Written by Greg Seaman Wednesday, October 07 2009
The cost of clothing goes way beyond the price tag.
The environment is impacted by the growing of fibers for textiles, the manufacture and distribution of clothing, and even the care and maintenance of garments. Here are some tips to help reduce the environmental costs of clothing.
Alternatives to Dry Cleaning
The widely used dry cleaning solvent known as perchloroethylene has been linked to health and environmental hazards, and is classified as a "probable carcinogen" by the Environmental Protection Agency. Many in the dry cleaning industry state that a new solvent in use, DF-2000 is eco-friendly, yet the EPA lists DF-2000 as a neurotoxin and skin and eye irritant for workers; and its use can contribute to smog and global warming. These recently developed technologies now offer safer alternatives:
A new process has been developed which cleans many "dry clean only" garments using an environmentally friendly, water-based system called "Wet Cleaning". Garments made with 100% wools, cashmere, silk, rayon, acetate and dozens of other fabrics can now be safely treated and finished. These fabrics have a dry cleaning preference, but certain food, beverages and albuminous stains may not release in the dry cleaning process. When combined with the exact amounts of soaps, surfactants and finishing agents, wet cleaning is very effective. Most garment manufacturers are now putting their stamp of approval on this process.
The heart of the wet cleaning system is a German made "Miele" processing unit. Many dry cleaning businesses in Europe and North America are now equipped with the Miele wet cleaning unit. Ask your local dry cleaners if they have, or plan to have, the Miele unit for wet cleaning.
An effective and environmentally sound dry cleaning method has been developed by Micell Technologies, based in Raleigh NC. This method uses liquid carbon dioxide to dry-clean clothes, eliminating the use of perchloroethylene. Micell's technology combines liquid carbon dioxide with recyclable cleaning agents in a traditional basket-style machine. It is similar to today’s front-load, mechanical action machines, and features gentle wash and extract cycles. A patented detergent system enhances the cleaning ability of the liquid CO2 allowing it to remove the dirt on the garments. After the cleaning cycle, the machine pulls the mixture of liquid CO2 and cleaning agents away from the clothes, then cleans and reuses the solution.
Unfortunately, CO2 cleaning systems costs are almost double that of wet cleaning systems making them a less viable financial alternative for small businesses.
Regarding performance, CO2 cleaning is said to cause less fading and wear on clothing when compared with traditional dry cleaning. Because it doesn't require heat to clean, the process is also gentler on clothes.
To find a natural CO2 cleaner in your area, click here.
Developed in 2000, this method uses a silicone solvent, essentially pure liquefied sand, which is very gentle on clothes. GreenEarth is not a VOC; it is chemically inert. This means it does not chemically interact with your clothes in any way. Rather, it carries detergent to the clothing and rinses away suspended dirt and oils trapped by the detergent.
Wools do not come out looking "washed out," dry, or full of static. Silks and acetates are treated more gently. Colors remain bright and intact since there is no chemical reaction with the solution. Drycleaners who have seen the GreenEarth system in operation say the garments come out looking like they have been "in a mineral bath," with a soft and gentle feel, and with very little wrinkling.
To find a Green Earth cleaner in your area, click here.
Tip: If you must use conventional dry cleaning, remove plastic bag and hang clothes outside or in an area separate from living quarters to encourage evaporation of solvents. This could take up to a week but will be faster the warmer it is. The best option is to avoid buying clothes that need to be dry cleaned. Washing clothes yourself and having them pressed by a dry cleaner can provide that crisp look without the chemical exposure, and for less money.
These machines have no agitator, and are gentler on your garments than the top-load machines. Many laundromats have traditionally used front-load washers, but these heavy-duty commercial models were not cost-effective for home use. Now, several manufacturers have designed new front load washers which are smaller and within the price range for home use.
You'll not only save energy and water on the more efficient front-load washers, your clothes will last longer and look better. For more information and online sources, click here to see Eartheasy's page on the new front-load washers.
Using a clothesline will save money on your utility bill, while being easier on the environment. Reduce dryer use with a clothesline.
Whether you use an indoor drying rack or an outdoor clothesline, this natural drying is better for your garments than clothes dryers. Your clothes will dry without static cling or shrinkage, and they will also last longer. Look at the lint screen which fills up with every load - this lint is your clothing being worn away!
Eartheasy`s online store sells retractable and umbrella-style clotheslines.
