Closing the Loop: Can Compostable Textiles Help Lead Us Into the Future?

Textile waste is a growing problem affecting communities and environments worldwide. From vast amounts of discarded clothing choking beaches, rivers, and deserts to the piles of textile waste in communities within Ghana, Haiti, Chile, Kenya, and beyond, the impact of our broken and wasteful textile system is undeniable. 

The central problem lies in the current overproduction and overconsumption of textiles. The fast fashion industry churns out cheap clothing made primarily with synthetic (plastic) materials designed to be quickly discarded. This production and disposal pattern leads to vast amounts of waste. Synthetic textiles not only accumulate as voluminous plastic waste but also break down into microplastics, releasing harmful chemicals into our ecosystems. It’s a cycle of waste and pollution that needs to be urgently addressed.

However, the problem of textile waste also presents an opportunity. By reconsidering the way we produce, use, and dispose of clothing, we can redesign our systems to be healthier at every point. This means rethinking how clothing is sourced, made, used, and eventually returned to our ecosystems. Designing for textile compostability offers a pathway to model natural cycles, in which waste is transformed into a valuable resource, closing the loop in the lifecycle of our garments.

While it may not be top of mind when purchasing a new garment, the question of our clothing’s final fate—and its impact on the planet—is crucial. By examining the compostability of textiles, we can take significant steps toward ensuring that our products not only have beneficial impacts on our ecosystems and communities when they are made and used but also contribute positively to the earth once they’re no longer in use. It’s time to start thinking seriously about the legacy of our clothing, considering whether it will harm or help the planet and future generations.

Defining Compost, Biodegradable, and Circularity

To understand why textile composting matters, it’s important to understand some key terms and their distinctions, starting with compost. Compost is the product of a managed decomposition process of organic matter, suitable for beneficial application to soil. It is typically created with specific parameters for composition (carbon to nitrogen ratio), time, and temperature management.

Organic matter and products made from organic matter can be returned to the earth through composting – they are “compostable.” In the composting process, organic matter – which can include food waste; yard, garden, or farm waste; manure; and natural fibers – is layered together into a pile. With management for aeration, moisture, and temperature, microbial activity within the pile breaks down the material into a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

“Biodegradable” is not synonymous with “compostable.” Biodegradable means capable of being broken down by biological processes but does not specify a timeframe or ensure that the breakdown products are beneficial. “Compostable,” on the other hand, means that a product can break down under composting conditions into nutrient-rich soil without leaving toxic residues, supporting plant growth. In short, a product that is biodegradable is not necessarily non-toxic or beneficial when it breaks down.

“Circularity” has become a buzzword in sustainability, promising the idea of infinitely recyclable products like synthetic fleece jackets. However, this claim often falls short. Recycled yarns still require some virgin material, and synthetic textiles continuously release microplastics during use. We can’t call something “circular” when it is constantly leaking toxic material into our ecosystems and our very bodies.

Compost’s Place in a Circular Economy for Textiles

It is essential that we value our textiles as precious materials, reduce consumption, and keep clothing in use for as long as possible through re-use, repair, and, when available and appropriate, recycling. However, achieving true circularity involves returning textile materials from the ecosystems where they are produced back into those same ecosystems as they degrade during use and at the end of their life. 

Circularity can only exist within the context of natural systems, as all materials originate from and ultimately return to these ecosystems. To achieve a genuinely circular textile system, we must consider compostability—ensuring that natural textile materials can safely biodegrade under controlled conditions and revert to beneficial elements within our ecosystems.

Because natural fibers are inherently compostable (provided they have not been treated with harmful additives or chemicals—a critical caveat), they can be safely reintegrated into the soil once they’ve decomposed, an agricultural practice that regenerates soil and land health. This agriculture, in turn, produces the next generation of natural fibers, creating a continuous and beneficial cycle known as a soil-to-soil system.

