I’ve been reading again and again that the fashion industry’s biggest climate impact is actually made in the consumer phase. Knowing about the immense amount of greenhouse gasses and toxic pollution that the production phase entails, this surprises me. What is so harmful about taking care of our clothes? What surprised me is that on top of washing and drying, even wearing our clothes has an impact.
Don’t despair though! There’s things you can do.
Washing and Drying
Obviously, washing and drying our clothes requires energy. It’s hard to get a grasp on greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, but this this recent (2020) research by McKinsley states that in 2018, the fashion industry was responsible for about 4% of all the world’s greenhouse gasses and that 20% of these emissions were due to product use, the washing and drying of our clothing. Aside from that, washing of course uses a lot of water and detergents often contain toxic chemicals that are released in our water systems.
What to do?
– Do not tumble-dry your clothes
Drying requires a lot more energy and may damage them. I haven’t had a dryer in over six years and I haven’t really missed it.
– Reduce the amount of washes and their temperature
I was raised with the idea that you can only wear your clothes twice before washing them, except maybe for jeans. Now, I try to only wash my clothes when they’re actually dirty and air them out a lot more.
– Be mindful of the detergents you use
Try to look for options without (too many) chemicals. I like to use the Dutch brand Seepje. They make products from soap nuts and there are several brands worldwide that do so. I wondered about the origins of soap nuts and whether their popularity would negatively effect local communities, but as they are so abundant in India, this does not seem to be the case so far (Ethical Unicorn 2010).
What may be an even bigger problem is the shedding of micro-plastics. Much of our clothing is made from plastic materials such as acrylics, polyester and elastane. Washing, but actually also wearing them, causes these materials to shed tiny pieces of plastic in the environment. So called micro-plastics are less than 5 mm in length and in a typical wash, up to 700.000 fibers can come off (Fashion Revolution). A research by the University of Plymouth (2020) showed that wearing clothes may shed even more microfibers. These plastics poison our oceans, drinking water and ourselves and there’s basically no regulation for this problem yet (FashionUnited 2020). Though there are some things we can do as consumers when washing our clothes, how do we prevent them from shedding when we’re wearing them? As up to 50% of all clothes are made of plastic based materials (Fashion Revolution), it doesn’t seem to be a viable option to just stop wearing them all together. Also, natural fibers are not necessarily more sustainable. The production of cotton and wool for example, have their own (huge) environmental implications (UN Environment Programme 2019). What gave me some hope in this matter, is the development of sustainable versions of Tencel and Viscose, materials that are made from tree-pulp. I feel like the industry should invest in research on how to upscale these materials in a sustainable way and how to reduce the shedding of microfibers from plastic-based textiles that are already circulating.
What to do?
It’s hard to figure out what the most sustainable option is as a consumer. In the spirit of slow fashion however, I think for me the best choice is to take good care of the clothes that I already own. From now on, I will definitely consider material for new (second-hand) acquisitions. Aside from that, I will try to reduce the shedding of micro-plastics as much as possible. There are some options to do so when washing your clothes.
– Reduce the amount of washes
By taking this simple step, you don’t only reduce your emissions, but also your shedding!
– Use a washing bag
I got a bag by Guppyfriend about a year ago and it actually works. After some washes, fibers start cluttering in the crannies of the bag. I find mine a bit small (I believe it’s their M-size), so I would recommend a bigger one or to get more of them. You can fit more than one in your machine.
– Use a Cora ball
I’m very intrigued by this ‘apparatus’. Next to looking amazing, it supposedly catches the microfibers in your machine. Can’t wait to try it.
– Use a machine filter
There are several versions of these that you add to the drain of your washing machine. Examples are those by PlanetCare and MarcelvanGalenDesign. I’ve been thinking about getting one of them, but I’m reading mixed messages. Hopefully they will soon develop into versions that are effective and widely available.
Fashion’s big challenge – White Paper analyses the impact of microplastics shedding from domestic laundry – Fashion United 2020
Microplastics from textile sources – Eurofins 2020