Cold Water Wash
Using hot water for washers is more expensive and has more impact on the environment, while offering marginal benefit in the washing process. Using cold water will save 80 - 90% of the energy costs in washing. The detergent you use is what really makes the difference in wash results, not the temperature of the water. Hot water is also harder on your garments. Biodegradable laundry detergents are inexpensive, effective and readily available.
Remove clothing from dryer before cycle ends
Most clothing shrinking occurs as the last 5-10% of the water is driven out. If clothing is removed when it is a little bit damp, there will be less shrinkage -- increasing the clothing lifespan.
Some elements of clothing can be quickly degraded if subjected to the heat of a drying too long. Some fibers become brittle - particularly elastic bands. So if clothing such as socks are over-dried, they lose elasticity quickly and have a shorter useful springy life.
Avoid "wash separately" clothing
Many new styles on the market have "wash separately" instructions on the care label. These items may have non-colorfast dyes, or delicate fibers which require special care. Too much time, water and energy is spent maintaining these garments, and add to their cost. Consumer rejection can discourage their manufacture.
Avoid "permanent-press" clothing
Permanent-press clothing and no-iron bed linens are treated with formaldehyde resin which becomes a permanent part of the fiber. These impregnated fabrics "out-gas" toxic formaldehyde fumes throughout the life of the garment. Buy natural fiber clothing, and if your bed linens must be pressed, iron only the top half of the top sheet. Fitted bottom sheets don't need ironing.
Non-Gender Specific Clothes
Many of todays' fashions are non-gender specific. They have the added advantage of being easier to re-use as hand-me-downs within the family or among friends. In North America, clothing is too often discarded long before it actually wears out.
Buy Traditional Styles
One of the main reasons we buy new clothing is 'style' - we want to look stylin'. Unfortunately, new styles are often short-lived and the garment is discarded long before it wears out.
There is also "traditional" style - classic designs which never go out of date, and versatile designs which can be mixed and matched for many occasions. Blazers, tweed jackets, jumpers, loafers...
Buy traditional style for expensive garments which will give you lasting value. Buy the current, trendy styles for less expensive items like t-shirts, ties and accessories. You'll have the "look" without the "loss" when styles change.
.."Fashion is something that goes in one year and out the other." (anon.)
Logo is style, and usually that style costs more. In some cases, companies which make popular brand name garments with high-profile logos, spend more money on marketing than manufacturing. To offset the high marketing costs, workers' rights and environmental concerns are often compromised. Often smaller local manufacturers, who can't afford to play the logo game, offer better value. By supporting smaller producers, you're not paying for marketing.
Worksuits help save electricity and water by cutting down on the clothes you need to wash. Your clothes will last longer by being laundered less frequently. Wear a worksuit for yard and garden work, carpentry jobs, cleanups and general mucking around. You'll enjoy the job more when you can relax into it without having to worry about staining that $60 pair of jeans.
You can buy a brand-new worksuit for $40 to $50. It will last you many, many years. An alternative is to go out to your local thrift shop, tool liquidation center or custodial supply and get a used worksuit, priced in the $4 to $10 range. They're usually pre-laundered, so you're ready to step in and get to work.
Extend the life of your clothing and shoes
A good seamstress or tailor can do miracles on small rips or damaged areas on clothing. In addition, they can alter the garment for a different look by altering sleeves or changing the hem. A good pair of shoes will last for years if taken to a shoe repair shop for occasional maintenance – new soles and/or heels, a new color of polish, toe and heel taps, etc.
You can also extend the life of your clothes by wearing an apron while cooking.
Thrift Shop Chic
Shopping for clothes at your local thrift shop can be fun, cheap-cheap-cheap, and often yields a fabulous discovery to add to your wardrobe. Thrift shops offer guilt-free shopping, no pressure sales and the ultimate in bargains. And buying second-hand clothing comes at no cost to the environment.
Children usually grow out of, rather than wear out their clothes, and thrift shops can often have a good selection of children's clothes. And bring the kids to the thrift shop.....it's a good opportunity to teach them why you value used clothing. Teach them about the real costs of new clothing, and let them decide. Remember to donate your own used clothing too.
Along the lines of "thrift shops" for buying used clothing, there are stores in many communities which feature "vintage" clothing. Often the term is used simply to differentiate from "thrift", which may have downscale associations with some people. But the result is the same - when you buy vintage clothing you are recycling, and of course this has no impact on resource use. So if you aren't comfortable with "thrift" shops, then look for "vintage" clothing shops.
Greg Seaman is the editor of Eartheasy.com. He has lived off-grid for 25 years, and is a recognized expert in sustainable living.