The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 8

Last updated on June 6, 2024.

Interior of a clothing store, upscale appearing fixtures and lighting with neatly folded and hung clothing.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

We know that the clothing and fashion industries have major flaws that only some companies are trying to rectify. And we, as consumers, have choices as well – one is to simply buy less. Buy secondhand when possible. Take good care of our clothes. By doing those things, we can save money and the environment.

Before wrapping up this series, I wanted to touch on a few subtopics I hadn’t written about yet. Though some topics are big enough to warrant an entire series of their own, I believe them important enough to mention.

The fashion industry releases 10% of total carbon emissions.1

Chemicals

Worldwide, we use thousands of chemicals in textile production. Those chemicals can stay in clothes, even after washing. We can absorb those chemicals through our skin or inhale them. While these are small, or even trace amounts, the accumulation of toxins over time causes health problems. This is because there are chemicals in most consumer products. “For example, formaldehyde is not only used in fashion; it’s a common wood preservative found in furniture and is sometimes used to manufacture mattresses, meaning we could be exposed to this chemical not only through our shirts but also while we sit at our desks and sleep.”2 There are also chemicals in all plastic items, including fabric.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Companies treat clothing with formaldehyde to prevent mildew growth and parasites during transit. Clothing labeled ‘wrinkle free,’ ‘stain resistant,’ or ‘water resistant’ are treated with toxic fluorocarbons, also known as PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals.’ These are extremely toxic. Workout clothing and athletic fashion may be treated with the antibacterial chemical triclosan, which is a known endocrine disrupter.

Here are some disturbing facts about chemicals in the fashion industry:

Worldwide, the fashion industry uses one-quarter of the chemicals produced.4

The World Bank estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for close to 20% of annual industrial water pollution, due to chemicals.5

While cotton is a natural fabric, it is also known as the world’s dirtiest crop. Cotton production requires around 19 million tons of chemicals annually.6 The pesticides alone are toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.7

Rack of t-shirts on clear plastic hangers, in order of hues, from yellow to order to red, then green to blue.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

Dyes

Most dyes are synthetic, meaning made from chemicals and fossil fuels. Synthetics are popular because they dye vibrantly and retain their color. However, many of these dyes contain harmful chemicals. Azo dyes, the largest category of dyes, are carcinogenic and are restricted in the state of California and the European Union.8 In addition to the textile and leather industries, manufacturers also use Azo dyes in food, candy, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.

Other synthetic dyes contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, chromium, copper, and chemicals such as benzene. All get into bodies of water and harm both the environment and human health.9

“There is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.” -Orsola de Castro, fashion designer and activist10

Stack of 4 pairs of denim blue jeans in different hues, white background.
Photo by Claire Abdo on Unsplash.

Example: Indigo

Indigo is a good example. Almost all of the denim we wear is dyed with synthetic indigo. Synthetic indigo is made of ten chemicals, including petroleum, benzene, cyanide, formaldehyde, etc. All are toxic or harmful to humans. The chemicals are cheaper to buy than paying a farmer to grow crops from which to harvest dyes.11

The Chinese manufacture most synthetic indigo today, and they use a chemical called aniline. It is a likely human carcinogen. “Recent reports indicate that two-thirds of aniline residue winds up in wastewater, lakes, rivers, and other waterways; on workers; and in the air that workers breathe.” The remaining third is embedded in the denim clothing sold in stores.12

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes made from plants, seeds, and fruit don’t pollute water, but many still require the use of chemical mordants (substances that bind the dye to the fabric). They can also use a lot of water. Some companies are developing dyes that use 95% less water, as well as dyes that are recycled by reusing the same water and chemicals over and over again. Another process pulverizes leftover textiles, turning them into pigment powder, and using them as dyes.13

Shelves of colorful women's shoes with sales tags on them.
Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash.

Shoes

“When we think about sustainable fashion, we tend to overlook footwear, but the reality is that shoes are undoubtedly one of the most environmentally impactful elements of our wardrobes. Around 25 billion pairs of shoes are made each year – close to 70 million every single day.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe14

The footwear part of the fashion industry has major environmental impacts. According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “it’s responsible for 700 million tons of carbon emissions per year, the equivalent of burning more than 765,000 pounds of coal. Many of the components in our shoes, from synthetic rubber to chrome-tanned leather, don’t biodegrade and are difficult or impossible to recycle; some are made of toxic building blocks. Shoes, even cheap ones, can and should be made with more sustainable, non-toxic, and recyclable or biodegradable materials.”15

The footwear industry uses a lot of plastic for coatings, foam soles, laces, and other components. Vegan leather is usually plastic. “Some shoes comprise 65 parts…the more components and the more different materials used, the more difficult a pair of shoes is to dismantle and recycle…As many as 95% of shoes go to landfill at the end of their life.”16

What You Can Do

Buy higher quality shoes and find a cobbler to repair them as needed.17 This is better for the environment and more economical over time. Cobblers can replace soles, remove scuffs, repair buckles, snaps, zippers, and straps, and replace high-heel tips. Some can even darken the color of leather, stretch leather shoes to a slightly bigger size, and also repair and condition leather jackets and handbags.18

As consumers, we can do our part by buying more durable shoes whenever possible, and taking good care of the shoes we already own.

