Alex Crane builds a clothing brand from natural fibers. This month they added a new item to their collection, the biodegradable one Porto shirt, a unisex design available in three classic colours. While most cotton shirts are biodegradable, the Porto shirt is handcrafted in Portugal from 100% organic cotton dyed with all-natural, non-toxic, mineral-based dyes, and features natural corozo nut buttons instead of plastic.
Crane explains why not all cotton shirts are the same: the answer lies in the details, he says.
Esha Chabra: What do you classify as biodegradable?
Alex Crane: To us, ‘biodegradable’ means you can put the shirt on a compost pile and within a year it will turn into soil. Every component of the Porto shirt, from fabric to finish to dye, is made from a natural material that is biodegradable without adding toxins or waste to the earth. It doesn’t mean the product is any less durable or wear-resistant: it’s just good to make products that continue to be part of the earth’s natural cycles, so your clothes will one day help grow new crops.
Chabra: What is usually the reason why a cotton shirt is not biodegradable? I’m assuming buttons, but is there anything else?
Crane: Technically, all cotton shirts are biodegradable. The big difference is toxicity. The vast majority of cotton shirts are made from conventional cotton that has been infused with pesticides, dyed with chemical pigments, and washed with petroleum-based fabric softeners. So when that shirt decomposes, it leaches all those toxins into the soil and water. The Porto shirt, on the other hand, is made of organic cotton that is free of pesticides, dyed with natural pigments made from minerals and finished with natural, organic fabric softeners. And it has corozo buds made from seeds. As a result, when the Porto shirt is broken down, it improves the quality of the ground. And also, to be clear: the largest delta is between natural materials (such as cotton) and synthetic materials (such as polyester). Most clothing is made of synthetic fibers that never biodegrade.
Chabra: Why is this crucial in fashion? Why did you actually take the time to make this shirt?
Crane: We cannot solve the climate crisis by asking people to consume less. It’s a nice thought, but basically people like to acquire things. We’ve been making things for fun since the Stone Age. So the best strategy is to innovate new ways of consuming that are actually climate positive. Biodegradable products are a good option for two reasons: 1) They don’t make soil waste. Imagine a world where your consumption produced a renewable resource rather than a mess for future generations to clean up. 2) They keep microplastics off your skin and out of your water. In due time we will realize the self-inflicted harm of making everything out of plastic. But suffice to say, the less plastic we wear, the better.
Chabra: Do you know of finishing chemicals that are also often used to make fabrics feel softer or water repellent? Does that even apply to your brand?
Crane: Yes! We know that the vast majority of softeners are petroleum based. We have confirmed three times that our fabric softener is made from natural enzymes.
Chhabra: Why don’t other brands go this route? cost?
Crane: I don’t think people ask for it anymore. Organic food was a niche market until it wasn’t anymore. Same with wellness products. I have every confidence that clothing is the next frontier. We just need to help spread the message that plastic-based clothing is toxic, never breaks and keeps us dependent on fossil fuels. Here’s a scare tactic: Every time we wash our polyester clothes, they shed microplastics that end up in our water and food. As a result, a recent study shows that we eat a credit card’s worth of plastic every week!
Chhabra: What was the most challenging part of designing the Porto shirt?
Crane: The dyes are a real game changer and have been the biggest hurdle in creating a fully biodegradable product so far. When using natural dyes, there are often problems with color fastness and color consistency. That’s why it was so cool to discover the mineral dyes – they are unlike any natural dyes we’ve worked with so far. The color is rich, consistent and long lasting. And now that we know it’s a viable option, we’re aiming to make the rest of our collection fully biodegradable by 2025.