Why Composting Your Old Clothes Should Be Fashion's Next Hot Trend

by Lydia Baird

Even if you don’t have a ticket to Paris Fashion Week, you’ll soon have unprecedented access to the styles that have appeared on catwalks around the world.

Fringe from the 1970s and culottes are in, and they can be in your closet for a fraction of the price.

It’s a part of “fast fashion,” which has made chic, affordable items available to the masses at break-neck speeds.

The problem? These garments neither last long on stores’ shelves, nor in shoppers’ closets. Just as quickly as sketchbook designs come to life, they find their ways to landfills, where they threaten the soil and water around them.

The EPA reported that in 2012, the US generated an estimated 14.3 million tons of textiles, only an estimated 2.3 million tons of which were recovered, though not reused.

We can blame fast fashion for the disturbing rise in waste, but even reducing or donating our purchases have imperfect endgames.

True eco-friendly fashion requires a “radical” solution. Something like, say, composting your unwanted clothes.

But, here’s the crazy thing: Biodegrading your garments is a great idea.

Willa Tsokanis, my classmate at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), and I are developing a plan to do just that through the Clinton Global Initiative University, which convened Millennials from around the world in Miami this week to address major 21st century challenges, including the degradation of the environment.

With widespread leaks reported among landfill facilities and soil erosion threatening our ability to feed the growing population, the time is now for fashion to make composting more accessible than couture.

Composting your clothes: not nearly as crazy as it sounds

Recently, we have seen a revolution in how people purchase, consume and dispose of food. Consumers now demand organic, pesticide-free products. We want spinach grown in sustainable environments. We want chickens raised in humane conditions.

But, we, as a society, have failed to carry out this environmental efficacy from our pantries into our closets.

While certain items may be recycled during spring cleaning, our discarded garments often end up as waste, even when we think we’re making sustainable choices.

Sure, they may get handed down to younger siblings or donated to that thrift shop down the street, but eventually, there will be no place left for that once-iconic sweater to go, except in the trash.

Composting biodegradable garments makes a great deal of sense when you examine the ingredients of our everyday outfits.

People often overlook the fact that before they were manufactured, natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, were organic matter.

Like an apple that falls from a tree, cotton clothes can be composted into nutrient-rich, organic fertilizers to improve farming conditions and reduce soil erosion.

You may be asking about the rest of the clothes in your closet like polyester and nylon. Unfortunately, these fibers are synthetic and come from non-living sources, so they will not biodegrade.

Polyester, for example, comes from fossil fuels, of all things. It’s more likely to float in the growing Pacific Ocean garbage patch than in your next garden.

Fashion's next green step

As both a designer and consumer of textiles, I'm concerned by the lack of transparency in the fashion supply chain. For one, fashion’s current “organic” labels indicate how a textile was farmed, but not how it was treated in production.

Most cotton garments, even organic ones, go through at least six chemical alterations before they become a garment. This, sometimes, involves hydrochloric acid, caustic soda and chlorine.

The state and labeling system of what’s currently considered to be eco-friendly fashion leaves important questions unanswered: What chemicals were used in the construction of my shirt? What type of dye was used to color it? And, where will all of these components go when the garment is no longer of use?

It’s a long road from cotton field to closet, and without sufficient labels, I have to trust others are making the responsible decisions for me.

As a part of our CGIU commitment, Willa and I will test the compost from a variety of fibers, dyes and finishes to discover which treatments leave non-biodegradable toxic residue.

We want to eventually help fashion meet the same level of accountability as agriculture by developing a labeling system to certify textiles as toxic-free compostables.

Designers who choose to process their products naturally will be rewarded with an added-value label, and consumers can then use their dollars to make educated steps toward true eco-friendly change.

Because in the end, if it's not safe for the soil, do you really want it on your skin?

Why cotton muslin deserves a closer look

The fashion industry faces a daunting challenge to make all garments in a way that allows them to be discarded sustainably, but Willa and I see an immediate solution in cotton muslin.

Cotton muslin is a unique textile that is not bleached, dyed or heavily treated. Fashion designers, textile companies and FIT design students use it to make sample garments on a daily basis.

We estimate that each FIT fashion student goes through 60 yards of this popular textile per semester.

We can only imagine how much cotton muslin waste we create worldwide.

Through CGIU, Willa and I are developing the first cotton muslin compost system at FIT, one of the top fashion schools in the country.

Beginning this spring, we will collect muslin waste from classrooms, compost it and then spread the finished soil on the rooftop gardens of FIT. We will create a replicable model and present it to other fashion schools and design companies around the country.

We hope to show tomorrow’s design leaders the seed on the cotton field that became a dress can have another life after its use.

Instead of going from an outfit to the landfill, unwanted cotton can grow another plant, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the quality of the soil.

Designers, farmers and consumers need to see how their individual choices affect supply chain and the planet, and we’re starting the movement at FIT.

Fashion-Week-inspired items may seem fast and expendable, but they came from the Earth. Let’s make every effort to safely return them there.