Your birthday suit may be the most environmentally friendly ensemble you own, but it rarely meets the dress code. Green is everybody's color, and shades of shamrock on St. Patrick's Day aren't going to cut it. Sustainable and organic fabrics, as well as thrift-store finds and other recycled clothing options, make dressing green an easy part of your routine.
1) Shop at the thrift store. It's inexpensive, colorful, efficient, and you can find clothes from any era and in any size — and it's recycling in disguise. From wedding dresses to tube tops, from bed sheets to sewing patterns (hint hint), thrift stores make for great shopping excursions. And your own old clothes may just find a new, loving home.
• Recycled clothing: If you have enough common sense to wear clothes on a daily basis, this should come fairly easily. The average American throws away 67.9 pounds of clothing and other textiles a year. That's more than 10 million tons — 20 trillion pounds — of defunct fashion trends in U.S. landfills (just imagine the sheer volume of stirrup pants — oh, the humanity) every year, about 4 percent of our total landfill content. And the saddest part is not that most of us have moved on from shoulder pads; it's that more than 90 percent of the textiles thrown out are recyclable. Thrift stores are the easiest and most cost-effective way to recycle clothing; you can get a cheap, new (-to-you) outfit, and your discards will make some other trashionista very happy. Other textile recyclers or charities make sure your clothes go where they're needed most, whether to poorer nations or to the needy here and abroad. And there are still other ways to recycle. You can make a shirt out of an old bed sheet, or a dress out of curtains, or curtains out of a dress. The possibilities are almost endless.
• Environmentally and socially conscious clothing retailers: If you're buying clothes new, consider all the energy that went into getting those items into the store — including human energy. When possible, don't support companies that use sweatshops. This is not always easy or cheap — labels don't necessarily advertise unfair labor practices — but it's well worth the effort. Look for Fair Trade, or, to be sure that even items "Made in the USA" were produced humanely, check for the UNITE union label. To downsize your closet's carbon footprint, buy from environmentally friendly companies like Rapanui, which uses only renewable energy, or Patagonia, which offers a handy recycling program. For more green and Fair Trade businesses, check the National Green Pages.
• Green fashion: When a trend has been explored by "Project Runway," you can probably officially say it's "sweeping the nation." Organic fabrics and natural dyes don't pollute the way chemical-laden synthetics do, and they're less likely to irritate your skin. The animal lover in you may also like the vegetarian and vegan clothing options that are out there — cute and furries get to keep their clothes, and you can show that you have more taste than tofu.
2) Make your old clothes into something new. Or make new clothes out of something old. With some imagination and skill — or even with very little of either — you could turn that old shirt into an adorable skirt, or make that pile of neglected neckties into a fetching scarf. With a host of free sewing patterns online, and all the fabric you'll need hanging in (or balled up on the floor of) your closet, you could be the next green Gucci.
3) Do less laundry. It's simple logic: if you don't wash your clothes as often, your washer and dryer will have fewer chances to use up all that energy. You can consolidate loads among family members or wear your pajama pants a week before washing them — as long as you fill your laundry basket to the brim. The closer to capacity your machines are, the more efficiently they'll run.
Washing clothes, aside from being a chore, is a rather extravagant activity. The average household does nearly 400 loads of laundry a year (just the thought of it is exhausting), using up 13,500 gallons of water, give or take a couple fish tanks' worth. More than a lot of water, that's a lot of money spent laundering. With a few minor changes, you can keep your wallet full and your colors fast.
• Preparing your load: Cutting down on the number of loads you run makes the biggest difference. First of all, and this seems obvious, only wash clothes that are dirty. This means you're allowed to wear your clothes — with the exception of your underwear, please — more than once. As a rule, you should wear your jeans three times (or more, depending on your preferred ratio of friends to flies) before laundering. And only run full loads. By filling up your washer, you can save your household 99 pounds of carbon emissions per year.
