In times when almost every brand and manufacturer claims to offer products that are nor harmful for the environment nor for the people who produce or wear them, many discussions are raising in the industry.
While each player is launching some new solution saying they are doing the “right thing”, or the least damage, others consider many of the solutions already around as marketing gimmicks, greenwashing examples or simply solutions meant to follow the last green trend.
Following up a comment released by Luigi Caccia, founder, Pure Denim, during the last edition of Denim Premiere Vision in Milan in November 2022, The SPIN OFF has started further investigating about biodegradable stretch denim and in general about biodegradable stretch fibers, about how compostable and toxic they can be and similar connected topics.
The SPIN OFF has asked some experts their opinion on the matter. It has also interviewed the first manufacturers that have achieved the first biodegradable denims, along with the first fiber producers, about the impact of their products with the aim to draw a first picture of the denim market about this specific aspect.
Stretch denim is a complex material, more complex than regular denim, which is already considered as a highly polluting fabric as it is produced by using different chemicals for dying it, then for treating and aging it. Giving for granted all this and knowing the industry has developed significantly by using less polluting dyes, has managed to reduce effluents by recycling water and finding alternative and low water consuming finishing methods, there are quite some virtuous examples that show how much the impact of denim has been reduced so far and that when some conditions exist, rigid denim can biodegrade.
Then comes the stretch problem. “Stretch denim which is conventionally made by blending cotton with elastane, a synthetic material, derived from finite fossil fuels, has a compromised biodegradability at its end of life. Moreover, as synthetic elastane is often blended with cotton, it cannot even be recycled once the jeans are thrown away as cotton cannot be separated from the stretch fiber,” said Philippa Grogan, a sustainability consultant who advises on sustainability, impact mitigation, communication, circular economy, textiles, fashion among others, underling why a stretch fiber used for denim can be hard to recycle.
Defining who is acting entirely right or wrong is not possible as each company’s or player’s attempt still shows some shadow zones, though some good examples can already be identified. “I cannot think that in the industry everything can be defined as black or white. Though I think it’s important that companies start setting strategies that include a product’s end of life, that is not the same for every material,” commented Giusy Bettoni, founder, C.L.A.S.S., a consulting company specialized in supporting textile companies in pursuing a sustainable approach.
“It’s not possible speaking about a biodegradable textile if it is not tied to standards that define if, for instance, a fiber is biodegradable or simply degradable. Moreover, a fabric to be considered as biodegradable has to satisfy two conditions: it has to degrade within a specific time-lapse and has to prove its eco-toxicity, which means that when it dissolves itself in the ground has to release substances that are not noxious for the environment,” she explained.
Some virtuous examples
In the denim industry there are many denim manufacturers that have grown increasingly conscious about the impact of their products and have started taking measures about how to reduce their impact on the environment by changing their production methods, how they source raw materials and how they finish their fabrics.
Among them, just a few ones until now have developed stretch denims that can biodegrade. They are Candiani Denim and Calik Denim.
Candiani Denim’s alternative
Candiani Denim has developed and patented Coreva, a technology that allows to create stretch denim fabrics that are biodegradable at their end of life.
"While most 100% cotton fabrics and apparel items engineered circularly, including 100% cotton denim, can degrade without compromising its quality or durability of course, at Candiani we wanted to offer the same possibilities to stretch denim too, reason why we developed Coreva,” explained Alberto Candiani, president, Candiani Denim.
“The rubber fibers used for Coreva also pass through a vulcanization process, but unlike regular vulcanization processes, the fiber used by Coreva undergoes an innovative vulcanization process that produces no heavy metal residual and provides an elastic fiber which is fully biodegradable in that form,” added Candiani.
“Also all Coreva fabrics are fully recyclable since unlike synthetic elastomers, the actual rubber is easy to separate mechanically from the cotton due to its physical characteristics,” he continued.
“The tests that deter Coreva’s compostability were conducted at Innovhub(*), in compliance with EU standard EN13432,” explained Simon Giuliani, global marketing director, Candiani Denim. “This is the standard recognized by certifications such as Ok Compost although, at this time, they do not certify fabrics. Since there is not yet a dedicated certification process for compostable fabric, Innovhub selected the closest material category possible: packaging,” he explained.
Calik Denim’s own solution
Also, Calik Denim has developed its new B210 technology, a solution based upon the application of an enzyme in the phase of yarn manufacturing. “Synthetic fibers need millions of years to biodegrade in nature. Thanks to our unique B210 technology, we have reduced the dissolving of products containing even synthetic fiber in nature to 210 days. Thanks to the special technology we have developed, B210 allows any kind of denim, including synthetic fibers, to dissolve in nature within 210 days,” said Cem Ozan Sari, R&D and P&D coordinator, Calik Denim.
The company has achieved such a result after specific tests. “We have third-party certification testing results from Intertek(**), according to the Standard Test Method for Determining Anaerobic Biodegradation of Plastic Materials Under High-Solids Anaerobic-Digestion Conditions (ASTM D5511-18),” explained Calik’s Sari. “We have also achieved the certification for the toxicity as B210 fabric sample was subjected to anaerobic biodegradation as per ASTM D5511 for 210 days. After biodegradation, the soil was used for testing under OECD 208 standard,” he added.
Can biodegradable denim do good to the soil?
Candiani also did specifc tests to determine how Coreva acts when left to degrade in the ground. Not only the test confirmed that Coreva is compostable, and its disintegration has no harmful effects on plants and animals, which is technically referred to as eco-toxicity, but on the contrary it has a positive impact on it.
The world of fibers
Stretch fiber manufacturers have also tried to develop their own solutions though, complete biodegradability hasn’t been achieved yet.
The Lycra fiber has recently announced it has signed an agreement with Qore LLC is about the development of a bio-derived fiber, but that is not biodegradable.
Defining the right regulations
As known in the market, and as previously pointed out by Candiani's Giuliani, the textile industry still has no specific laws that regulate the standards for defining how can apparel degrade in order not to be noxious for the environment, despite new decisions are in progress.
“National and EU legislations are slowly approaching these matters," commented Alberto Candiani, owner, Candiani Denim. "Composting a garment, for instance, is not even a thing at the moment, but it will certainly be in five years from now and that’s our job, reading the future so that our R&D can make such a vision a real innovation,” he added.
Philippa Grogan, sustainability consultant, agrees on this topic. “Beyond the EN 13432, a European standard for packaging and packaging waste that stipulates a minimum amount of residue in a set time, there are some interesting textile regulations emerging under the EU Green Deal that could impact biodegradability and biodegradability claims," she said.
Despite only a few fabric and textile manufacturers have achieved significant results when it comes to biodegradable textiles, new additional developments and innovation could soon be launched, but compliant regulations and standards should be fixed very soon to avoid any further damage and make sure that any new product can set a significant and truly beneficial step ahead.
(*) Innovhub is an Italian consulting company that is recognized as one of the leading specialists in conducting applied research, scientific-technical consulting, testing and analysis for solving specific technological and/or product problems.
(**) Intertek operates from the UK through more than 1,000 laboratories and offices in over 100 countries and delivers testing, inspection and certification solutions for its customers’ operations and supply chains.