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The Compostable Wardrobe: Fibers Matter in Fashion

When I committed to buying second-hand, I also started to consider buying only natural fibers. Read on for why and how to compost natural fibers when their time has come!

Written by
Rowena Zuercher

Several years ago, I stopped buying into the fast fashion scene. When I needed another garment, I purchased second-hand or ethically-made clothing. The more I cut back on what I bought, the more I began to care about everything that went into the items I was purchasing, especially what would happen to them when I no longer had use for them. These days, I shop based on fiber, rather than just style. I’m slowly replacing the synthetic fabrics in my closet with natural ones-- fabrics that will last longer, and ultimately return to the earth they came from.

Natural v. Synthetic Fibers

Natural fibers include fibers such as linen, wool, silk, bamboo, leather, tencel, cotton, and hemp. These fibers can be animal or plant fibers, and occur naturally in the environment. Some natural fibers can be taxing on the environment; for example, cotton uses a LOT of water, and the demand for bamboo fabric can cause deforestation. But overall, sourcing ethically produced natural fiber garments is a more environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic items. 

Synthetic fibers include polyester, spandex, acetate, rayon, acrylic, and microfiber. Synthetic fibers are made with fossil fuels like petroleum, and are actually plastic. Though synthetic fibers can accomplish things that natural fibers can’t (like being completely waterproof or ultra-stretchy), they are also more difficult to repair, reuse, or recycle. Synthetic fibers can’t be composted, and rely on non-renewable resources that contribute to pollution. 

3 Benefits of Fan-Favorite Natural Fibers

1. Linen

Linen is a staple fiber for good reason: it’s durable, it absorbs water, it dries incredibly fast, it’s antimicrobial (great for towels and bedding), and it’s much less water wasteful than cotton. Linen, which is made from flax, uses the entire plant and requires much less water to produce than other fabrics.

2. Wool

Wool is a moisture-wicking fiber that is incredibly durable, insulating, temperature regulating, renewable, and fire-resistant. Wool has historically been worn as an all-purpose/all-weather fiber because of its versatility and convenience.

3. Silk

Silk is a luxurious fiber with lots of benefits. It’s the strongest of the natural fibers and is also hypo-allergenic. Silk is breathable, temperature regulating, and doesn’t absorb moisture from your skin. Its breezy qualities make it a favorite for pillowcases, or for people with sensitive skin. Though many types of silk fabrics require the death of the silkworm, peace silk is an alternative silk-making process that allows the silkworm to emerge alive from their cocoon before the silk fibers are harvested.

How to: Composting Natural Fibers

First of all, before deciding to compost your clothes, make sure there aren’t any other ways to reuse or repurpose them. Composting should be the final destination for your garments.

  1. Make sure the garment doesn’t have any oil stains or other stains that you wouldn’t want in your compost pile.
  2. Remove all non-biodegradable pieces from your clothing (zippers, tag, buttons, etc.).
  3. Shred the garment into strips to make it easier for the fibers to break down. 
  4. Choose your compost method. Certain methods of composting will help fibers break down more quickly, and some fibers naturally decompose faster than others. (Linen breaks down quickly; wool and bamboo take longer).
  5. Once your clothing has broken down, pick out any synthetic threads that may be left in your compost pile.

Bonus tip: Instead of shredding and composting, use the fabric in the garden method to keep down weeds.

The Final Takeaway

Keep wearing the clothes you love! There’s nothing wrong with keeping that silky polyester top if you know you’ll get a lot of use out of it. A major part of the slow fashion movement is wearing the clothing we already have for longer periods of time, no matter what the fiber is. However, when you are ready to introduce something new/thrifted into your wardrobe, consider sidestepping plastic fabrics for natural ones.

You will be glad to know that when your favorite sweater reaches the very end of its days, it can live on as compost for your garden!