Recycled Fabric is Available

Some companies are trying to help the textile industry change by recycling textiles and making new cloth from them. Clothing producers can use waste from the scraps from factory floors or the leftovers that brands often burn or shred.19

A company named Evrnu takes old garments and textile production waste with high cotton content and recycles them into new fiber for cloth. Evrnu produces 80% less greenhouse gas emissions and uses 98% less water than virgin cotton. The company eliminates up to one-third of all garment waste, causes zero deforestation, and requires no farming.20

Worn Again Technologies is a company that has developed a chemical process that “converts textiles containing polyester and cotton back into circular materials.” This offsets CO2 emissions and diverts material away from incineration and landfills.21

ECONYL uses nylon from used carpets, old fishing nets, and fabric scraps to recreate nylon items, such as clothing, carpets, and furniture items.22

Other companies, such as Patagonia, are trying to do the right thing by using recycled plastic bottles to make them into fibers for their product lines. But now many companies are mimicking this practice and the less ethical ones are “buying new plastic bottles to make polyester textile fibers that can be called ‘recycled.'”23 As always, be aware of what you are buying.

Store shelves with hanging clothes and folded clothes, mostly fall colors, mannequin on left.
Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash.

Demand More From the Corporations

We should all demand that corporations be transparent and honest about their effects on the environment, as well as their sustainability efforts. “Few companies, both outside the fashion world and particularly inside of it, seem particularly eager to share the environmental effects of what they do because usually they are bad.”24

Many companies have a sustainability page on their website. But sometimes these are no more than public relations pages created to sway consumers into thinking the company is doing great things for the environment. “Unfortunately, these pages usually contain little or no specific information about how the company’s products are actually made,” explained Tatiana Schlossberg. They ensure transparency in their supply chain but provide no evidence or explanation of what that means.

“I shouldn’t have to find out which brand of jeans uses the least amount of water; the brands should be more transparent and tell us how much water they use, and then use much less. They are the ones who are making money from our choices, and we should not support those who don’t at least tell us what they’re doing.” -Tatiana Schlossberg, Inconspicuous Consumption25

If you’re not sure about a company’s environmental commitments or have specific questions about how something was made or chemically treated, ask the company via email, contact page, or phone. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that “a responsible brand will make it easy to get in touch with them and will respond to your queries.”26 Further, they will be clear in their response and you’ll be able to tell if it is a stock response or a true response. If a brand turns out to be unethical, you can decide to shop elsewhere.

Remember the Human Factor

When purchasing new clothes, pause and reflect on the humans who sewed the clothes. Are they being treated well, paid well, and working in a safe environment? These days, with profits at record highs for many industries, companies have zero excuses for not caring about the people who labor for them.

Most brands contract out for production, and contractors often subcontract the work. This is where the sweatshops come in. “When caught, the brands often claim they had no idea their ‘approved’ contractors were subcontracting to sweatshops. Subcontracting is endemic in the apparel industry, creating a fractured supply chain in which workers are easily in jeopardy.”27 The right to subcontract is part of the negotiated contract, so it doesn’t seem likely that companies don’t know about the subcontracting.

David Weil, Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, wrote that today, fashion executives “dictate everything they want in their supply chain to an incredible degree…they will send back an order when the dyes aren’t right – they monitor that precisely. But somehow it’s unreasonable to make sure that there is adherence to fire emergency escape rules, and you aren’t operating in a building like Rana Plaza.”28 Companies must do better. I’ve included a list of organizations below that support textile industry laborers.

“Ultimately, brands are responsible for their massive exploitation of garment workers—creating massive profits for only a handful of billionaires and environmental harm to the planet. But added together, people still have significant power to hold these companies accountable as consumers and push for legislation as citizens.”29

Our Role

In the end, we are all responsible. But as consumers, we don’t have to tolerate the poor actions of these huge fast fashion companies. Shop less, buy second-hand, and take care of the clothes you have. If we all commit, we can make a huge difference. Ask questions, demand transparency, and don’t purchase items from companies that don’t provide clear answers. There’s so much clothing in the world that we could clothe everyone and then some. We have so many choices when it comes to clothing!

