Written by Teghan Acres
The conversation on sustainable fashion often revolves around our consumption and disposal of garments. Understandably so, as 44 million pounds of clothing found themselves discarded into Metro Vancouver landfills in 2018. However, our clothes also have a huge impact on the planet during the time they spend in our homes. The process of washing our clothes has the second-highest environmental impact throughout their lifecycle, after the manufacture of new textiles.
Figure 1. The Carbon Footprint of our Clothes
Credit: Fashion Revolution
The average garment is now only worn 7 times before being thrown out. This is especially mind-boggling when you consider that everyday casual clothing such as jeans, t-shirts, socks and basic knits are able to last for a minimum of 100 to 300 wears; or 3 years of regular wear and washing2. If you extend the life of a garment by just one year, its carbon footprint would be reduced by 25%. To put this on a larger scale, every 2 million tons of textiles kept in circulation and out of landfills has the equivalent carbon emission savings of taking 1 million cars off the road2.
Figure 2. How long it takes clothes to decompose in a landfill
Credit: Fashion Revolution
So, we know that we need to consume less, and keep our clothing in use for longer. How do we do this in a sustainable way to minimize the negative impacts that caring for our wardrobe can have? Thankfully, it is easy, simple, and will actually save you time and money.
Figure 3. Fast facts on a laundry cycle’s energy and water impact
1. Wash Less
Oftentimes we wash clothing when it is not truly dirty to simply freshen it up, or to remove a small mark. While putting an item through the laundry may seem like the easiest way to keep it looking its best, the opposite is true. Studies have shown that the mechanical agitation, forced air, and heat from our washers and dryers causes shrinkage, fading and tears2. Just twenty cycles of laundry can make a textile twice as easy to tear2. Washing less is not only better for the life of your garments, but also for the planet. If you reduce the number of laundry loads you run by just 10%, you could save as much as 22,730 litres of water each year2. To refresh your pieces between wears, try airing them out in a well-circulated space (aka not the back of your closet), or spritz them with a mixture of one part vodka to four parts water to remove any undesired odours.
2. Wash with cold water
90% of the energy consumed by our washing machines is from heating the water2. By changing the temperature setting from hot to warm you can cut that energy use in half. Not to mention, washing with cold water keeps colours brighter and fibres stronger for longer.
3. Hang to dry
Clothing dryers are the highest energy consuming appliance in our homes2. The average dryer in the USA consumes 10x more energy than the average washing machine2. Air drying will also retain the quality of your clothing and save you money on your energy bill (notice a pattern yet?). In the summer months, take advantage of the free resource of sunlight to brighten whites and eradicate germs. Studies have shown that UV rays are just as effective at killing germs as bleach2.
Figure 4. Example of creative use of space to air dry clothes
Credit: Ariadne at Home
4. Spot Clean
A study of UK consumers revealed that a third of consumers ditch a garment if a stain isn’t lifted on the first try, and a quarter admitted to not even trying if the item was cheap2. While spot cleaning can seem like a chore, it will save you time from running more frequent loads of laundry. It is as easy as dabbing the spot with some water and dish soap, rubbing gently with an old toothbrush or cloth then rinsing to remove any soap.
Figure 5. The Buyerarchy of Needs
We can show love for our planet in so many ways. While we might immediately think of ditching plastic or eating less meat as individual actions that reduce our environmental impact, just changing the way we wash our clothes can make a huge difference. Follow these simple tips to lighten the load (of laundry) on yourself and the environment.
2 The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline