By Jon Fisher, The Nature Conservancy
Finding “eco-friendly” clothing can be tough, especially trying to sort out which of the many “green” claims on labels hold up. For consumers looking to make greener clothing choices, there’s some good news and bad news.
Let’s start with the bad news first: there are few if any really clear easy wins for which types of clothes are the best. Organic cotton, hemp, bamboo all represent some positive change, but also have drawbacks to them (I’ll explain further down).
On the bright side, there are things you can do. Regardless of what kinds of clothes you buy, the way you use them makes an enormous environmental difference; in some cases the way we use clothes has a bigger impact than how they’re produced.
Here are some easy things you can do that have an enormous impact:
- Keep using old clothes: This includes not ditching your wardrobe every year (obviously), as well as things like buying used clothes and repairing damaged clothes rather than throwing them out. Since all clothes have a fairly hefty impact, using them longer is one of the best and easiest things you can do to make your clothing more eco-friendly.
- Laundry: An analysis of the energy used in the various stages of a cotton T-shirt’s “life” (material, production, transportation, use, and disposal) found that the use phase used 50 percent more energy than all of the other phases combined! Here are some tips on drastically improving the environmental cost of your clothes at home:
- Wash on cold rather than hot or warm water. Modern detergents and washing machines do a great job even with cold water.
- Hang-dry when possible. I have a collapsible metal rack I use indoors, since I live in a condo where outdoor lines are banned. Skipping tumble drying cuts out 60% of the total energy used for laundry.
- Use phosphate-free detergent to reduce the impact on aquatic life. Traditional phosphate-based detergents can cause “dead zones” in the water where nothing can live due to oxygen depletion.
- Use a front-loading washer and/or ventless dryer. Front loading washers can remove much more water than top-loading ones, which means shorter dryer times no matter what the method is. Ventless dryers directly use about the same amount of energy as comparable new vented dryers, but can offer energy savings through lower heating/cooling costs. I calculated that to dry a single load with my old vented dryer, I vented the entire volume of my condo outside, which meant that I had to re-heat or re-cool that vented air. I now have a ventless combination front-loading washer-dryer, and I use the dryer for clothes that get too wrinkly when hang-dried or when it’s too humid in my condo.
- Recycle: It takes 10 times as much energy to produce a ton of textiles as it does to make a ton of glass. But, while most of us recycle glass, recycling clothes is less common. When your clothes are truly worn out, find a place that will recycle them (many thrift shops and charities that accept used clothes sell the damaged ones to be recycled) or get crafty by making new stuff out of them.
But what about how your choices of what type of clothing to buy affects the planet?