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Care for our Clothes

Team Zady

It’s easy to think of clothing as a static object—a beautiful dress hanging in our closet or a pair of jeans in a window display. But the reality is that a piece of clothing has a lifecycle- a beginning, a middle, and an end, and each stage in this lifecycle has an impact. The beginning stage of a piece of clothing is concerned with the type of material used, where that material comes from, how it is made, and by whom. The end stage is concerned with where that piece of clothing goes when we no longer want it. The middle is concerned with what happens in the period of time when clothing is in our possession, including how frequently we wear it, how we care for it, and how long we keep it. Here, we’ll explore how the decisions we make around caring for our clothes impact the environment.

Caveat lector

Before we do that, though, we want to make a note. While it’s possible to make more conscious decisions around how we, as consumers, care for our clothes, we are not suggesting that this absolves the fashion industry from addressing the social and environmental issues that make it so unsustainable in the first place. [1] Life cycle assessments, which look at the impact of each stage of a garment’s lifecycle, often point to the middle stage, the consumer use stage, as the stage with the most impact. We don’t necessarily dispute this evidence—depending on the study, it may well be that the impacts of using clothes far outweigh those associated with making them or disposing of them. But those studies often assume that we hold on to clothes for much longer than we actually do. In our modern wardrobes, there’s evidence that we only wear a piece of clothing 7 times. [2] When it comes to fast fashion, we keep these items for just 5 weeks. [3] We think the remarkable shortening of the use phase of a garment provides an important context for interpreting the information that follows.

Washing decisions

Our washing decisions have two environmental impacts: water use and energy use.

Let’s start with water use, which is fairly straightforward—the more we wash our clothing, the more water we use. In American homes, washing laundry is the second largest consumer of water, after flushing in the toilet, using on average 16,400 gallons of water per year. [4],[5] For some context, that’s as much water as 282 Americans drink over the course of a single year.

  • If we want to save water while caring for our clothes, our only option is to wash our clothes less frequently. Jeans are an easy place to start since, let’s face it, they look better the more worn they are.

Moving along to energy use. Two of our washing decisions directly impact energy use: water temperature and load size. The temperature we set our washing machine to—hot, warm, or cold—makes a big difference when it comes to energy use. Hot and warm settings require more energy to heat the water. In fact, 90% of washing machine’s energy consumption is used to heat the water. [6] When it comes to load size, whether we fill our washing machines up all the way, or run it with just a couple of pieces, our washing machine uses the same amount of energy. Remember, more energy means more emissions.

  • The best option to save energy is to wash clothes in cold water. In the US, where 36% of all household hot water is used for laundering, a switching to cold water could reduce carbon emission by 30 million tons. [7]
  • Next, always run full loads- you will be using the same amount of energy to wash more clothes.

Drying decisions

Drying our clothes uses the most energy and emits the most carbon of any of our home laundering activities. Dryers alone account for more than 80% of the energy used in US residential clothes washing (washing, drying, ironing, etc). [8] This energy use translates into carbon emissions—each load of laundry generates 6.2 pounds of carbon dioxide.9 That may not seem like much, but considering that the average American household runs 400 loads of laundry a year, dryers annually generate a quarter of the emissions as cars in the US.[10-12]

  • From an environmental standpoint, the best way to save energy and emissions while drying your clothes is to skip tumble-drying altogether and air-dry your clothes. This could either be on a line if you have outdoor space, or on an indoor drying rack. It may seem like a small contribution, but it really adds up. Consider this hypothetical: if all households line dried their clothes, this would reduce the US carbon footprint by over 10%. [13]
  • If switching to air-drying isn’t practical for you, here are a few things you can do to reduce your dryer’s energy consumption. Pull your clothes out of the dryer before they are completely dry. Clean your lint filter regularly as this improves the dryer’s airflow. If you are washing and drying multiple loads, drying loads consecutively saves energy because it takes advantage of the dryer’s retained heat. When drying your clothes, separate them by fabric type because some fabrics, like synthetics, dry very quickly. Once those are dry, put in towels or clothing made from natural fibers, since these take longer to dry. [14]

In addition to saving energy the next time you dry your clothes, we recommend skipping dryer sheets. That fresh smell results from a long list of potentially toxic chemicals with at best a questionable impact on our health and the environment.

Appliance selection

When it comes to the water use, energy consumption, and emissions generated by our washers and dryers, we are limited by the baseline performance features of our machines. For this reason, energy efficient appliances offer a lot of benefits when it comes to reducing the impact of our home laundering. EnergyStar is an international standard for energy efficiency in appliances. The efficiency gains from EnergyStar appliances are significant. Energy Star certified washers use 25% less energy and use 40% less water compared to non- EnergyStar machines. [15] Again assuming 400 loads/year, an EnergyStar washing machine could save up to 7,000 gallons of water per year. [16] EnergyStar dryers use 20% less energy than conventional machines. This reduction in water and electricity is not just an environmental benefit, but helps save money as well.

Detergent selection

We’ve talked about the water pollution resulting from the fashion industry, focusing on the role of farms and factories in contaminating our oceans and drinking water with heavy chemicals. One of the ways that water pollution hits closer to home is that our laundry detergent is a big culprit in releasing chemicals into our waterways. [17] In fact, each year, billions of tons of chemicals from laundry end up on our water. [18]

Many chemicals are used in laundry detergents including: surfactants, builders, bleaches, colorants, optical brighteners, and solvents. These chemicals are frequently resistant to water treatment and pose hazards to aquatic and human health. [19] Let’s look closer at surfactants, which lower the surface tension of the water, allowing the cleaning solution to better wet the surface of our clothes. In doing so, surfactants penetrate our clothing more deeply, helping them remove stains and leaving our clothes looking cleaner. However, some surfactants used in laundry detergent have been shown to be harmful to human health and toxic to the environment. For example, nonylphenol ethoxylates, are known endocrine disruptors and have been shown to be harmful to aquatic reproductive systems. [20]

  • To make sure your detergent is safe for your health, we recommend visiting the Environmental Working Group’s detergent scoring guide, and selecting a detergent with a high grade.
  • Additionally, the EPA provides a Safer Choice standard that lists detergents and other household items that have demonstrated higher safety standards for human and environmental health.

Dry cleaning

Dry cleaning, despite its name, is not a dry process; it actually involves the use of a chemical liquid, perchloroethylene, also known as PERC or PCE. PERC is a powerful anti-stain agent used by approximately 80% [21] of the 30,000 dry cleaners in America primarily because it gets rid of stains without damaging fabric. PERC would be magic if not for the fact that health and environmental agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have classified it a toxic chemical that is a “possible to probable human carcinogen.” [22] This nasty chemical has also been linked to nervous system, cognitive, and reproductive impairments resulting from long-term exposure. Cutting out PERC is a no-brainer, and the availability of accessible alternatives has never made the decision easier.

  • Professional Wet Cleaning: Most clothes labeled dry clean can actually be wet cleaned, which involves the use of water and non-toxic biodegradable detergent in specialized equipment. Wet cleaning uses no toxic agents, leaves no residue on clothes, uses water and energy less intensively than traditional dry cleaning, and releases no harmful pollutants into the environment. Because wet cleaning equipment is affordable, small businesses can afford to acquire the necessary technology. As such, there is a growing availability of wet cleaners around the country, and that should continue to increase as more consumers and dry cleaners alike realize the human and environmental health benefits of PERC-free cleaning. To ensure that your wet cleaner is not using any chemical solvents, make sure to ask if their cleaning process is water-based.