Textile Composting in Action

As the push for sustainability in fashion grows, textile compostability is becoming acknowledged as a leading-edge question to shape new sustainability frameworks, pilot projects and research. Initiatives around the world are exploring how we can design an inherently healthier approach to textiles while building pathways to transform natural fiber textile waste into a valuable resource. Here are some of the projects we have been involved with and are closely following:

Textile Composting Trials at Fibershed Learning Center, 2022-2024

At the Fibershed Learning Center, we began conducting textile composting trials in 2022 to document and showcase the decomposition process of natural fiber textiles. Our trials have included on-site demonstration piles containing up to 20% textile by volume, with informative signage for visitors. We coordinate our results with similar research in other regions.

We have incorporated textile contributions from staff and Fibershed producer members of used, undyed, or naturally dyed 100% natural fiber materials, such as linen, cotton, and wool. The primary source of textile material for our Learning Center composting trials has been factory cutting waste of undyed organic cotton from local clothing producer and Fibershed member Harvest & Mill. Initial trials with intensively managed compost piles in 2022 showed that textile samples were indistinguishable in the compost after 90 days.

In 2023 and 2024, we have continued incorporating cotton textile waste into our larger, more slowly decomposing static compost piles, finding that the textiles decomposed completely within 3-6 months.

Top and bottom left: Fabric scraps are added to a compost pile at the Fibershed Learning Center, where they will begin the process of breaking down. Bottom right: Older fabric scraps in the process of breaking down into compost. All photos by Paige Green Photography.

California Cloth Foundry and Compostable LA’s Textile Compost Pilot

In 2022, Fibershed member California Cloth Foundry (CCF) partnered with Compostable LA, California Product Stewardship Council, and the Sustainability Institute of the Student Fashion Farm at California State University, Northridge, to transform their fabric scraps into compost. This trial involved combining CCF’s plant-based and naturally dyed textile waste with food scraps, chicken manure, and mulch to create compost. Soil testing conducted on the resulting compost showed abundant levels of soil nutrients. The project underscores CCF’s commitment to circular fashion, demonstrating that their textiles can return to the earth as beneficial compost, thus closing the loop from production to decomposition.

Elevating Compostable Textiles In the Fashion Industry: The Detox Collection by Denim Privé and Simply Suzette, Fibershed Netherlands Collaboration

At the 2024 Kingpins show in Amsterdam, the Fibershed Netherlands Affiliate worked with Denim Privé to showcase compostable textiles at a major industry tradeshow. Denim Privé, in collaboration with Simply Suzette, introduced the Detox Collection—a fully biodegradable clothing line featuring plant-based fibers and dyes, free of plastics and metals. Local organizers from Fibershed Netherlands helped to develop a companion compostable natural dye project for conference attendees along with educational materials about textile composting. This collaboration exemplified how compostable textiles can be integrated into the fashion industry and industry outreach, supporting a soil-to-soil system in which garments, once discarded, enrich the soil rather than pollute it.

Textile Compost Research Collaboration with Dr. Rebecca Ryals, UC Merced, and Bowles Farming Company

Based on well-documented research, we know natural fiber textiles can successfully be composted. However, given the nature of modern textiles and composting processes, more research is needed to help identify how textiles can most effectively be composted in modern systems and to understand which types of textile treatments and additives are safe for composting.

Fibershed has partnered with UC Merced and Bowles Farming Company to develop a two-year textile compost research project in California. This research will test cotton textile composting recipes at both laboratory and field scales and evaluate the fates of chemicals of concern after composting. Dr. Rebecca Ryals, Ph.D., a researcher whose career has focused on biogeochemistry and ecological impacts of compost production and application, will lead the research project in her lab at UC Merced. Partners include UC Merced, Bowles Farming Company, Cotton Inc., Agromin, and Fibershed.

Harvest & Mill (left) and California Cloth Foundry (right) both craft garments that can be safely composted. Photos courtesy of Harvest & Mill and California Cloth Foundry.

Addressing the Challenges for Scalable Textile Composting

Several key questions and challenges need to be addressed before we can move from successful demonstration and research projects to larger-scale systems for textile composting. To be a viable option for creating a truly soil-to-soil framework for our textiles, this model still requires essential support, research, and development throughout the value chain to be feasible at scale. 

