Fashions made to fall apart

Los Angeles Times
Modified: October 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm •  Published: October 30, 2012

photo - The Dutch footwear company Oat has been making biodegradable sneakers since 2011. (Courtesy Oat via Los Angeles Times/MCT)
The Dutch footwear company Oat has been making biodegradable sneakers since 2011. (Courtesy Oat via Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Call it the H&M effect, or fast fashion. Americans are buying, and discarding, clothes more quickly than ever. On average, each of us throws 54 pounds of clothes and shoes into the trash each year. That adds up to about 9 million tons of shoes, jackets and other wearables that are sent into the waste stream annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Traditionally, the options for dealing with that waste have started with an R: Reduce, reuse or recycle. But a clutch of designers are pursuing a different tack. They’re producing clothing and accessories that are biodegradable — or at the very least, have parts that are capable of decomposing into natural substances. The movement is still in its infancy, but it’s an important development in an industry that’s increasingly scrutinized for its wastefulness.

Gucci began selling sunglasses and footwear made with biodegradable plastics over the summer. This fall, Stella McCartney debuted several styles of heels with mock croc and faux leather uppers anchored with chunky, biodegradable rubber soles. And, in the near future, Puma says it will produce a new line of T-shirts and sneakers that can be ripped up and buried in the ground as fertilizer.

“Everyone is beginning to appreciate the need to reduce fashion’s impact on the environment,” said Alex McIntosh, business and research manager for the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion. “Compostability is part of a wider waste management agenda” that is likely to grow in coming years, even if its use is only beginning in the $774 billion global apparel manufacturing business.

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone who invests $500 in a pair of designer shoes or glasses would throw them in the trash and even less likely that such a rarefied buyer would toss a luxury item onto a compost pile. But “it’s great that high-end designers are exploring these ideas as their influence has an impact on the collective psyche of the design community,” McIntosh said.

That’s certainly the case with Stella McCartney, the well-known vegetarian designer whose shunning of leather and fur created more acceptance of synthetic alternatives in high fashion. McCartney is often credited with turning faux furs and leather handbags into a fashion “do” when such materials had long been considered too down-market. Now designers including Calvin Klein and Michael Kors regularly work imitation furs into their designs. And the idea has trickled down to mass retailers such as H&M and Forever 21, where most of the “leather” goods are, in fact, pleather.

McCartney’s partially biodegradable pumps, which feature 4-inch heels and thick white soles reminiscent of gym sneakers, went on sale in September. Only the soles, made from plant-derived plastic, are biodegradable. But their inclusion reflects McCartney’s philosophy that “doing a little something is really a lot better than doing a lot of nothing.”

Her new Stella lingerie line incorporates recycled metal hardware and organic cotton gussets. All of her sunglasses are now eco-friendly, made with more than 50 percent organic materials derived from castor oil seeds and sugar.

Gucci began incorporating more castor oil seed plastic into its sunglasses in 2011. This year, the company introduced sunglasses made with biodegradable frames and plant-derived, bio-plastic ballerina flats and sneakers.

Like Stella McCartney’s pumps, though, Gucci’s Liquid Wood sunglasses and California Green sneakers aren’t entirely biodegradable. They’re made from a mix of materials. Only the soles of the low- and high-top men’s sneakers are made from plant-based plastics that decompose over time without leaving chemicals or other harmful substances behind. As for the sunglasses, the frames are made from wood fiber and natural wax. The metal joints are constructed with recycled metal, which points to the difficulties of making items that will entirely decompose: Only 100 percent natural fashions, such as cotton T-shirts stitched with cotton thread, can easily, and completely, break down in combination with heat, moisture and time. Not everything can be made so simply; indeed, consumers have come to expect certain performance levels from sophisticated fabrics, such as cotton-spandex blends.

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