  • Carbon Dioxide Cleaning: CO2 cleaning involves pressurizing carbon dioxide into a liquid that is used alongside other non-toxic agents to clean clothes. The CO2 in this process is an industrial byproduct, so this cleaning method does not introduce new greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the machinery involved allows for the liquid CO2 to be reused, creating an efficient loop that lessens the release of leftover CO2 into the air. The CO2 method has been shown to be highly effective, with one Consumer Reports study concluding that it outperformed even wet cleaning. However, CO2 cleaning is not as widely available because the machinery is still expensive, so you might not find a nearby service depending on where you live.

  • Washing By Hand and Machine: According to our friends at the Laundress, many clothes labeled dry clean can be washed at home, and there are plenty of online resources to help you determine whether and how to wash certain fabrics yourself. For example, light colored silks can be washed by hand in cold water using light soap and then air-dried. Wool and cashmere sweaters can be sorted by color and washed by hand or in the machine’s delicate cycle and then laid flat to dry.

  • Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaners: The final option is to carry on dry cleaning, hold the PERC, with an important caveat. Eco-friendly dry cleaners substitute PERC with other agents to clean clothes. Some of those cleaning agents, including silicon-based Siloxane D5 and petroleum-based hydrocarbon solvents, may not be as toxic as PERC, but there is evidence to suggest that they may have their own health and environmental impacts. [23],[24]

In addition to its chemical impact, dry cleaning also produces packaging waste resulting from disposable hangers and plastic bags. According to the US Department of Commerce, 3.5 billion wire hangers end up in landfills each year. [25] One way to reduce your dry cleaning footprint is to bring your hangers back to your dry cleaner for reuse. You’ll be diverting these hangers from the landfill, and your dry cleaner will appreciate the opportunity to reuse them. There are also a number of dry cleaners across the country that provide hanger recycling. When it comes to plastic, an estimated 300 million pounds of single-used dry cleaning plastic bags are thrown away each year. Dry cleaning bags are usually plastic #4, low-density polyethylene, which is also known as plastic film. If the plastic number isn’t printed on the bag, you can ask your dry cleaner to provide you with that information. While some municipal recycling programs accept plastic #4, most do not. However, most types of plastic bags are accepted at recycling centers and retailers across the country, including local grocery stores and retailers like Target. Find a plastic bag recycling center near you. You can always skip the plastic bag altogether either by buying a reusable dry cleaning bag, such as those available from The Green Garmento or by asking your dry cleaner not to package your clean clothes in plastic.

References:

  1. Fletcher, K. (2013). Sustainable fashion and textiles: design journeys. Routledge. p. 78
  2. Once worn, thrice shy – British women’s wardrobe habits exposed!
  3. How can we get young people to say no to fast fashion?
  4. Residential Shower and Bath Introduction
  5. How Much Water Do People Drink?
  6. Clean By Design: Consumer Care
  7. Clean By Design: Consumer Care
  8. http://www.treehugger.com/energy-efficiency/energy-star-creates-specification-clothes-dryers-could-reduce-us-co2-emissions-22-billion-pounds-year.html
  9. Carbon Rally: Sheets to the Wind
  10. Fire Your Clothes Dryer
  11. A clothesline can save big money, energy, and carbon emission
  12. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle
  13. Humble, M. J., & Chambers, M. I. (2012). Plan for the Planet: A Business Plan for a Sustainable World. Gower Publishing, Ltd. p. 54
  14. Clothes Dryers
  15. [Clothes Washers] https://www.energystar.gov/products/certified-products/detail/clothes-washers
  16. 11 ways to green your laundry
  17. Muthu, S. S. (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. CRC Press. p. 175
  18. Bajpai, D., & Tyagi, V. K. (2007). Laundry detergents: an overview. Journal of oleo science, 56(7), 327-340.
  19. Muthu, S. S. (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. CRC Press. p. 175
  20. Soaps & Detergents: Surfactants & Builders
  21. Finding an Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaner
  22. Basic Information About Perchloroethylene, or “Perc”
  23. Dry Cleaning Chemicals Hang Around - On Your Clothes
  24. How to Care for the Planet and Your Health While Also Caring for Your Clothes
  25. Hangers Made to Recycle
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