We design with the end in mind. Read on for part 3 of our Afterlife Mini-Series.


Afterlife 3 – Biodegrade
Courtney Holm

Let's diverge on an alternate path. Last week we discussed Compost as a way to degrade 100% cellulosic garments (especially those that are un-dyed as they will break down quicker in compost facilities and provide more nutrients to the soil). Did you read it yet? Check it out, and also the first part of the Afterlife series, Disassemble.

If you've been there, done that, well, welcome back and thanks so much for joining us for part 3 in our series on garment afterlife. Another way, besides composting, to magic wand your cellulose-based garments out of existence is the biodegrade method. You might think I'm splitting hairs here, but there IS a difference between biodegrading and composting. And, according to the clever people at CSIRO, it's also important to note that anything "biodegrading" in landfill is not great, because even though it may slowly break down, it will release excess methane while doing so. No general waste bins for this please!

It's generally understood that for something to be deemed compostable, it should degrade while providing delicious nutrients to the soil (or worms!) and benefit the earth after breaking down within a certain amount of time. Biodegrading on the other hand might take longer, generally up to a year.

There is a difference between something degrading (reallllllly long biodegradation while potentially leaking toxins), fragmenting (think plastics and micro plastics breaking into smaller and smaller bits) and biodegrading safely, in a relatively timely fashion. Biodegradation occurs when materials return to nature and leave no trace behind. While this isn't bad in itself, it's not necessarily beneficial to the earth other than to reduce waste in landfill. And actually, if you think about how humanity is doing on that front, well then it's a pretty great benefit indeed.

Composted Soil


Afterlife Case Study 3 – Biodegrade

Preamble: More complex garments, like our A.05 shirt and A.31 skirt in black organic linen, may actually be more suitable to biodegradation rather than composting. Even when made with tops versions of each raw material, and adhering to a strict 100% cellulosic brief, the garment's rate of degradation may vary. It might not be able to provide as much nutrition as it breaks down due to its complexity, plus additions such as dyes (even low impact, GOTS dyes) might slow the process. In small amounts, these things would be fine if cut up and distributed gradually through a home or commercial compost, and in fact we actively encourage it! But no-one I know of has done studies to see what would happen if we put garments en masse into compost systems, especially with less than ideal chemical compounds that lurk in most conventional garments. Even a lovely cotton shirt is likely riddled with polyester sewing threads, nylon labels, and nasty chemical dyes. So I stress, the materials all need to be right first, designed with the end in mind and fit for purpose.

I think a good option for complex, dyed (fully cellulosic and GOTS organic) garments such as the A.05 and A.31 would be to take them to the ground without the intention of making nutrient-dense soil. Of course, this is only one solution, and garments like the A.05 and A.31 may be even better candidates for bio-chemical recycling.  But until the glorious day arrives when that is commercially accessible, you can either send the pieces back to A.BCH for recycling holding (and testing) or of course try the biodegrade method at home. This is all of course, after a long life of love and care. 

Birth ➝ The A.05 and A.31 primary material is GOTS organic linen. Grown and scutched in Northern France, spun in Hungary and then woven in a carbon-neutral mill in Belgium, this fabric is about as sustainable as it gets. Even the dyes are approved as safe by the Global Organic Textile Standard. The joining of this material with Tencel threads, corozo buttons, organic cotton labels, and natural rubber elastic, with exception of one removable rPET tag*, means that they are biologically circular garments, primed for a biological end (that would be the biodegrading) or technical end (bio-chemical recycling, which we will cover in part 5).  

Founder (me!) Courtney chatting with Levien from our beloved linen mill in Belgium.

Life ➝ Both garments are built to be timeless in design appeal and are made sturdy, with double stitched pressure points and access to simple repairs that are covered for life, by us. The elasticated waistband in the skirt allows for changes in the body, from weight and shape fluctuations to more permanent changes, and the style is engineered for comfort through several phases of life. The shirt is a relaxed fit, that has multiple wear options, plus essentials like side vents and pockets to increase functionality. The linen only becomes softer and more supple over time, and in this we hope they will build lasting memories and be passed down a generation before garment afterlife is even a consideration. When it is, we'll be ready.

Afterlife ➝ At the very end, this piece can be cut up into smaller pieces and enter the soil (somewhere with oxygen, unlike landfill) where it will decompose. Importantly the rPET tag on the A.05 must be cut off and recycled separately as it won't break down with the rest of your cellulose scraps. Synthetics or heavily treated materials may take hundreds of years to break down and while they do it's likely they will be fragmenting rather than vanishing. The best way to avoid this? Don't buy synthetics clothes unless they are fit for purpose (ie. a ski jacket that will last you a lifetime and barely be laundered) and stay away from synthetics and synthetic blends in your everyday wear.

Importantly, it’s a safe biodegradation that won’t transfer toxins into the soil and will allow these garments to return to where they began, the earth. So circular!


Woman in black linen shirt and woman in black organic linen skirt

Vesna (left) wears the A.05 in Black Organic Linen + A.31 Long Skirt in Black Organic Linen.

Sara (right) wears the A.31 Long Skirt in Black Organic Linen. + A.14 Long Sleeve Skivvy in Organic Cotton.

*FYI the rPET tag issue has been resolved from garment A.31 onwards and all future A.BCH pieces do not require the removal of anything for its successful biological end. We fought very hard to find a supplier who'd be willing to weave organic cotton into our tiny brand labels, and even though it took us a few years, we think it was worth the perseverance!

So what do you think? Have you ever watched a garment biodegrade? We'd love to know the dirty details. Stick around for Afterlife 3 – Mechanical Recycle.

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