I don’t wish to sound nosy, but what do you do with your old pants? I bet I know.
You likely do what 99 per cent of us do: you throw them in the bin. And what else would you do? Unlike other items in our wardrobes, pants do not have an afterlife. They make for terrible hand-me-downs and charity shops will by and large (quite rightly) turn them away.
But what if I told you you could bury your undies underground and they’d vanish within a few years, if not months?
No, really. There are a whole host of brilliant brands turning their attention to fashion’s pollution problem by making compostable clothing – and they’re especially focussed our single-life undies, which are some of the most polluting items in our wardrobes.
Currently, about 70 per cent of the clothing market (and over 95 per cent of the underwear market) is made from synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, all of which are made from non-renewable sources such as oil and natural gas. They can’t biodegrade, meaning they sit in landfill for hundreds of years releasing methane gas, toxins and micro plastics into the earth. Given 25 billion garments are sent to landfills or incinerated annually, that’s a whole lot of pollution.
“If the industry is to get a handle on this, it needs to increase the use of fibres that biodegrade, returning to nature like an apple core does,” says Philippa Grogan, Eco-Age’s Fashion & Textiles expert. “Something has to give. As low quality non-biodegradable fast fashion clothing flood the market, the world’s finite resources continue to dwindle, and harmful landfill sites continue to grow… the planet is choking! I hope there will come a time when consumers demand genuinely circular fibres that can either biodegrade or be recycled.”
For underwear, which can rarely be recycled, biodegradable fabrics are the only serious solution.
And there are few items as dastardly in our delicates drawer as hosiery. Traditionally crafted from the exact same polymer raw material as plastic bottles and bags, tights tend to be worn once or twice before they are laddered and lost to landfill. The sartorial equivalent of a plastic straw if you will.
“Very few people know the damaging impact that tights have on the planet”, says Billi London founder Sophie Billi-Hardwick. “I used to through away two pairs of tight every month.” Shocked to discover that globally eight billion tights are sold and discarded each year, she and Marie Bouhier founded the world’s first certified 100 per cent biodegradable tights brand in November 2020. Their tights, which start at £27 a pair, are made from innovative biodegradable yarns Amni Soul Eco® nylon and ROICA ™ V550 elastane. And while most hosiery takes 40 to 100 years to decompose, theirs will vanish (or more specifically break down into biomass and biogas) within just five. The brand held a pop-up in Covent Garden’s Seven Dials from September 2021- February 2022 where they also launched biodegradable knee-highs, ankle socks and leggings.
Other hosiery brands have also released compostable collections, among them London labels Woolford and Hēdoïne. “No item in your wardrobe represents throwaway fashion more than tights,” says Alex Tymann, co-founder and CEO of Hēdoïne, which launched a biodegradable tights collection (£30 for a pair) alongside its regular legwear in September 2021. Once in landfill, Hēdoïne’s eco-tights degrade to 85 per cent within five years. “This is just the beginning,” continues Tymann, “and we look forward to launching more game changing innovations within the next few years.”
Knickers are also getting a bury-ready overhaul at the hands of London label Stripe & Stare, launched by ex-buyers Katie Lopes and Nicola Piercy in 2017. Specialising in ultra-soft and comfy knickers (starting at £15 a pop) Stripe & Stare’s mainline is 95 per cent biodegradable and their new ‘B Edit’ of knickers, thongs, tops, bodies and slips is entirely biodegradable (and B Corp certified). In a world first the collection includes lace, which will disappear in the soil within 180 days.
“The issue had always been the [synthetic] elastane that gives the stretch, but new Japanese technology developments have meant there is now a biodegradable alternative,” says Lopes. “Finding all the right people in the world to bring this together was a massive challenge but so exciting.”
Stripe & Stare’s collections are made from 75 per cent Tencel, a brand of the fabric lyocell (Tencel is to lyocell what Hoover is to a vacuum), which is manufactured from the wood and cellulose of sustainably harvested Eucalyptus trees. Not only is Tencel more sustainable than organic cotton, bamboo and linen – “in fact everything,” says Lopes, but it’s also wonderfully soft. “People literally cannot believe it when they touch it. As it’s made from trees it breathes, so it regulates body temperature making it great for underwear and sleep.”
The Tencel brand, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, also provides cloth for brands like All Birds, DL1961, Megosa, Ninety Percent, Patagonia, Reformation, Triumph, TOMS and Mother of Pearl. “It’s biodegradable, versatile and super soft on the skin making it perfect for my collections,” says Mother of Pearl founder Amy Powney who has this month been appointed a Tencel ambassador alongside Jasmine Helmsley. “It is an eco fibre which has the ability to transform the textile and fashion industry for the better.”
Tencel might be working wonders with pants, but making biodegradable bras, which require hooks and sturdy straps, tends to be trickier. “The average woman owns nine bras. Assuming almost two million women on the planet wear them, that’s 18 million headed for landfill,” says Liverpudlian Bondi beach resident Stephanie Devine, who founded the B-Corp certified Very Good Bra company via Kickstarter in 2018. The brand is unique in making wire-free 100 per cent compostable bras in 27 sizes with matching undies – bras cost approx £50.
The products contain no spandex, no polyester and no nylon, and the brand has solved the straps issue using an “eye-wateringly expensive” but entirely compostable Austrian fabric made from a blend of natural tree rubber knitted into organic cotton – the only one of its kind. In 2019 the bra was placed in a commercial worm farm where it was eaten within eight weeks.
Just as no one wants to wear secondhand pants, few would wish to workout in an already-sweated-in gym kit, which makes activewear another holy grail for compostable clothing. Brand new activewear brand Otti launches today (Earth Day) with a ‘Seamless’ range that’s made from a biodegradable blend of breathable and quick-drying biodegradable polyamide yarn with merino (known for its antimicrobial effects, wicking abilities and temperature regulating properties) and biodegradable elastane. This is sports kit that, once buried, will return to dirt within five years.
Activewear brand Pressio, which launched in March 2021, has also this week debuted its first biodegradable collection of workout kit that, once in landfill, will vanish in 8-10 years. “We as a business don’t want to leave our waste for future generations,” says brand founder Jamie Hunt, whos working on a fibre which will breakdown in the soil within 12 months.
So rather than reaching for those fast fashion leggings or those plastic-derived panties, its worth considering an earth-friendly (literally) approach to the more disposable aspects of our wardrobes. Lets normalise planting your pants alongside your pansies -we’ll call it compost couture.