Alex Crane is building an apparel brand out of natural fibers. This month, they added a new item to their collection, the biodegradable Porto Shirt, a unisex design available in three classic colors. While most cotton shirts are biodegradable, the Porto Shirt is handcrafted in Portugal from 100% organic cotton that’s colored with all-natural toxin-free mineral-based dyes, and has natural corozo nut buttons rather than plastic.
Crane explains why not all cotton shirts are created equal: the answer lies in the details, he says.
Esha Chhabra: What classifies as biodegradable to you?
Alex Crane: To us, “biodegradable” means you can put the shirt in a compost pile and, within a year, it will turn to soil. Every part of the Porto Shirt, from fabric to trim to dye, is made from a natural material that biodegrades without adding toxicity or trash to the Earth. It doesn’t mean that the product is any less enduring or hard-wearing: it’s just good to make products that remain part of the Earth’s natural cycles, so your clothes will one day help grow new crops.
Chhabra: What is typically 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 with conventional cotton which is drenched in pesticides, dyed with chemical pigments and washed with petroleum-based 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 with organic cotton which is pesticide-free, dyed with natural pigments made from minerals, and finished with natural, organic softeners. And it’s got corozo buttons made from seeds. As a result, when the Porto Shirt decomposes, it actually improves the quality of the soil. And also, just to clarify: the biggest delta is between natural materials (like cotton) and synthetic materials (like polyester). Most clothes are made from synthetic fibers that never biodegrade.
Chhabra: Why is this crucial in fashion? Why did you take the time to create this shirt basically?
Crane: We can’t solve the climate crisis by asking people to consume less. It’s a pretty thought but, fundamentally, humans like to acquire things. We’ve been making things for fun since the Stone Ages. So, the best strategy is to innovate new ways to consume that are actually climate positive. Biodegradable products are a great option for two reasons: 1) They make soil not trash. Imagine a world where your consumption produced a renewable commodity instead of a mess for future generations to clean up. 2) They keep microplastics off your skin and out of your water. In due time, we’ll realize the self-inflicted damage of making everything out of plastic. But suffice to say: the less plastic we wear, the better.
Chhabra: Are you cognizant of finishing chemicals that are often used as well to give fabric a softer feel or make it water repellent? Is that applicable at all in your brand?
Crane: Yes! We know the vast majority of softeners are petroleum-based. We’ve triple-confirmed that our softener is made from natural enzymes.
Chhabra: Why are other brands not going down this path? cost?
Crane: I don’t think people are asking for it yet. Organic food was a niche market until it wasn’t. Same with wellness products. I’m very confident that clothes are the next frontier. We just need to help spread the message that plastic-based clothes are toxic, never break down, and keep us dependent on fossil-fuels. Here’s one 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’s been the most challenging part of designing the Porto shirt?
Crane: The dyes are a real game changer, and until now, have been the biggest hurdle in creating a fully biodegradable product. When using natural dyes, there tend to be issues with color fastness and shade consistency. That’s why it was so cool to discover the mineral dyes – they’re unlike any natural dyes we’ve worked with so far. The color is rich, consistent, and 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.
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