Last, learn all you can! Knowledge about environmental problems is the key. Thank you for reading, please subscribe and share!

 

Support the work of these organizations:

Asia Floor Wage Alliance

The Awaj Foundation

Clean Clothes Campaign

Fair Wear Foundation

Fashion Revolution

The Garment Worker Center

The International Labour Organization

Labour Behind the Label

No Sweat

The Or Foundation

Remake

The Solidaridad Network

Workers Rights Consortium

“It’s important that we amplify what garment workers are demanding and support the people who make our clothes by spreading their message and holding brands and the people in charge to account.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe30

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Clothing and Fashion Industry Series.

bluesign: This organization sets standards for chemical usage in textiles.

Fair Wear Foundation: a non-profit organization whose mission “is to see a world where the garment industry supports workers in realizing their rights to safe, dignified, properly paid employment.”

Article, “10 More Sustainable Sandals Like Birkenstocks You’ll Love,” by Isobella Wolfe, goodonyou.eco, August 24, 2023. I’ve been wearing Birkenstocks for 20 years because they support my feet and back and are just about endlessly repairable. However, Birkenstocks aren’t very environmentally friendly. Article, “How to Recycle Your Used Hiking Shoes,” by Jeff Podmayer, thetrek.co, January 18, 2021.

Footnotes:

The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 6

Many embroidery floss skeins in rainbow order, making a blank heart shape in the center.
Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash.

If you’ve been reading articles from my series about the clothing industry, then you probably want to know more about what you can do about fashion waste. The short answer is that first, you can take good care of the clothes you have by laundering them well and repairing them. Second, stop buying too much clothing – even when it’s a great deal! Try to buy only the pieces you really love and that fit well. Don’t just buy something because you found it on the clearance rack.

Globally, we have to stop the overproduction of clothing and fast fashion.

As Elizabeth L. Cline noted, in America, we spend more money on restaurants than we do on clothes. We don’t see any reason to spend more on fashion because of the availability of cheap clothes. “As any economist will tell you, cheaper prices stimulate consumption. And the current low rate of fashion has spurred a shopping free-for-all, where we are buying and hoarding roughly 20 billion garments per year as a nation…If we could only give up our clothing deals and steals, we might just see that there are far more fortifying, not to mention more flattering, ways of getting dressed.”1

“The most sustainable clothes are the ones already in your closet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend2

Close-up of a white front-load washing machine, with a hand turning the dial.
Photo by rawpixel.com form PxHere.

Wash Your Clothes Less

Washing our clothes less makes them last much longer. It also reduces the number of microfibers, that is, microscopic pieces of plastic from synthetic clothing, that enter our water systems. You can wear some articles several times before you launder them unless you sweat or spill something on them. You can freshen your clothes without washing them, by hanging them in the bathroom during a shower or hanging them outside. Read “Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits” for laundry tips.

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet3 

Tan cardigan with white and yellow flower embroidery near shoulder.
Photo by Alex Baber on Unsplash.

Mending

“When you take the time and effort to repair or improve a garment, you will value it and, more importantly, enjoy wearing it.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!4

Mending can extend the life of your clothing and keep them out of the landfill. Learning basic sewing and embroidery is worth the effort because you can save money and protect the environment.

In her book, The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline offered an entire chapter on how to perform basic repairs and instructions on several types of stitches without sewing skills or a sewing machine. A few common repairs include missing buttons, seam splits, loose stitching, applying patches, and darning socks. You can find tutorials for all of these in her book. Often you can find tutorials online for free, as well.

Cline also recommended using a fabric shaver to remove pills,5 which are the little bobbles of loose fibers that build up on your clothes. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote that you can also reuse an old razor to remove pills. Just avoid pulling them off with your fingers because that can cause damage to the fabric.6

BEAUTURAL Fabric Shaver and Lint Remover, gray, showing the device and two blade attachments.
This is the fabric shaver I use and I’ve been happy with the results. This is not a paid promotion or affiliate product.

Tip: You can even find sewing materials and notions – and even sewing machines – at thrift stores and second-hand shops. You don’t necessarily have to pay retail for those things.

“Wear visibly mended clothes proudly. Visible mending is a great conversation starter, and a visibly mended garment is the perfect uniform for the reluctant activist because it does the heavy lifting for you. Whenever you wear something visibly mended and chat with someone about it, you’re raising awareness that mending is possible, it can be creative and colourful, and caring for our clothes is an important thing to do.” -Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, Modern Mending7 

Tiny flower embroidery on denim, many colors, needle with light blue thread at center.
Photo by Barbara Krysztofiak on Unsplash.