4) Washing your load: Ninety percent of the energy consumed by the washing machine is used to heat the water, so using cold water means a substantial carbon savings — 34 million tons' worth per year if every American household made the change. The type of machine you use matters, too. A front-loading washing machine could save you 7,000 gallons of water a year over an old-school top-loading one. And an Energy Star-certified unit could save you even more, plus about $50 yearly off your utility bill. Go for natural and concentrated detergents — no icky chemicals and less packaging — or, better yet, make your own detergent from items you may already have lying around the house.
Drying your load: Obviously, the greenest way to go is to line dry your clothing. Of the 88 million or so electric dryers in the United States, each one emits about a ton (literally — a ton) of carbon dioxide every year, robbing those who use them of around $75 annually. If you must use your dryer (and there are plenty of times when you must), clean your lint trap before each load and occasionally check your vent for blockages — routine maintenance can shorten drying time and prevent fires and similar unwanted mishaps. Here, again, technology makes a difference. Dryers with moisture sensors cut energy by cutting dry time; by sensing when your fabrics are dry, they prevent wasteful (and potentially damaging) overdrying and can cut carbon emissions by 10 percent. And avoid toxic fabric softener sheets. For softness, add a half cup of vinegar into your wash; for fresh scent, throw a sachet of dried lavender into the dryer.
5) Say no to dry cleaning. You know uranium causes cancer, so it stands to reason that you wouldn't wear a vest covered in uranium. Why would you pay someone to contaminate your clothes with perc, a substance that has been shown to do the same thing? There are several safer, far greener alternatives (PDF), and there's nothing to lose, except maybe some of those staggering bills from the cleaners.
What's so bad about dry cleaning? It's evil. Allow me to elaborate. Aside from the price (which can be astronomical) and all those giant, disposable plastic bags (which, again, not a small amount), 85 percent of the United States' 35,000-odd dry cleaners still use the toxic solvent perchloroethylene (often referred to by its "street" name, perc). Perc has been known to cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, as well as being to linked miscarriage, infertility and a number of cancers. It's a pretty safe bet that most people would take a shrunken cashmere sweater over bladder cancer any day.
Here are some alternatives:
• Wet cleaning: This is a professional system that cleans your clothes through the monitored use of water and nontoxic biodegradable solvents and conditioners. Clothes are then ironed or pressed with specialized equipment. Wet cleaning is a more environmentally sound option, but beware that not all wet cleaners are created equal; many use a similarly toxic chemical called trichloroethylene to pre-treat clothing.
• GreenEarth Cleaning: GreenEarth Cleaning is very similar to dry cleaning, except harmful solvents are replaced with liquid silicone, or D5. The company claims the process is safer, gentler on clothes and free of chemical smells. It may not be as green as it claims, though — a study suggests D5 causes cancer in rats and may be toxic to the liver, a claim the Silicones Environmental Health and Safety Council denies (PDF). The claim hasn't yet been fully estimated by the EPA.
• Carbon dioxide dry cleaning: Using pressurized liquid CO2 instead of perc, CO2 dry cleaning gets clothes dirt-free safely and cleanly. No new CO2 is generated by the process — and much is recycled — so no greenhouse gases are emitted.
• Hand washing: Aside from, perhaps, avoiding "DRY CLEAN ONLY" labels altogether, this is the greenest, most inexpensive solution. Most fabrics, including wool, silk and rayon, will easily survive a gentle hand wash and air dry.
It's easy to be green from head to toe and from hamper to hanger. With the right attitude, the right habits and some clever shopping, you can look good, smell good and maybe even be able to fit your carbon footprint into some chic vegan shoes.
How do you do it?
Do you know of an amazing thrift store? Have you discovered yet another alternative to dry cleaning? Have you found a stylish yet crow-free way to wear old corn cobs on your head? MNN readers would love to know. Tell us what you do when washing, wearing, donating or shopping for clothes. Tell us about your disgraceful green-fashion crimes and how you are working to reform. Your stories will be just one more step toward making the world's closets a little greener.
Thrift store: WhatCouldPossiblyGoWrong/Flickr
Washing machines: mudpig/Flickr
Dry cleaner: Voyou Desoeuvre/Flickr