Ethical clothing brands are beginning to embrace fabrics like hemp that return to the earth after their service life is over.
Everywhere I’ve lived where gardening was a possibility, a compost heap or two figured large in my plans. I’ve also kept red worms for decades now, and they too have played a role in fostering my deep appreciation for the constant process of decay and regeneration gardening teaches. I love observing our household garbage along with garden debris imperceptibly transforming into rich, wonderful-smelling humus, transformed by the microorganisms in the compost heap. The red worms enrich the humus with their castings—nutrient-dense “worm poop” that will feed this year’s vegetables and flowers, and indirectly, us.
So when it comes to running an ethical clothing business, I think it’s important to disclose what is and isn’t biodegradable in Sympatico clothes.
Rose Gerstner is the founder of Sympatico Clothing. Her line of simply elegant womens hemp clothing is both chic and sustainable. Sign up for her weekly newsletters about earth-friendly fashions at the bottom of this page.
Is Sympatico clothing biodegradable?
First and foremost, Sympatico hemp/Tencel blended fabrics are completely biodegradable, as is the organic cotton thread used to sew them. Sympatico’s dyes are low impact, and are for the most part, non-toxic. Interfacings on garments made from Mid Weight fabric are made of lightweight biodegradable cotton. Light Weight Sympatico styles use self-interfacing, that is, the facings are made from the same fabric as the outer garment. The natural-source buttons I use are also biodegradable. More challenging are labels as well as elastic. Neither are biodegradable and I have not so far found biodegradable alternatives. But if you plan to compost your Sympatico wear after it's reached the end of the road, snipping off the label and waistband is a simple matter.
Not all natural fabrics biodegrade well
It's no secret that the the fashion and textile industries are big-time polluters. What may be less obvious is that many fabrics considered natural come with their own environmental liabilities: liabilities that severely limit what may be biodegradable. Fabrics that are usually considered biodegradable include silk, cotton, bamboo, ramie, wool, linen, alpaca, Tencel, hemp, cashmere, flax, and linen. But there’s a big caveat. When untreated, certified organic, and not blended with other fibers, these textiles can biodegrade without leaving any harmful chemicals. But the reality is that many of these textiles are in fact processed using dyes, finishes or techniques that are harmful to our planet and that preclude their being composted.
Bamboo is a perfect example. Marketed as a natural fiber, what consumers aren’t informed about are the toxic chemicals used to reduce the bamboo's cellulose to a rayon material. Unlike Tencel manufacturing in which toxics are captured and treated before being released to the environment, bamboo fabric production can be a dirty business. Similarly, synthetic dyes, chemical treatments and finishes, as well as blended fabrics that contain petrochemicals disqualify otherwise natural-fiber fashions from being biodegradable.
The good news is that ethical clothing companies focused on actual sustainability are entering the marketplace with fashions designed for the long run. Like Sympatico, they’re concerned with the entire life cycle of the garments they make, and even the afterlives of those creations.