The list of misleading environmental and sustainable descriptors used to market shirts, dresses, pants and T-shirts is unfortunately very long. Last week, experts decoded terms such as carbon neutral, circular, organic, regenerative, sustainable and zero waste.
For the next instalment of our fashion greenwashing glossary, we examine some of the more technical terms used by the industry and what they actually mean in practice.
The term “biodegradable” is often used to suggest a product will disintegrate into smaller pieces at the end of its life instead of clogging up landfills. While there have been some innovations around biodegradable synthetic fibres, generally speaking materials like polyester and nylon will take hundreds of years to break down. Meanwhile natural fibres such as cotton, linen, silk and hemp should decompose much faster, but the reality is not quite so simple.
“While natural fibres in their raw unprocessed state will biodegrade, once they’ve been dyed and treated, blended with other fibres and manufactured into finished goods, that’s most often no longer the case,” the senior director of sustainability at Moose Knuckles, Tara St James, says.
Additionally, natural fibres require certain conditions to biodegrade that might not exist in every landfill. According to the European sustainability editor for British Vogue, Dana Thomas, who also hosts The Green Dream podcast, “sometimes super high temperatures or moisture are needed to make something biodegrade”. And depending on what the fibres have been treated or dyed with, they might leave behind a toxic residue.
Although there are tests that show how quickly natural fibres will break down when buried in the soil, Thomas says the term “biodegradable” is used too liberally.
“For the moment, there are no requirements (except in France) on how long an item will take to disintegrate in order to label it biodegradable,” says Thomas.
A better term to look out for is “compostable”, which is a much higher bar. When something can be composted it leaves behind nutrient-rich organic material that is good for the soil. “If it’s not made of 100% organic matter and hasn’t been certified by the Compostable Manufacturers Alliance or the Biodegradable Products Institute, it’s not compostable. And that’s that,” says Thomas. In good news, there is an Australian standard for compostable textiles in the works.
This term is particularly confusing because it is used to describe two different things. Sometimes “bioplastics” describes plastics made with bio-based materials like corn starch and sugarcane (as opposed to fossil fuels). Sometimes it is also used to describe biodegradable plastics. But not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable and not all biodegradable plastics are bio-based.
The founder of Sustainabelle Advisory Services, Christine Goulay, says the vague way the term is applied causes several problems. “Some products marketed as ‘bioplastics’ might only contain a partial or even small percentage of renewable inputs while the rest are still fossil fuel based,” she says. “So consumers mistakenly think that they are getting a non-plastic plastic, but they are actually not.”
Another issue is that since renewable inputs do not equate to biodegradability, “that bioplastic could still be on your beach for thousands of years”.
St James says these descriptions give consumers false hope that “they can throw the product in the trash and it will decompose” or that it is recyclable like PET, “which again isn’t always the case”. To make matters worse, “adding bioplastics to a recycling bin can taint the recycling stream”.
Like bioplastic, there are two ways “closed loop” is used in fashion. One refers to how chemicals are managed during manufacturing. The other refers to a circular system where garments and other materials are designed so they can be worn, repaired and recycled in a loop.
When the term “closed loop” is used in relation to chemicals, “it refers to processes within the supply chain, and more specifically to the processing of materials where the chemicals are reclaimed for use … mostly this applies to viscose,” says St James. So rather than harmful chemicals being disposed in waterways, they are captured and injected back into the manufacturing process.
Goulay says this narrow application of closed loop “kind of misses the point”. The shift to a circular or closed loop fashion industry needs a broader outlook that respects three core principles: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate materials and regenerate nature.
She says it’s important that products marketed as closed loop are the result of systems that respect all three of these principles, not just the second one.
The term “degrowth” has been circulating recently in the fashion industry. Says Goulay: “It is focused on the idea that global economic growth as it currently exists in terms of resource extraction and use is incompatible with sustainable development.”
Since it is being applied in a variety of contexts, it can be difficult to know what the word means in practice. Goulay says some brands use it “in a more limited way” to explain how they will continue to make more money without using more virgin resources. Or to describe other efforts that might be considered “responsible growth” like limiting overproduction.
“Degrowth is an important topic for society to debate at a global level,” she says. “[But] more work needs to be done to clarify how people and entities are using this term.”