One of the most important—yet underrated—ways to have a longer lasting and more sustainable closet is to care for our clothes more consciously.
Of course by being careful in the way we clean and treat our garments keeps them in better shape for longer and means we’ll need to buy less clothes over our lifetimes.
But, something that’s not as apparent is that an estimated 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions from clothing takes place in the consumer use stage.
Crazy huh? This means that no matter what piece of clothing we have in our closet or that we choose to buy, we have the control over a huge amount of the environmental impact of our wardrobes.
To help you care for your clothes more consciously, I’m sharing my tips and tricks for washing and drying clothes sustainably!
Much of the environmental impact from our clothing use can be attributed to washing machines and dryers. It’s estimated that by washing and drying just one load every two days, 440kg of CO2 is emitted.
So, the first step to reducing our impact in the use stage of clothing is to wash less. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that we have to wear dirty, smelly clothes to be sustainable—but I do want to share some alternatives I’ve learned over the years.
If you are purely washing a piece because of a bad odor, machineless alternatives exist.
- Air the garment out on a clothing rack or hanger outside (if the area you live in has a good air quality)
- Put it in the freezer. Sounds strange, I know, but freezing is an effective way to kill bacteria and the odors caused by bacteria. Just be sure to put the piece in some sort of (reusable!) bag before placing it inside to freeze.
- Spray with vodka. (Disclaimer: I wouldn’t recommend using this method on more fragile fabrics like silk.) Put a mix of half vodka and half water—plus a few drops of essential oils if you’d like—in a spray bottle and spray your clothing from a safe distance. Okay so you might think I’m crazy, but I promise you this trick works! I learned this cleaning method when I was at my dance conservatory. When dancers have many performances close together and don’t have time to wash their costumes or when a costume is too fragile to wash, they spray vodka to quickly eliminate the odors and bacteria. And trust me—if it can significantly reduce the smell on polyester costumes soaked with sweat, it can work for you too!
- Keep your clothing in your drawers smelling fresh by placing some activated charcoal or baking soda inside to absorb the smells.
Another way to reduce energy use (though it still leads to significant water use) is washing by hand. This can be especially useful for extending the life of more fragile pieces.
When you must put your clothes in a washing machine, try to use cold water—it’s easier on your clothes and the planet! (Just by turning down the temperature on your washer from 40°C to 30°C will save 100 grams of CO2 per load.)
Another simple switch is going from conventional to natural laundry detergent. Here are some natural detergent brands to look for online or a store near you. (Many of these brands can be found at Whole Foods, Target, and smaller natural/health-focused shops):
Seventh Generation (I’ve used this one)
The Simply Co
Method (I’ve also used this one)
Mrs. Meyer’s (and this one)
The Honest Co.
Meliora (this company is based in Chicago, where I’m from, so I had the opportunity to hear the founder speak on a panel about responsible business and I was very impressed by all of the initiatives she has put in place at her company)
Does Ecological Detergent Work And How Expensive Is It?
Two barriers that may come up with ecological detergent are one: the perception that natural detergents don’t clean your your clothes as well and two: that it’s more expensive.
After using both conventional and natural detergent, I must say I don’t notice any difference in the cleanliness of my clothes. So I prefer the natural ones because they smell so much better to me and of course I like knowing it’s better for my skin and our earth!
As for the cost, look for ultra-concentrated natural detergent that requires less detergent per load and look for bulk sizes. Then compare the costs by load rather than by unit (like ounce or mL). You may find that the price differences aren’t as large as they initially seem.
An even more affordable option is to make your own natural laundry detergent. Most of my DIY experiments end in disaster so I haven’t tried it yet, but this recipe seems to be popular.
Another sustainable option is to use soap nuts, which are berry shells that have naturally occurring soap inside of them. Ever since discovering these, I’ve been fascinated, so I definitely plan to test them out soon!
If your garment has a stain, here are some natural stain removers:
- White vinegar (works like a charm! white vinegar is especially useful for yellow stains and brightening up white clothing)
- The Honest Company Stain Remover
- Meliora Laundry Stain Removal Soap Stick
- Seventh Generation Laundry Stain Remover
Another issue with washing to be aware of is microplastics, which are very tiny plastic particles that get into our environment. Greenpeace estimates that 30% of ocean plastic pollution comes from microplastics and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has reported that 35% of these microplastics come from synthetic clothing and other fabrics.
These microplastics get into our waterways that have been found in table salt, seafood and inside the majority of plastic water bottles (just in case we needed yet another reason to stop using plastic water bottles!)
If You Can’t Avoid Synthetic Fabrics, Use A Washing Bag
The best thing we can do is to not buy clothing make from synthetic fabrics. But since many of us already have synthetic clothes in our closets, and there are even many eco-friendly companies producing products being made from recycled synthetic fabrics, there is another way that we can help stop microplastics.
You can put your pieces into a Guppyfriend Washing Bag that stops microplastics from being released from your clothing in the wash. The company is based in Germany so they have free shipping to European customers, but if you’re in the US like me you can get a Guppyfriend Washing Bag on Patagonia’s website.
The bags are pretty large so you’ll likely only need one unless you do really large loads of laundry. And you won’t need to put every piece of clothing in there—just the ones made from synthetic fabrics. I must say the bag isn’t cheap (around $30 + shipping if you buy from Patagonia) but it’s held up well so far for me and has also been useful for keeping my fragile pieces in good condition.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that in many households, a dryer consumes the same amount of energy as a refrigerator, dishwasher and washing machine combined!
So to reduce your footprint—and your energy bills—hang-dry and line-dry your clothes whenever possible. Your clothes will also likely last longer without being put in the dryer.
If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, patio, or balcony and have warm, sunny weather, line-drying is a great option. In case you have to dry inside, a drying rack is pretty useful.
If a piece dries slowly or you don’t like the texture of a certain material after air drying it, try putting it into the dryer for a shorter period of time. Even stopping the drying machine ten minutes before it’s “done” can help reduce the impact.
The majority of conventional dry cleaners (many sources estimate 90% of them) use perchloroethylene, a chemical that has been defined as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and listed as a hazardous air pollutant by the EPA.
Yikes! I don’t know about you, but after learning about this warning, I have no desire to ever go to another conventional dry cleaner again.
If you do still want to take your piece to a dry cleaner, search for a green dry cleaner in your area that doesn’t use toxic chemicals, such as GreenEarth Cleaning.
And there you have it! With these tips, tricks, and tools of the trade, you should be well on your way to caring for your clothes consciously for a more sustainable and long-lasting wardrobe.
Do you have any other cleaning or drying tips to share? Drop a comment below so we can all learn from you!