“In repairing our clothes, we send a message. With each stitch we declare, ‘I value the people who made this, I value the natural resources that went into making it and I value the version of myself that chose it.’ ” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe8

Hire A Tailor

If you don’t want to learn basic sewing or don’t have the time, you can take your items to a tailor. This costs more but still extends the life of the clothing you already own. Sophie Benson wrote, “Both alterations and repairs should very much be seen as part and parcel of the maintenance of our clothes. Any action that keeps your clothes in wearable condition is classed as maintenance, and this includes things like lowering hems, taking in or letting out waistbands, altering silhouettes and replacing linings. You might be surprised what a tailor can do.”9

“Through mending we slow down consumption, extend the life of our garments, and increase resilience and technical skill…As we mend our textiles we work on an individual scale to mend overconsumption, fast fashion, and the unethical treatment of people and the planet.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend10

Reuse Old Clothes

You can reuse clothes for repair projects and even refashion them. You can also just find a way to reuse them around the house. “This is the way humans ‘recycled’ worn clothes for ages. Scrap denim is ideal for mending and patching…Cotton t-shirts make great cleaning cloths and rags. And worn or stained items and scuffed-up shoes are great to wear for yard work or other outdoor activities.”11 

You can cut off the sleeves of a long-sleeved shirt and make a tank top, or make jeans into shorts. This is especially true for children’s clothing! Other clothes can be repurposed into bags, dog toys, or pillows. Use your imagination! The internet abounds with inspirational ideas!

“Slow fashion is…saving up to buy fewer pieces of higher quality and keeping them for longer (or forever!); it’s shopping secondhand; it’s repairing instead of throwing away; it’s brands making to order to reduce waste; it’s local or small batch production; it’s personal style not trends; it’s releases once or twice per year instead of every week. It’s our way out of this mess.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe12

Wear Clothes Longer

This is the goal: To wear your existing clothing longer.

If you take good care of your clothes through good laundering and simple mending, your clothes will last a lot longer. This will save you money and time, and it is better for the environment. “According to Greenpeace, wearing your clothes for at least two years will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 24 percent.”13 We can all make a big impact when it comes to clothing.

“Mending, repairing, and caring for our clothes is the essence of sustainable fashion.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet14 

I hope this helps! Feel free to leave me a comment about your ideas for caring for or repairing clothing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Website of Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald, author of Modern Mending.

Reuse shop, FabScrap, “FABSCRAP diverts thousands of pounds of commercial textile waste from landfills every week. These pre-consumer materials are often in perfect condition.”

Responsibly sourced wool and knitting materials, Peace Fleece store.

Good on You website, evaluates the ethics and sustainability of fashion brands around the world.

See books on Mending in the footnotes or on my Books Page under “The Textile & Clothing Industry.”

Footnotes:

Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits

Last updated on June 6, 2024.

Tan wicker Laundry Basket with colorful Clothes on a White Background.
Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Have you ever struggled to figure out how to do the laundry without hurting the environment? Do you want your clothes to last longer? It is a challenge, one I’ve been figuring out for years. Here are ways you can practice environmentally friendly laundry habits that will allow you to wear your wardrobe for a long time.

First, Wash Your Clothes Less

Many sustainable fashion experts tell us to launder as little as possible. “If a garment has had no contact with sweat and isn’t stained, you can wear it multiple times before you need to wash it. Repeated laundering breaks down the fibers and fades colors, making garments look old and worn more quickly.”1 You can wear some clothes several times before they need washing. There are ways to “freshen” clothes without washing them. Any time you can avoid washing clothing saves time, energy, money, and water. It also protects our water from pollutants and chemicals. 

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet2 

In 2014, the CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, said that jeans should never be machine washed, admitting that he hadn’t machine washed his jeans in more than a year. When he does wash them, he handwashes and hangs them up to air dry. Bergh argued that not using the washing machine keeps jeans in mint condition and is better for the environment.3 

Washing Our Clothes Sheds Microfibers

A 2016 Plymouth University study found that more than 700,000 fibers were released during a thirteen-pound load of laundry, with fleece releasing the most.4 In 2017, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from laundering synthetic fabrics.5

Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, noted that fleece, as in a fleece jacket or those cheap $4 blankets at big box stores, is one of the biggest villains. That fabric is made from used water bottles, the clear ones with the #1 RIC symbol. While recycling is important, washing fleece releases large numbers of microfibers into water, and eventually the ocean.6

Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microfibers. These fibers do not decompose or biodegrade. When the microfibers travel through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, “the vast majority of fibers (somewhere between 75 and 99 percent) settle into the sludge…sludge from wastewater treatment plants can be used as agricultural fertilizer, and it is slathered…onto fields.” From there it can get into the soil, groundwater, or grazing animals that are later consumed by people.7

