STRETCHING THE TRUTH

Greenwashing is rife in our industry but it's not always as glaringly obvious as you'd think. Let's dive into "degradable" stretch and what it's got to do with greenwashing.

Image by Cydney Cosette

13.11.2021

Stretching the Truth - Greenwashing + Degradable Stretch
Courtney Holm


Greenwashing is rife in the fashion industry. We know this. That is, many in the fashion world like to make bold (and subtle) marketing claims about their sustainability and ethics in order to appeal to the consumer's conscience to sell more stuff. While some would like to think this may be accidental or ignorantly done, I am a more cynical being.

I want to talk about so-called degradable stretch fibres. You might think that's very specific, but I believe it can highlight more nuanced examples of greenwashing that exist right now. Because greenwashing isn't just an outrageous claim from a fast fashion brand, it also shows up in many other, sometimes sneaky, ways. Most of us wouldn’t even notice it.

Back in 2018, I came across a development in elastane yarns. Now, I'm willing to bet you have a lot of elastane (aka spandex, lycra) in your closet, because it’s just that prevalent. Elastane is a petroleum based yarn with a molecular structure of overlapping bonds that can be broken and unbroken many times to allow for the expansion and retraction (stretch) of the yarn. So when woven or knitted with another yarn like cotton or polyester (it typically ranges from 1-15% of the material composition), it allows the entire material to be stretchy. Jeans, activewear, swimwear, standard t-shirts, sweatshirts, suits, socks and more contain elastane. It's a really useful yarn because it just makes fitted clothes, well, fit better. However, elastane is a type of plastic that sheds micro plastics, like any other, and cannot be recycled nor degraded safely or biologically. In fact, elastane is the worst thing for a textile recycler to contend with. It's good for the garment lifespan only (while the bonds are able to break and un-break). Beyond that, there’s no end of life purpose other than landfill, where it’ll release greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over hundreds of years, or end up as pollution/ litter on land or sea.

The development I came across was from Japanese chemical innovation company, Asahi Kasei, and what I learned excited me. They claimed to have developed a degradable elastane yarn called ROICA V550. It was certified Gold for material health by Cradle to Cradle and verified as environmentally compatible by Hohenstein Institute. This. Was. Huge. Imagine if we, at A.BCH, a circular fashion label who to that point had been unable to work with any plastic based stretch materials, could knit fabrics with a percentage of the fibre that could one day be composted entirely? It felt too good to be true.

There were no swatches available, we would have to pioneer this into a brand new fabric. So we reached out to our local knitter and worked with Lenzing Lyocell fibres to create one of the world's first fabrics using the degradable yarn. We even made a documentary during the process, filming each step as we worked to get the final result we wanted with our knitter. Even the knitting mill owner was brimming with ideas; could he potentially stop using conventional plastic based fibres all together in favour of this new degradable one? We had a few production hiccups with the quality but overall we felt it had a lot of promise if we could keep testing it. We had a name, Bio-Stretch, and we had a collection of pieces ready to go, cute, close-to-body layering pieces to be made in skin-tones like chocolate brown and undyed. We sampled body suits, tops and shorts that could be worn, loved and decomposed when the time came. We even talked about them and showcased a few of them at our Future Classic runway in early 2020.

We decided to reach out to the manufacturer again to get a bit more clarity around the science behind the material. How long would it take to break down? What conditions did it require? We wanted to be sure we could tell our customers how to dispose of these, eventually, as that was crucial in using a plastic based material, degradable or not. We also needed to know if it still shed micro-plastics like other synthetic materials and what would be the implication on sea life, if ingested?

The company came back to us with the hard truth, that the testing was still inconclusive. While 25% of the yarn had degraded in two years and they assumed it would eventually degrade entirely, they did not yet know how long it would take or the condition requirements. They also were very clear to inform us that the yarn was not and could not be labelled as biodegradable. They could only claim that is was degradable, though to what extent of time that might take and how it was to be achieved, was still unknown. This is not a witch hunt on Asahi Kasei, quite the opposite. I respect how transparent they were with us when we asked the right questions.

However, this was a big issue for us at A.BCH and for our knitting mill. How could we possibly make and sell something that the results were inconclusive on? How could we claim to be circular if we didn't have the scientific evidence or customer instructions on how to circulate the materials back into the earth? We couldn't. So the project was paused indefinitely, until more information was available. Asahi Kasei thought in six months the tests might be complete, but nearly three years have passed and each time I check in with them, we're told the tests are still inconclusive and ongoing. 

