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When These Clothes Wear Out, You Can Throw Them In Your Compost Bin

Three-year-old jeans, meet last week’s food scraps. Now it’s possible to turn your old clothing into backyard dirt.

Though a lot of clothing is made from natural fibers like cotton, most of it shouldn’t be tossed in a compost heap, thanks to things like dyes, buttons, and polyester tags. But Swiss manufacturer Freitag has designed a new line of clothing that’s safe for your garden or a city’s compost bins.

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“It’s really the first 100% biodegradable textile,” says Oliver Brunschwiler from Freitag. “Most companies still have polyester thread in their clothing, but our thread is 100% biodegradable, as are our shirts buttons, which are made out of a nut. On the pants, the metal button can be screwed off and used again.”

Freitag is best known for upcycling used truck tarps into messenger bags, but the company wanted to make their products even more sustainable. “Because we’re making bags out of used tarps, we give them a second life,” Brunschwiler says. “But the problem was always we make something out of it, and then you have to throw it away if you don’t use it anymore. The cycle was not closed.”

The new fabric is made from a mix of hemp, flax, and modal, a fiber made from wood. Because cotton uses so much water to grow–more than 10 times the water used for linen–the designers decided to avoid using it.

Oliver Nanzig

The company started work on the project five years ago, testing the line of clothes with workers at their own factory. Though the clothing will break down in a composter after a few months, while you wear it, it’s designed to be extremely durable–especially the jeans. “It’s very thick, very solid material, scrub resistant, more like a workwear thing or a strong denim,” Brunschwiler says.

It’s also entirely made and sold in Europe, since Freitag wanted to avoid the usual global production process.

Read more: This Hyper-Local Hoodie Is Made (Almost) Only With Materials Within A 150-Mile Circle

“The problem we have in globalization is if you take cotton and it’s grown in Louisiana, for example, they ship it over to China and wash it and bleach it, then it gets sent back to Mexico and they make it into fabric, and then it gets sent back to China where they sew it and make shirts,” says Brunschwiler. “They have like 45,000 kilometers on their back before you can actually buy it somewhere.”

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The flax and hemp for the new line is grown in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the yarns are spun in Slovenia and Italy, the fabrics are made in Italy or Portugal, and sewing happens in Poland.

For now, to keep things local, it’s only for sale in Europe. But the company is considering the possibility of doing something similar, eventually, in the U.S.

“The U.S. has a lot of potential in terms of linen and hemp,” Brunschwiler says. “It could be that we’re hitting the U.S. market very soon.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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