“Tiny particles of plastic have been found everywhere — from the deepest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the top of Mount Everest. And now more and more studies are finding that microplastics, defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters across, are also in our bodies…In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood.”8

Close-up of a stainless steel front loading washing machine, with off-white towels going in.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

How to Stop Microfibers from Entering Water Systems

The most obvious solution is to stop washing so many synthetic fabrics by buying fewer synthetic clothing items. For those items you do own already, there are a few solutions:

      • The Guppyfriend bag is designed to prevent microfiber pollution. It is a zippered bag that you place synthetic clothing into and then put into the washing machine with everything else. The microfibers that shed collect at the edges of the bag, which you can scoop out and throw in the garbage. This prevents the microfibers from getting into the water. Alexander Nolte, co-founder of Guppyfriend, said that “the bag is designed in a way which prevents fibers from breaking in the first place. So, it’s not about what you find in the bag, it’s what you do not find in the bag. Whatever you wash inside the bag has a longer lifetime.”9

        Guppyfriend bag, white bag with blue wording along zipper.
        I bought one several years ago. While I like it and still use it, my solution has been to buy less synthetic clothing. Unfortunately, Guppyfriend bags are not big enough for jackets or blankets.
      • The Cora Ball is a ball that you toss into the washing machine with your clothes. It helps prevent shedding and collects microfibers that you can remove and throw into the garbage. I have not personally tried this yet.
      • PlanetCare is a washing machine attachment with filters that the company claims to collect 90% of microfibers. Each filter comes with reusable cartridges that you replace once they’re full of microfibers. You can return the cartridges to the company so they can refurbish them for future use. I haven’t tried this yet either.

While these solutions are thoughtful and probably work well, they come at your own expense. Does it make sense to buy cheap clothing only to have to spend money trying not to pollute the water with them?

“In 2017, Greenpeace found microfibers in the waters of Antarctica.”10

Close-up of a white washing machine with a PlanetCare filter attached to its side.
Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash.

Do Laundry Better

I am not a laundry expert, but I certainly do a lot of laundry for my family! Many of the tips in the following section came from sustainable clothing writers, including Zoe Edwards (Mend It, Wear It, Love It!), Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald (Modern Mending), Elizabeth L. Cline (The Conscious Closet), and Sophie Benson (Sustainable Wardrobe).

Washing:

Except for undergarments or sweaty clothes, wash clothes less and not after every wear. Airing out will sometimes be enough to remove odors (like from a restaurant or campfire). If it’s only a spot that’s dirty, spot clean with a damp cloth and mild soap (like hand soap). This is better for the garment than a full wash. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that undergarments or “anything that sits next to your crotch, armpits, feet…and comes into close contact with sweat and skin is a good candidate for regular washing.” Clothing worn over undergarments and clothing that doesn’t cling to your body can be washed far less frequently.

Sometimes the cheapest clothing requires the most expensive care. “Polyester, nylon, and blended fibers with a heavy percentage of synthetics attract odors, meaning so-called easy-care synthetics have to be washed more often.” Wearing more natural materials can help you reduce washing.11 

Wash items inside out to reduce wear and pilling; fasten zippers and undo buttons before washing to prevent damage. Turn delicate clothes inside out.

Always separate lights and darks.

Empty and check pockets – especially children’s clothing!

Use cold water – it is gentler on clothes, prevents shrinkage, saves energy, and is better for the environment. According to Energy Star, heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy used when running a washer, so the less hot water used, the more energy saved.12 Also, be sure not to overload the machine, because clothes need to be able to move around.

Neutralizing odors:

You can neutralize odors by hanging something outside or in the sunlight for a few hours. Hanging items in the shower allows the steam to remove odors and release wrinkles.

“For garments that need a little deodorizing, lightly spritz the fabric with vodka to kill off odor-causing bacteria; just don’t use it on delicate fabrics like silk. Direct sunshine is also nature’s disinfectant, keeping clothing free from dust mites and odors. Expose each side of the garment for thirty minutes.” –Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic13

3 Girls' dresses (left to right: pink, white, yellow) on an outdoor clothesline, sunshiny blue sky and green tree background.
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

Drying:

The heat and friction from dryer heat weaken and break down fibers, eventually ruining your clothes. It also causes shrinking and fading. Air drying, especially outdoors, is the best method. You can use dryer racks if you don’t have a clothesline. The sun acts as a disinfectant, whitener, and odor remover. But even indoor air drying on a drying rack is better for your clothes. You can add half a cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle as a fabric softener, but avoid conventional products. Read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets.

When you handwash, hang lightweight items up to drip dry, but lay heavier articles on a towel so that they retain their shape and don’t stretch.