A few weeks ago I noticed a curious claim. A brand, not to be named, was marketing their new "circular" jeans. They called them (Bio) Degradable Denim and made some vague claims in an arty video around the jeans being sustainable and circular. It piqued my interest as I could see metal buttons plain as day on the jeans, and to my knowledge, they were stitched with industry standard polyester threads and goodness knows what else in the trims, rivets, zip etc. I took a further look and noticed this brand was using the very yarn we had begun experimenting with in 2019. There was some crafty labelling going on, titling 100% cotton jeans "biodegradable" and the jeans with degradable elastane "degradable". But all sat under the same collection of (Bio) Degradable Denim. I don't know if this was just the legally acceptable way to get around flat-out calling the collection biodegradable, but this was, to say the least, very confusing. And if I was confused, how should a customer, who's less familiar with the ins-and-outs of this fibre than we are, know any different? This is part of the reason I'm writing this post.

The thing is, I know this brand is trying to be more sustainable and I'm not out to get them. I can tell they're trying. However, the issue I have is in the claims. It's just not totally honest. Actually, it's downright misleading. If you’re going to use biodegradability, an end of life descriptor, as a marketing claim (ahem, to sell the product's great features and benefits), then you better be able to see that through with the customer. And as Asahi Kasei have emphasised, this cannot be done yet. Besides, why is labelling something as biodegradable such a badge of honour these days? Just because something can degrade, doesn't mean it should be; clothes aren't automatically nutritious to the soil, they certainly won't break down in landfill, and if you started burying all your clothes you'd have a real problem amounting in your backyard. There are also optimal conditions for degradation so as not to release more GHG in the process. Maybe one day the scientific testing of this yarn will be finalised and we'll have the answers to these questions. And maybe that's the day we'll pick up the yarn once again. Fundamentally, we need to know:

1. Does it shed micro-plastics? We think so.
2. What is the implication on sea-life if ingested? We don't know.
3. Does it fully and neutrally degrade? We think so.
4. If so, under what conditions? We don't know.
5. If so, how long does it take? We don't know

Until the day we DO know, be very wary of any brand calling their products, elasticated or otherwise, biodegradable. Be wary of them calling it degradable too, because without clear instructions on how that is to happen, it's STILL going to end up in landfill where not even the most natural of fibres can biodegrade safely. Also, while some fabrics could very well be biodegradable, it also depends on the dyes and finishes used. It's also doubtful that the whole garment will biodegrade (as evident in this jeans degradation experiment), especially when polyester (plastic) threads have been the industry go-to for stitching since the 60s. It's also very important that we know exactly how these things should be degraded or composted effectively and safely.

Every brand wants to be seen to be doing more to be sustainable, and many are willing to skip ahead before understanding the long term implications of shiny new textile innovations. We've seen this with the rise of, and ever growing demand for, recycled PET from the fashion sector (not necessarily a good thing, by the way). We see it with holy-grail-esque textile recycling claims to solve over production. We're seeing it with (bio) degradable jeans - which terminology fails to accurately disclaim anything of meaning to the customer. Sometimes the most circular or sustainable choice is an ancient practice that's been around for centuries and been enhanced by modern technology. Like organic farming, regenerative practises, equipment that uses less water or energy and renewable energy powered facilities. Instead of running after the next buzzy thing, any maker of goods should be researching, doing due diligence, systems thinking and slowing down to the pace it takes for scientific evaluation. 

On a side note, I did reach out to Cradle to Cradle several years back to enquire about the Gold certification for the fibre and how that related to its degradability. They responded quickly. I learned that the Cradle to Cradle certification for 'Material Health 'does not certify degradability at all. So the C2C certification is not useful in understanding this particular aspect of the product. 

Do you wanna get into the weeds of greenwashing? Please email me. Or check out this panel I was on for Melbourne Fashion Week discussing the very topic of the hour. A pre-warning, this panel was very brand centric and unfortunately lacked a balanced view from other non-brand parties, but nonetheless, I tried to speak candidly.

Looking to learn more on biodegradability? This blog post might help

Just here for the clothes? Check out our full (biodegradable) range here.

Courtney