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Unfortunately, the list of misleading environmental and sustainable descriptors used to market shirts, dresses, trousers and T-shirts is very long. Last week, experts deciphered terms like carbon neutral, circular, organic, regenerative, sustainable and zero waste.
For the next installment of our fashion greenwashing glossary, let’s look at some of the more technical terms used by the industry and what they actually mean in practice.
Related: Fashion greenwashing glossary: what do ‘circular’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘zero waste’ really mean?
The term “biodegradable” is often used to suggest that a product will disintegrate into smaller pieces at the end of its life instead of clogging landfills. While there have been some innovations regarding biodegradable synthetic fibers, in general materials like polyester and nylon will take hundreds of years to break down. Meanwhile natural fibers like cotton, linen, silk and hemp are supposed to decompose much faster, but the reality is not that simple.
“While natural fibers in their raw, unprocessed state biodegrade, once they’ve been dyed and treated, blended with other fibers and made into finished products, very often that’s not the case anymore,” Moose Knuckles senior director of sustainability, Tara St. James, she says.
Additionally, natural fibers require certain conditions to biodegrade that may not exist in every landfill. According to European Sustainability Editor for British Vogue, Dana Thomas, who also hosts The Green Dream podcast, “sometimes it takes very high temperatures or humidity to make something biodegradable.” And depending on what the fibers have been treated or dyed with, they could leave behind a toxic residue.
While there are tests showing how quickly natural fibers will decompose if buried in soil, Thomas says the term “biodegradable” is used too loosely.
Related: Bras fit for burial: Australia to set world standard for tissue composting
“For the moment, there are no requirements (except in France) on how long it will take for an item to disintegrate before it can be labeled biodegradable,” says Thomas.
A better term to watch out for is “compostable,” which is a much higher bar. When something is composted, it leaves behind nutrient-rich organic material that is good for the soil. “If it is not made of 100% organic matter and has not been certified by the Compostable Manufacturers Alliance or the Biodegradable Products Institute, it is not compostable. And that’s it,” says Thomas. In the good news, an Australian standard for compostable textiles is in the works.
This term is especially confusing because it’s used to describe two different things. Sometimes “bioplastic” describes plastics made from bio-based materials such as corn starch and sugar cane (as opposed to fossil fuels). It is also sometimes used to describe biodegradable plastic. But not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable and not all bio-based plastics are bio-based.
Related: Plant or plastic? How to reverse engineer vegan leather alternatives
Sustainabelle Advisory Services founder Christine Goulay says the vague way the term is applied causes several problems. “Some products marketed as ‘bioplastics’ may contain only a partial or even a small percentage of renewable inputs, while the rest is still based on fossil fuels,” she says. “So consumers mistakenly think they’re getting a non-plastic plastic, but they’re actually not.”
Another problem is that since renewable inputs don’t equate to biodegradability, “that bioplastic could still be sitting on your beach for thousands of years.”
St James says these descriptions give consumers the false hope that “they can throw the product in the bin and it will decompose” or that it is as recyclable as PET, “which again is not always the case”. To make matters worse, “adding bioplastics to a recycling bin can contaminate the recycling stream.”
Closed ring/circular ring
Like bioplastics, there are two ways ‘closed loop’ is being used in fashion. One relates to how chemicals are handled during manufacturing. The other refers to a circular system in which clothing and other materials are designed so that they can be worn, repaired and recycled in one cycle.
When the term “closed loop” is used in relation to chemicals, it “refers to processes within the supply chain and, more specifically, materials processing where chemicals are recovered for use… this mainly applies to viscose,” says St James. So instead of being discharged into waterways, harmful chemicals are captured and fed back into the manufacturing process.
Goulay says this narrow closed-loop application “misses the point.” The transition to a circular or closed-loop fashion industry requires a broader perspective that respects three fundamental principles: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating materials and regenerating nature.
He says it’s important that products marketed as closed loops are the result of systems that adhere to all three of these principles, not just the second one.
Related: How to ditch fast fashion: “Sometimes we don’t need retail therapy, we need real therapy”
The term “degrowth” has been circulating in the fashion industry recently. Says Goulay: “It focuses on the idea that global economic growth as it currently exists in terms of resource extraction and use is incompatible with sustainable development.”
Because it is 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’ll continue to make more money without using more virgin assets. Or to describe other efforts that might be considered “responsible growth” such as curbing overproduction.
“Degrowth is an important topic for society to discuss globally,” he says. But “more work needs to be done to clarify how people and entities use this term.”