“Hanging clothes outside on a line or drying rack, whenever possible, will do wonders for the longevity of your clothing, and significantly lessen their environmental impact.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!14

The energy use of dryers is enormous! “Clothes dryers consume more energy than any other household appliance. In the United States, dryers consume 60 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.” In many other countries, clothes dryers are not a common household appliance. Only one-third of the British own one.15

“Air-drying clothes reduces the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year.” -National Geographic16

A dryer rack full of colorful clothes, with brick wall and greenery in background.
I use dryer racks at home. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Clothing Care Labels:

Read clothing labels but use your best judgment. Cline wrote, “The problem with care labels is that they describe the washing conditions a garment can withstand, rather than the ideal care methods. A care label’s instructions, from advertisements on heat settings to the use of bleach, are a garment’s maximum tolerance, not a recommendation.” For example, “a recommendation to ‘machine wash warm’ doesn’t indicate that a warm wash is required, only that your garment can withstand warm water without shrinking.”17 Below is a handy chart that explains the symbols on clothing labels:

Wash Care symbols chart, black and white.
Wash Care Symbols Vectors by Lia Aramburu on Vecteezy.

Dry Cleaning

Anything marked ‘dry clean only’ needs to be handled with care, and special items, such as mattress covers, and outdoor or technical gear usually have very specific care guidelines that you should follow.18 Avoid buying ‘dry clean only’ clothing as much as possible. The cleaning process uses a lot of chemicals, some toxic, that end up in our water and environment. Dry cleaning uses a chemical called perchloroethylene, which is toxic to the human body.Further, plastic-film dry-cleaning bags add 300 million pounds of waste to US landfills each year.20 

White and aqua iron standing, on a gray ironing board with a white button down shirt on it. Aqua wall background.
Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash.

Ironing:

Ironing can damage clothing over time, so taking clothing out of the washer as soon as possible is the best way to prevent wrinkling. If you do have to iron, check the clothing label and match your iron setting to the correct setting for that fabric, so that you don’t damage it. Also, iron inside out or use a pressing cloth when possible to further protect your clothing. Sophie Benson wrote that if you iron in batches, “it’s best to order your ironing pile from coolest to hottest, that way you’re not switching between temperatures and there’s no risk of accidentally putting a hot iron on a delicate fabric.”21

Read my article on using an ironing mat if you don’t have an ironing board.

Stains:

Treat stains as soon as possible, as the longer they sit the better they set. Use a small amount of laundry detergent and cold water to remove the stain. Avoid over-rubbing because that can discolor clothing permanently. I personally use a stain stick that is quite effective, and I’ve had the same one for years!

Buncha Farmers stain stick with green packaging.
Buncha Farmers stain stick. This is the one I use but there are many brands out there.

For oily stains, blot up liquid by sprinkling baking soda or cornstarch, brush off, then apply liquid detergent to the stain and let it sit for a few hours.

Never tumble dry clothing that is potentially stained, since it will permanently set the stain. Hang dry first so you can see if the stain is visible.

If you cannot remove a stain, consider dyeing the garment. This is a great way to extend the life of an article of clothing. Natural dyes have a lower environmental impact. Even tie-dying is a good way to revive old clothing! If there is a small mark or stain, consider covering it with some simple, discreet embroidery. Use online tutorials to find simple flower or shape motifs.22

Laundry Detergents

Commercial detergents can be laden with chemicals and toxins that you should avoid. Plus companies package detergents in large plastic bottles. However, DIY laundry detergents can be tricky to make and use, and are not always recommended. Since this is a huge topic on its own, please read my article on Non-Toxic and Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents.

Your Clothes Will Last Longer

Our clothing and other textiles will last a lot longer if we take better care of them, especially when it comes to laundry care. And we can be better stewards of the environment. I hope this article helps you! What tips do you have? Feel free to leave me a comment. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Guppyfriend bags website.*

Cora Ball website.*

PlanetCare website.*

Video, “Your Laundry Habits Affect the World,” Elizabeth L. Cline, Penguin Random House, November 13, 2019.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention these.

Footnotes:

Non-Toxic & Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents

Laundry basket with clothes on a coffee table, couch and sleeping cat in background, warm lighting.
Photo by Sean Freese on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

If you read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets, then it won’t surprise you that commercial laundry detergents also often contain harmful, toxic ingredients. The chemicals and fragrances are harmful to the human body as well as the environment. Additionally, many detergents come in some form of plastic container, whether it’s a bottle, plastic bag, or “pod.”

Homemade or DIY laundry detergents sound like a great alternative, but in practice, I have not found that to be the case. My conclusion is that while I cannot recommend a specific brand or set of ingredients, I can tell you what to avoid. Following are my findings.

