It is common knowledge that our disposable clothing culture contributes millions of tons to landfill waste every year. The majority of these garments contain synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon, which release microplastics upon washing, wear and disposal. Circular economy business models have quickly emerged to divert clothing and footwear from landfills to resale, rental and recycling. But there is one category of products that generally do not meet the criteria for these avenues due to product fragility, hygiene restrictions and recycling limitations: hosiery. As much as 8 billion pairs of tights are made, worn a handful of times and thrown away every year. Statista reports that the hosiery tights and leggings segment is expected to grow in volume to reach 387 billion pieces per year by 2025. Pantyhose in landfills biodegrade into plastic fragments that leach into waterways, contributing to microplastic pollution. Sophie Billi-Hardwick, 33, and Marie Bouhier, 27, co-founded Billi London two years ago to address this problem. They set out to create a sustainable pantyhose product and say they “now own 100% of the biodegradable pantyhose market”, while the juggernauts of the hosiery industry are lagging behind.
The journey to launch biodegradable tights required 2 years of research and development by the two entrepreneurs, who had no prior experience in the hosiery industry. The duo visited 5 pantyhose factories in Europe and conducted extensive research on biodegradable synthetic yarns and consumer attitudes towards pantyhose. They found that out of 300 consumers wearing pantyhose, most of them “generally put on 1-2 pairs per month”, which created guilt (due to the waste generated) and reluctance to continue wearing pantyhose. , given their cost and negative impact on the environment. After studying biodegradable nylons in clothing products during a master’s degree at the London College of Fashion, Maire Bouhier wondered why this innovation was not applied to tights usually knitted from nylon and elastane yarns.
Further research by Bouhier and Billi-Hardwick, who joined forces in 2019, uncovered two yarn suppliers willing to provide improved versions of nylon 6.6 (the type typically used in tights) and spandex . The improvement was a change in the molecular structure of nylon and spandex that makes them susceptible to microbes. This susceptibility leads to the nylon and spandex being “digested” by microbes in landfills, resulting in non-toxic byproducts and no microplastics. But with this improved biodegradability comes added complexity in handling the yarn and creating a high-quality, high-performance product, and that’s what entrepreneurs believe is hindering the widespread adoption of these yarns, which are readily available from suppliers. in Europe.
To use these yarns, which are optimized for apparel products, not hosiery, Billy London has partnered with a tights manufacturer to use specific knitting machine technology with a high degree of specificity when it comes to combining nylon and spandex and programming the knit structure and tights specifications. Two years of R&D, wearer trials, testing and external biodegradability certification indicate that disrupting the pantyhose market is something only a scrappy start-up on a singular mission seems ready to undertake. Their closest competitor (a global tights brand) only uses a portion of biodegradable yarn in its comparable product. However, the entrepreneurs conceded that they don’t have a total biodegradable pantyhose solution and can currently only offer one layer of pantyhose (30 denier, retailing at around $32) while they solved the problems with their prototype thinner 15 denier tights, where the challenges posed by the biodegradable properties of the yarn are heightened.
Having briefly worked in the pantyhose business myself, I know how challenging this product can be, both in terms of performance and inherent seasonality, with demand dwindling for about half of the year. However, Billi-Hardwick revealed during our interview that “socks and leggings are next on the agenda” for biodegradable disruption. Since these products usually include at least some synthetic fibers (often spandex) for stretch and recovery, this seems like a brilliant move. It also seems smart given that the startup will soon launch a funding round in anticipation of market expansion plans, which will no doubt be catapulted by a universal product like socks.
On the topic of biodegradability benchmarks, I dug into the requirements for optimal decomposition with some skepticism. I have often seen biodegradability and compostability data based on very specific (and inaccessible) conditions. Billi London goes against this trend. Bouhier explained that the tights require “the biodegradability conditions of a well-controlled landfill, which now accounts for the majority of landfills in the EU”. These landfills are characterized by “high humidity, absence of oxygen and high (levels) of specific anaerobic bacteria that produce (organic compounds) biogas and biomass”. Biodegradability tests have shown that Billi London tights biodegradable in 5 years, compared to 40-100 years for traditional tights. Clarifying a common question about composting as an optional disposal method, Bouhier explained that “it doesn’t work (for Billi tights) because (composting is) not anaerobic.”
On the direction of the startup and its founding values, Billi-Hardwick said “something extremely important and in our DNA (is) we want to bring innovation to market. We have a challenger mindset”. Asked about the company’s long-term vision, she said, “We want to build the brand as a materials science and consumer goods brand. We really believe in partnerships, so we can reach out to others and collaborate,” which echoes the philosophy and business model of other sustainable product disruptors I recently interviewed.
When evaluating recycling versus landfill for plastic waste (including synthetic fibres), it is useful to know that less than 10% of all plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled, with 79% in landfill or natural environment (the rest is incinerated, releasing CO2 and other dangerous additives into the atmosphere). Recycling plastic is complex and expensive, and the recycled material can be more expensive (and sometimes of lower quality) than its virgin counterpart. The separation of different synthetic materials is also a complication, for example when traditional nylon and spandex are mixed together. As a result, plastic microparticles from the degradation of plastics in our environment reach catastrophic levels. “Aggravated by the COVID-19[female[feminine pandemic, plastic waste has become a major part of the global pollution crisis, along with biodiversity loss and climate change. This represents a ‘triple emergency’ that needs to be tackled, according to a recent UNEP report report. The report also demonstrated how the world’s most marginalized populations bear the brunt of the impacts of plastic pollution.
Global brands are starting to take an interest in these solutions, as evidenced by materials science partnerships and investments, driven by consumers who are increasingly vigilant about the environmental consequences of plastics. But struggling with entrenched materials sourcing and manufacturing processes, incumbent market leaders in product categories such as hosiery may lack momentum and a “challenge mindset” (such as cited by Billi-Hardwick) to embark on innovation journeys. Such initiatives can be seen as costly, risky and threatening to results. But the toxic consequences of plastic waste from commercially successful products can no longer hide behind the business mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The planet is broken and innovation offers the promise of fixing it.