How To Care For Your Clothing Sustainably
With daily headlines about climate change – it’s inevitable, it’s irreversible, it’s coming for your nearest sea-level city! – living a sustainable lifestyle can seem like an overwhelming task. It’s tempting to dismiss the idea entirely, you’re just one human being after all. Will small lifestyle changes like switching to a bamboo toothbrush, carrying a reusable water bottle or wearing Veja sneakers actually make that much of an impact when there are countries (they shall remain nameless) that refuse to acknowledge the science? Well, small tweaks probably won’t earn you a Nobel Prize nomination, but we’re here to assure you that they certainly will make a difference, even if they feel paltry – or, on the flip side, untenable (it’s hard to give up cling film).
We suggest that you start by identifying a habit that you might be overlooking when it comes to clothing and the environment: laundry. Let’s say you’re already favouring organic cottons and Econyl, following the sustainable names to know (such as Outerknown and Stella McCartney) and sticking to the hard and fast rule “buy less, buy better” – these three efforts are almost wasted if you’re not then caring for your new threads in a properly planet-friendly way. Scroll down for a few simple ways to care for different items in your closet that will make your post-purchase routine a little bit greener.
Most traditional dry-cleaning companies use a chemical called perc (or perchloroethylene, to use its full name) that’s nasty for humans – particularly the workers – and the environment. The good news is that an increasing number of green dry cleaners are popping up in major cities around the world, including London, New York and LA. Also referred to as “eco” or “organic” dry cleaners, these non-toxic establishments operate the same professional equipment, but typically use water or CO2 as the main solvent. But, before you start Googling nearby locations, first consider if it’s essential that you dry clean your suit right now – will steaming, spot cleaning (hack: use a soft-bristled toothbrush) or a just a good going over with the lint roller do the trick? A travel-sized clothes steamer will deodorise jackets and trousers and banish creases along the way. Avoid any disastrous scenarios by steering clear of linings (acetate will melt) or delicate fabrics that may burn. Bespoke tailors usually offer a sponge and press service, too. If your whistle and flute desperately needs a total refresh (you’ve spilled red wine down yourself, for example), then head to a green dry cleaner and don’t be afraid to ask them what chemicals they use.
We’re confident that at some point in every man’s life, he has used “the chair”. Tucked in a corner of the bedroom, it’s the perfect spot to sling your shirt after a taxing day. But, after a few rounds down the pub, who needs a chair when there’s a floor? Time to grow up. The worst thing you can do for your dress shirts, and for the environment, is over-wash them. And the best thing you can do to avoid over-washing is to hang up your shirt somewhere with good air circulation so that the fabric can really breathe. This simple act will stop any lingering scents from setting in and thus reduce the number of washes needed.
The worst thing you can do for your dress shirts, and for the environment, is over-wash them
Without regular washing, your shirt will last longer because each tumble makes it prone to tears, rips and fading. Naturally, the time will come when a load needs to go into the machine – always run a low temperature and ditch the dryer because heating up the drum is the most energy-intensive part. Once the cycle is complete, hang whites in direct sunlight for a bleaching effect and let the UV rays get rid of any remaining germs. Turn dark, bold or bright colours inside-out to stop them from fading.
Swim shorts are often made from synthetic textiles that don’t biodegrade and contribute to the microplastics problem. If this is the first time you’re hearing of microplastics, listen up: each time polyester is washed in a machine, it releases tiny plastic filaments (microplastics) into our rivers, oceans and lakes, which inevitably harm marine life (such as the fish ingesting them) and in turn, humans. One way to reduce this is to hand wash anything polyester in a bucket, but some of the fibres will still escape that way. Consider ordering a Guppyfriend washing bag, which goes directly into the drum and helps to capture the shedding fibres as your clothes are tossed and tumbled around. These nifty bags were tested for three years by scientific institutes, universities (including the University of California in Santa Barbara as part of a Patagonia research programme) retailers and the fashion industry.
Synthetic materials are also commonly used to make sportswear and they’re notorious when it comes to trapping odours and clinging onto bacteria. After working up a sweat, you should avoid the knee-jerk reaction to double-up on eco-detergent (ramping up the heat is not the answer either). Your best bet is to run fast, wash faster – basically, the sooner you get those shorts (or cycling jerseys) into a sink filled with cold water, the better. Gents with a well-stocked cupboard could even add a few drops of white vinegar into the water because it’ll help to neutralise the smell. Always air dry your kit on the line or a clothing rack, too. Remember to gently pull them back into shape and smooth out any wrinkles before doing so and they’ll dry that way.
We’ve all heard the stats about how much water is used to make one pair of jeans, right? So, this is really something to consider when you’re laundering them, along with how to ensure they stay in the best shape and condition, of course. In 2011, the Levi Strauss company sparked something of a debate when it offered up a tip for conserving water when washing jeans: don’t wash them. Instead, they suggested freezing them to prevent wearing down the denim and to “kill” the germs that make them smelly (although, we’re yet to find anything by scientists or experts to back this claim up). The brand’s CEO Chip Bergh later admitted he hadn’t washed his 501s in 10 years. Some denim-aficionados are going to disagree here, but it’s likely you are going to have to wash your jeans and the best way to do it is again by hand, in cold water and after at least five wears. Use a very mild eco-detergent because chemicals will strip the rinse quickly and try adding a few tablespoons of salt to the water the first time you clean black or indigo jeans to help set the dye.
Illustration by Ms Jeannie Phan