Sheer, woolly, peppered with polka dots or plastered in logos – after several years shivering in the fashion wilderness, tights have reclaimed their rightful place in the nation’s winter wardrobes. Retailers predict hosiery sales will be strong this year, even without office dress codes or a big party season to lure us out of our sweatpants.
But while the high street might be grateful for our 60-denier-a-day habit, David Attenborough probably wouldn’t approve. There’s no escaping the truth: tights are the plastic straws of the fashion world. Most will meet with enough splintery benches and snaggy nails to render them the closest thing our wardrobes have to a single-use item. Buy, wear, rip, bin, repeat.
Ever since their wartime debut, tights have been made predominantly from nylon; a plastic-based synthetic polymer derived from coal and crude oil. It’s a thirsty, dirty process which generates a potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. Furthermore, nylon can take anywhere between 30 and 100 years to decompose – which means that almost every pair of laddered opaques we’ve ever thrown in the bin is likely still sitting in the ground somewhere.
The true impact of plastic waste on the planet remains to be seen. But where tights are concerned, change is finally (sorry) afoot.
Recent years have seen a rise in sustainable hosiery brands such as Swedish Stockings and The Legwear Co., which take steps to minimise their impact by using recycled nylon and take-back schemes for old pairs. And now, we’re witnessing a giant leap for legwear: biodegradable tights are here.
“Our objective is to change women's rapport with tights, from a disposable afterthought to a sustainable fashion essential,” says Sophie Billi-Hardwick, co-founder of Billi London, which is proud to sell the world’s first certified enhanced biodegradable tights. Unlike recycling, of which options are still limited for hosiery’s stubbornly linear lifespan, they aim to get to the root of the problem.
“Unfortunately the tights industry is not yet a circular industry, meaning that we can't produce a new pair of tights from an old one,” says Billi-Hardwick. “Of course recycled nylon helps to reduce and prevent the use of raw materials... but in our opinion, [recycling] is only postponing the waste issue in the tights industry instead of tackling it at its core.”
Instead, the company set about creating tights that can be binned without guilt. After 18 months of trial and error working with fibre experts in Italy, Billi London has hit on a 100% biodegradable formula that breaks down in less than five years in landfill, leaving behind only renewable biomass and biogas in the earth. “The term ‘biodegradable’ applies when a product is able to decompose naturally, thanks to microorganisms – basically bacteria, which are attracted to the product and will munch on it until it disappears completely,” she explains. “It's not glamorous, but this environment is characteristic of landfill.”
Billi’s tights are glamorous, however, with a choice of sultry 30 denier sheers or smoky printed ‘Coco’ designs. At €27 a pair, they’re a significant step up from the five-packs we might be used to flinging in a basket with our lunchtime meal deal – but Billi-Hardwick insists that as much thought has gone into their design as their disposal.
“Thanks to our premium yarns and 3D knitted technology, there’s no more rolling, twisting and pinching,” she says. “We want women to fall in love with tights again.”
Meanwhile on the high street, hosiery stalwart Pretty Polly is making strides too. Its Eco-wear range includes not just biodegradable opaques (£10) but also leggings and underwear – all of which the brand claims will decompose in 3-5 years in landfill. Eco-wear currently makes up only a small part of Pretty Polly’s range, but trendy new sheer and printed styles are on their way this spring.
And while the race to the title of ‘the world’s first biodegradable tights’ might be over, there’s still a substantial market to play for. Colourful cult favourite Snag Tights is working on a biodegradable solution too, which Founder and CEO Brie Read hopes to make available next year. Unlike current offerings, Snag caters for different body shapes up to a UK size 36. “I absolutely believe it is possible for a brand to be size inclusive and sustainable,” says Read. “In fact the more size-inclusive a brand is, the more sustainable they are, because it removes the need to buy multiple sizes and waste tights when they don’t fit or work for your body.”
Of course, a few questions spring to mind. If these tights are so eager to break down, what stops them disintegrating in the washing machine or decomposing in sweaty conditions? Are we going to look down in the middle of a rainstorm to find them falling off our legs like wet tissue paper?
No, is the short answer. “It’s the most common question we get,” reassures Billi-Hardwick. “Our tights will only start to biodegrade in an anaerobic environment, where specific levels of humidity, moisture and light are reached. Those conditions are only triggered in landfill, so [they] will never decompose in your household bin, on you, or in your own wardrobe – no matter how active you are.”
There are still things we can all do to prolong the lifespan of our tights, biodegradable or otherwise. Billi London advises hand-washing its tights, or at least using a delicates bag (try Guppyfriend) and avoiding the spin cycle. Moisturising your hands and removing rings before putting on tights is also good practice, and Billi’s favourite tip is putting tights in the fridge or freezer for a few hours before wearing. “The cold will tighten up the mesh, making it less likely to rip or rupture.”
Unless a punk fashion revival brings back intentional ladders, the usual rules of sustainable dressing – buy secondhand, wear at least 30 times, swap, share, reuse – are always going to be hard to apply to something as flimsy as hosiery. But if we’re going to carry on celebrating tights season for decades to come, it’s clear that something’s got to give.