DIY Laundry Detergents

Various ingredients in boxes and bottles with a Kirk's Castille bar of soap and a measuring cup with soap shavings.
Photo by Kim F on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

The photo above is not my own but still a familiar scene. I have tried many homemade DIY laundry detergent recipes from bloggers, authors, and environmentalists. Most homemade laundry detergents combine baking soda, washing soda, and/or borax, as well as a cleaning agent, typically grated bar soap. I even tried buying laundry bar soap that you dissolve in water and then use as a liquid detergent. But all had poor results. Our clothes either had an odor or what looked like grease stains on them. Our clothing, towels, and sheets just weren’t getting…clean.

Close-up of a laundry bar, brown with white speckles.
Laundry bar. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Laundry bar dissolving in a white bucket of water.
The laundry bar dissolving in a reused white bucket. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Then I discovered that soap residue can actually trap dirt and oils in textiles. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, advises against DIY laundry detergents. “Most homemade laundry detergent is really laundry soap, which can clog your washing machine, void the warranty, and ruin your clothes.”1 The soap doesn’t come out because modern washing machine agitators are not as tough on clothing as older machines were. According to Kellogg, a true laundry detergent does not contain fats and oils.2

Soap Nuts

Green glass dish with decorative edge featuring orange and green flowers, soap nuts piled on the dish.
Photo by Khadija Dawn Carryl on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Soapnuts, which are actually berries, are the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which grows in India and Nepal. The husks, or shell, of the fruit “contains plant saponin, a completely natural and gentle soap that has been used for centuries to clean skin and clothes. Saponin works as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the water and creating a lather that lifts dirt and grease…this is just one example of how nature offers many solutions for…plastic-free living,” wrote Sanda Ann Harris, author of Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living.3 Soapnuts are compostable after use, so they create no waste.

I tried these, excitedly! I followed instructions from myplasticfreelife.com that said to boil the soapnuts into a liquid, and then use the liquid as laundry detergent.

Soapnuts boiling in a pot of water.
Soapnuts cooking in a pot. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also tried putting them straight into the washing machine. But they didn’t work great all of the time, and I often had to rewash my clothes. Kathryn Kellogg wrote that she also does not recommend soap nuts. “Both of these items contain saponin or soap. The soap will cause buildup on fabric, preventing it from being absorbent, and the residue can cause skin irritation. Historically, people used soap to clean their clothes, but they washed their clothes by hand. The agitation process was harsh enough for the soap to wash clean. Our modern machines aren’t as rigorous so the soap clings to the fabric.”4 

Angled photo of laundry detergent bottles on a store shelf, Ajax and Fab brands most visible.
Photo by Pixel Drip on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Commercial Laundry Detergents

Over the years I have tried all manner of commercial laundry detergents, both powdered and liquid. Powders don’t seem to dissolve well unless I use hot water, and I wash almost everything in cold water. Liquids work better, but their quality runs the gamut. I still don’t have a single brand that I can recommend or that I even buy consistently. But I can tell you what to avoid in detergents.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic blue laundry detergent or fabric softener bottle, lying in a sand dune.
Photo by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.

Almost all liquid detergents come in plastic bottles. Also, liquid laundry detergents are 60 to 90 percent water! This means we are shipping huge amounts of water in plastic jugs all across the country, which creates more carbon emissions. This seems wasteful!

Worse, even though most laundry jugs are ‘recyclable,’ they don’t often actually get recycled. Humans have only recycled 9% of plastics ever created. Brands like Seventh Generation use 80% recycled plastic in their bottles. While they are also recyclable, there’s no guarantee the bottle will get recycled. It’s best practice to stay away from bottles if you can.

In Part 11 of my Packaging Series, you can read about brands that use different types of packaging, and even some that offer refillable options.

Toxic Ingredients

There are lots of chemicals in most commercial laundry detergents. Those scents are a combination of hundreds of chemicals, many that scientists have linked to illness and disease.

Person pouring laundry detergent into a washing machine, from a blue laundry detergent bottle.
Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.

Phthalates

These are in the fragrances of detergents, so you’ll believe your clothes are clean because they smell good. They are a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they interfere with our hormone systems and fertility. They are associated with rashes, asthma, allergies, learning and behavioral difficulties in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These are not regulated because companies use the term “fragrance” in the ingredients list under the guise of propriety.