Collection and Separation Infrastructure

One of the primary hurdles is establishing a robust infrastructure for the collection and separation of compostable textiles. To uphold the necessary standards for safe and healthy compost, textiles going into larger-scale composting systems need to be clearly identified by all of their materials and sources. Current technologies for separating collected textile items by fiber type are not yet refined enough to separate compostable textiles within a mixed post-consumer textile recovery system.

One option is for individual brands whose products have been designed for compostability to implement take-back programs, ensuring that garments can easily be returned, traced, and properly processed. 

Traceability and more comprehensive labeling are increasingly called for in textile recovery projects. Protocols for more advanced traceability and labeling could help identify and segregate compostable textiles from non-compostable ones in larger-scale systems.

Maintaining Quality and Purity of Compost

Ensuring that the compost resulting from textile decomposition is of high quality and free from harmful substances is an especially critical concern. Regulations with clear criteria and certifications for ‘compostable textiles’ will be essential for larger-scale systems. 

One promising example is the work being done by Standards Australia. They are currently developing a Technical Specification that will be followed by an Australian Standard (AS) for textile compostability to ensure that textiles can be safely integrated into composting systems without causing harm. These standards aim to provide clear guidelines and protocols for manufacturers, consumers, and composting facilities, addressing concerns about finishing treatments and chemicals used in textiles. 

Setting clear boundaries for healthy materials in compostable textiles will be necessary because many chemicals are currently added to clothes without adequate labeling or reporting requirements. Just because a textile visually disappears in a compost pile does not guarantee that the resulting compost is healthy or safe. This issue is exemplified by the ongoing debate over the Biodegradable Products Institute’s (BPI) petition to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand the definition of compost and compost feedstocks in Organic agriculture. The petition has faced significant pushback in the organic industry due to concerns about potential bioaccumulation of undisclosed chemical constituents from biodegradable plastics in compost. The National Organic Standards Board is continuing to hear expert and public testimony on the petition. 

Research on Textile Dyes and Additives

Another vital area is research to understand the fates of textile dyes and other additives during and after composting. It is crucial to identify which natural fiber textile additives can effectively break down in compost and pose no harm. The research led by Dr. Rebecca Ryals at UC Merced, mentioned above, is set to begin to address some of these questions and will hopefully continue to stimulate an ongoing research agenda and protocols for assessing healthy frameworks for textile composting. 

Policy Implications

To support these efforts, we need policies that create a framework for these elements to thrive. Effective policies will ensure that compostable textiles are produced, used, and disposed of in ways that protect the quality of compost and encourage innovation in textile production, processing, and post-consumer management. Natural fiber materials and their associated processing and manufacturing infrastructure must be deliberately protected and supported by public policies if we are to continue having the option of natural fiber textiles. Market forces favoring synthetic textiles, including recycled synthetics, are threatening the survival of the natural fiber industry in many places across the world.

Emerging legislative policies worldwide, such as textile Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), can begin to incentivize and even require producers to consider compostability in their textile design, recovery, and management systems. California’s legislature is currently considering a bill (SB 707, Newman) that would require all textile producers selling products in California to participate in an EPR program that must include considerations for compostability, among other design challenges.

Other key emerging textile policies are looking at validating environmental impact claims and examining ways to address the growing problem of microplastic pollution. These policies must take into account the full range of harms caused by synthetic textiles, as well as the full range of benefits that healthy natural fiber textiles can offer. In order to preserve the potential for compostable textiles at scale, we must see clear incentives and priority for healthy natural fiber textiles established in regional, national, and international policies.

Achieving True Circularity in Textiles

By addressing these challenges and supporting compostable textiles, we can move toward a truly circular economy. This will allow textiles to return to the earth as beneficial compost, closing the loop from production to decomposition. For thousands of years of human history, natural fiber textiles have returned to our ecosystems without causing waste and pollution, seamlessly integrating into the environment. It’s time to rethink our approach to clothing, ensuring that our choices today help create a sustainable and healthy planet for future generations.