycle: Even with biodegradability entering the picture, the consumption model of the future ideally involves having a garment pass through multiple wearers, get repurposed, and eventually discarded when no longer usable. At this stage, the fabric and all other components can be buried, composted, or sent to a landfill to break down within a few months to a year.

- Kestin
- Kestin

As one of the biodegradable clothing brands catering toward the menswear market, HyperNatural has attempted to address these points, first through recycled and reclaimed cotton rather than virgin sources and by developing fabric treatments through non-synthetic substances. “We started by understanding what men really expect in a modern luxury shirt and what issues we can solve for them,” Kolbe explains about their process. “We landed on soft smooth comfort, cooling, and staying fresh. We then asked, how can we make it more sustainable? We avoided anything made from petroleum or would be non-biodegradable.” 

Specifically, this includes jade stone from mining waste and crab shells from food waste, which get ground down into a powder before being blended with cotton yarns. Following, these yarns are spun with Supima cotton and recycled Creora spandex to create a luxurious-feeling fabric that breaks down more easily when no longer usable. 

Types of Biodegradable Materials 

The push for biodegradability has meant a return to natural fabrics not blended with polyester or elastane: 


At this moment, cotton is the most abundant. Yet, in terms of thinking about the full picture of sustainability, conventional cotton requires 10,000 of water to produce a single kilogram. Growing, meanwhile, involves applying pesticides and ends up altering the soil’s long-term viability and a region’s biodiversity. Then, synthetic dyes can affect how cotton breaks down, releasing greenhouse gases in the process. 

Organic is a somewhat less-damaging process that’s free of pesticides and herbicides. Yet, water consumption is still an issue, as are how fabric may be dyed and treated.

- Oliver Spencer
- Oliver Spencer


On its own, linen offers sustainability on two fronts: Fully linen fabric is sourced from flax plants and breaks down within six months. We associate linen with breathability, and compared to other standard suit materials like cotton and wool, it leaves an overall smaller carbon footprint. 


Hemp has started receiving a fair degree of attention as a sustainable material for clothing and paper production. Growing requires less land and water and better maintains the soil environment, including improving aeration, controlling carbon dioxide, and lessening erosion. 

For garments, hemp-based fabrics are more durable and insulating than cotton and antibacterial on their own. In terms of biodegradability, hemp starts to soften with time and, in the appropriate environment, will break down within weeks to about four months. 


If you’ve ever purchased a rug, you might have encountered jute, either for a durable floor covering on its own or as a supportive pad to be placed below. Similar to hemp, jute is durable and is less damaging to the earth than cotton, not needing pesticides to produce a crop. Like linen, it provides a degree of breathability and moisture resistance while featuring more hard-wearing construction. In terms of biodegradability, jute can break down in the earth or in a compost environment.

- Percival
- Percival


Bamboo has a few points in its favour: It grows quickly, requires no pesticides, helps maintain the soil, and can break down in its natural form. However, for clothing, processes for producing fabric vary. Cellulose from the bamboo may be spun into rayon – a waste-generating, less eco-friendly process requiring hydroxide and carbon disulfide. Or, enzymes can help break down its thicker components into a linen- or flax-like material that’s more eco-friendly. 


Using bamboo, wood, or another source of cellulose, Lyocell is a semi-synthetic material that can partially biodegrade within six weeks, based on how the fabric is treated. However, realize that, similar to cotton, the production process isn’t the most sustainable: Water is needed to grow the source, while energy and chemicals used for producing rayon help break the cellulose down, spin it into yarn, and treat the fabric for a softer hand-feel. 


Algae is gradually being considered for apparel making in two regards: Producing fabrics and offering a more natural dye alternative. In terms of fabrics, materials like Algalife, as well as a fabric developed by the Fashion Institute of Technology, are grown in a controlled, farm-like, pesticide-free environment with minimal water, before the resulting product is ground into a powder. This produces an alginate similar to certain wound dressings that is then dyed or woven into fibers that can be turned into a fabric. As a benefit, the resulting material biodegrades without releasing any chemicals and provides fire-resistant performance during wear.

- Howlin'
- Howlin'

Food Sources 

We’ve already been introduced to a few of these through vegan leather. Partially to fully biodegradable sources include: 

- Silk-like fabrics made from citrus fruit peels. 

- Knit and jersey-like fabrics made from soybean hulls that offers an alternative to cashmere and acrylic. 

- Mylo, a leather alternative made from mycelium. 

- Bioplastics, which are made from corn, sugar, wheat, seaweed, rice, vegetable oil, or potato sources. Keep in mind that biodegradability of bioplastics varies and frequently requires an industrial compost environment. 

- Apple and pineapple leathers both start with biodegradable sources – apple skins and pineapple leaves, respectively – but, due to processing and polymers used, don’t biodegrade on their own. Instead, a controlled environment and shredding are needed to break it down into biodegradable components. 

- Cactus leather is considered a partially biodegradable material made of fibers from cactus plants combined with polyurethane. 

Other Sources 

Along with all listed above, the following materials offer a degree of biodegradability: 

- Uncoated vegetable-tanned leather will biodegrade with time. 

- Acetate, a cellulose-based material, by itself will eventually start to break down. 

- Wool with minimal treatments and dyes will start to break down after a year in the earth or a compost environment.

Ivan Yaskey

Philadelphia’s streetwear scenes and working as a copywriter for a Boston-based menswear brand sparked Ivan's passion for fashion and style more than a decade ago.

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