Surfactants

Many laundry detergents use surfactants like petroleum distillate or naphtha because they boost the cleaning power of laundry detergents. However, they can cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, nervous system problems, hormone disruption, and sometimes cancer. Many are also toxic to aquatic life. Other surfactants include quaternium-15, diethanolamine, nonlphenol ethoxylate, and linear alkyl benzene sulfonates.5

Phenol is one more surfactant that can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and nervous system. “Severe exposure can cause liver and/or kidney damage, skin burns, tremor, convulsions, and twitching.”6

The European Union (EU) and Canada banned Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), but they are allowed in the U.S. These are also endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer. They can lead to extreme aquatic toxicity in the environment.

1,4-dioxane 

This is a known human carcinogen and neurotoxin that is always present in trace amounts when ethoxylated surfactants are used because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct. “1,4-dioxane is never listed on labels because it’s not an intentionally added ingredient, but there are some easy tricks to avoid it. Ethoxylated surfactants usually follow a few naming conventions. If the ingredient ends in “-eth”, such as laureth-6 or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ceteareth or steareth, it’s ethoxylated.”7 Sodium lauryl sulfate is another one to steer clear of. 1,4-dioxane is also a common water contaminant.

Phosphates & EDTA

Manufacturers use Phosphates and EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) “to make detergents more effective in hard water, and to help prevent dirt from settling back on clothes when they’re washing.” These chemicals cause environmental damage, especially in waterways. They also cause algae blooms that damage ecosystems.8 Phosphate-free products are important to help reduce eutrophication, a process that causes algae to grow uncontrollably and cause the death of all life in bodies of water.

Others

Companies use Formaldehyde as a low-cost preservative and antibacterial agent. It can irritate the eyes and lungs and is a suspected carcinogen.9

Dyes cause allergies and rashes, almost all are endocrine disruptors, and many are carcinogens.10

Benzyl acetate is toxic to skin, the nervous system, the kidneys,11 and has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

Dichlorobenzene is a water contaminant and has a highly toxic effect on aquatic life. They are carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

Laundry Pods

Single Laundry pod, orange, white, and blue liquid detergent in a plastic sealed pod.
Photo by Erik Binggeser on Unsplash.

Laundry detergent pods are purely convenience items. They contain concentrated amounts of detergent encapsulated in a “dissolvable” pod made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA or PVOH). PVA is a synthetic, petroleum-based polymeric plastic. When marketers say it “dissolves” in water, they mean that the plastic breaks down into smaller plastic particles, called microplastics. The microplastics are discharged as part of the wastewater, then enter our water systems, and eventually end up in our bodies.

“Dissolvable” detergent sheets

I tried laundry detergent eco sheets because they are indeed free of huge plastic bottles. While I’ve always been leery of laundry pods because they feel like plastic, I assumed these were different. However, I discovered that these also contain PVA (polyvinyl alcohol).

Again, PVA is a plastic, and while it is designed to dissolve, that doesn’t mean it disappears. A study cited by the company Blueland “suggests that over 75% of PVA persists in our waterways and our soil after it dissolves in laundry and dishwashing machines, flows through wastewater and ultimately back into our environment.”12

In fact, in November 2022, Blueland, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and a large group of other nonprofit organizations filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to readdress PVA and its effects. “This petition requests that the EPA conduct requisite human and environmental health and safety testing for Polyvinyl Alcohol, also known as  PVA or PVOH as it is used in consumer-packaged goods, with particular attention to the use of PVA in laundry and dishwasher detergent pods and sheets. The petition also requests that until such testing is completed, the EPA remove polyvinyl alcohol from its Safer Choice Program in order to curb plastic pollution.”13 Unfortunately, the EPA denied those requests.14

Avoid any laundry pods or dissolvable sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

White washing machine with blue clothing in, door open.
Image by taraghb from Pixabay.

Powdered Detergents

Two Meliora cardboard and metal containers, lavender laundry powder at left (white and purple lable), and oxygen brightener at right (blue and white label).
Meliora powdered detergents, shipped plastic-free! Photo by Marie Cullis.

In general, I have trouble getting our clothes clean with laundry powder in our washing machine. I’m not sure if this is because I wash everything in cold water, or if we have hard water, or just an old washing machine. So when I do wash something in warm or hot water, I use Meliora laundry powder. I also use this laundry powder for all of my handwashing. I ordered the refillable containers on my first order, and the refills arrive in a recyclable brown paper bag. These products do not contain toxic ingredients or fragrances, and the company lists all of their ingredients on the packaging and its website. I recommend this brand (I do not get paid to write that nor am I an affiliate of the company).

Protecting Your Health & the Environment

While this may all seem overcomplicated, it doesn’t have to be. Just do your best. Steering clear of toxic ingredients and avoiding plastic are the goals. Avoid using chlorine bleach and “brighteners” as these are strong chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment. Find a solution that works for you and stick with that. Sometimes it takes a while.

Feel free to comment on what works for you! I’d love for you to share. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes: