5 Simple And Cheap Ways To Greener Clothing (No Matter Where You Shop)

Thank you for all your comments on my last post on “Promoting Better Products or Just Promoting Consumption?” ! It was great to hear your thoughts on such a multi-faceted issue.

I’m doing some reading and some thinking and some excessive coffee drinking (An accurate summary of my life, actually. Wouldn’t change it for a thing) and I will be back with a more in-depth answer to what I’ve learned from your comments, and how I see that playing out on This Kind Choice from now on.

washing line

Photograph by Stevie Spiers. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

In the meantime, let’s look at a super simple way of reducing the effect our clothing has on the environment that everyone can do. Even if you shop at Primark. Yes, really.

Often the focus in seems to be squarely on the before part of our clothings story (Where was it made? What is it made of?) or the after part (What happens to the piece of clothing once we’re through with it?).

These are crucial things to look at, but the during phase is just as important. Why?

It can use the most energy.

Cleaning and drying a piece of clothing made of polyester uses four times as much energy than making that piece of clothing does.

60% of the total carbon dioxide emissions of a pair of jeans happens in the time they are being used.

These are hardly insignificant numbers. (Both stats are from Fashion & Sustainability: Design For Change, which I am devouring at the moment and would highly recommend, especially if you are interested in the fashion industry as a whole).

It’s easy to change. And we are all empowered to do so.

The before or after phases I talked about above are often the first things people try to work on. And that’s great! High fives all round! But they can be hard to change – they can take extra knowledge, money or time, and that can be off-putting or downright limiting.

Why not start in the easiest, cheapest and most immediate way possible? Why not start looking at how you treat your clothing? Even if you’re not able to buy from environmentally friendly or ethical clothing brands, or even if you’re still working on buying less, this is a part of the puzzle that is within everyone’s reach.

Wash cold.

Care labels in garments tell you the maximum temperature you can wash that piece of clothing at before it gets damaged. They’re saying, “If you wash this t-shirt at a higher temperature than this, we’re not liable if it falls apart”, not “You must wash it at this temperature otherwise it will implode”


This campaign against speeding sums it up nicely. The New Zealand police says drive to the conditions – I say wash to the conditions. Is your t-shirt what would politely be called “heavily soiled”? If you answered yes, hit that 90 degree button and wash away. If not, wash cold.

Wash less.

No, I’m not trying to make you into a dirty hippy. But how often do we wash something out of reflex (or possibly because we don’t want to fold it up)? Take it off and chuck it into the washing basket without asking ourselves if it really needs to be there.

Tricia from Little Eco Footprints has written about her experiments with washing less, and this study looks at whether washing your clothes less makes you “socially challenged” (I think that’s a official way of saying you have no friends). The answer? It doesn’t.

If it’s possible, spot-clean it. If it’s dirty, wash it. If it’s not, don’t. It’s that simple.

Line dry.

Like I mentioned above, 60% of the CO2 emissions of a pair of jeans happens in their use phase. 80% of that comes from using an energy-intensive way of drying, a.k.a chucking your jeans in the dryer. If my maths isn’t completely off, that means 48% of your jeans total CO2 emissions come from using a dryer. And that, my friends, is a lot.

Line drying your clothes whenever possible (with a weather forecast like this, I know there are times when it just isn’t going to happen), means less emissions, longer clothing lifespans and lower power bills. All things I could see myself signing up for.

Choose a better washing powder.

Avoid putting harmful chemicals on your skin and into the environment by choosing a better washing powder. This is something I’m still reading up on and learning about myself, but according to this report, phosphates, phosphonates and petrochemical-based surfactants such as LAS are all things to avoid.

If you know more about this, please share in the comments!

Switch to a green drycleaner.

Conventional drycleaning uses toxic chemicals that can cause fertility problems for the workers exposed to them and have been highlighted at possible carcinogens. Less harmful alternatives are becoming more and more available, though.

Green Earth Cleaning has locations around the world (but not in New Zealand, surprise surprise) so check them out or see if there’s an equivalent in the place you live.

If you enjoyed this post, stay in touch!

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18 thoughts on “5 Simple And Cheap Ways To Greener Clothing (No Matter Where You Shop)

  1. This post is quite timely, as I was considering how to treat my current collection of items in the midst of spring cleaning and re-organizing of closet. And I was considering the frequency of laundries, specifically, because I feel like a few of the worn out items I culled this time around are linked to too frequent washing (along with low quality in the first place, I suspect).

    I have read a post from a French blogger a few months back, where she explained she rarely washed her jeans. She said she hesitated before posting about it because she didn’t want to appear as a “dirty hippy” of sorts. These reservations made me tick, more than the fact that she didn’t wash her jeans regularly – I wondered, how many of our daily habits are linked to social norms and expectations, rather than actual necessity?

    When she explained about her jeans, she said – it’s simple, she likes when her jeans get a bit softer and baggier after a couple of days of wear, and each time she puts them off, she looks for dirt, spots, or smell, and if there isn’t any, she doesn’t put it in the laundry basket. I have started doing the same, for all of my clothes: looking for possible dirt and spots, examining the “high risk” parts like armpits for smell or stains, and only put it in the washmachine if it is actually dirty. In the end, I am just as put together as before, there are a few lesser laundries a month, and, hopefully (I can’t tell yet), it will increase the durability of my clothes.

    Anyway thanks for these recommendations, it is true that we discuss a lot the before and the after, but not the “during” that often.

    • Glad you found it useful Kali :)
      The study I link to in this post talks about how the fact that a lot of people wash their clothing very frequently is to do with social norms rather than necessity. I’ve also read that apparently jeans for example have no more bacteria on them after 3 months of wear than after 13 days of wear, so like you say it really does seem to be because of social expectations rather than a concrete need.

      I found these social expectations apply to washing temperature too – here in New Zealand it’s very common to wash clothing cold, and all the washing machines I’ve seen have settings to do so. Apparently Japan is similar in this respect (maybe you can comment?) but my German grandmother finds the idea of not washing something in hot water disgusting and appalling, and I remember when I was in France everything was washed hot too (again, maybe you can comment ?). I’ve heard that many machines don’t even have a cold setting in Europe, which I found a bit shocking.

      • Oddly, only one of my pairs of jeans gets whiffy. Different material perhaps. Thanks for the information about Green Earth Cleaning. I have been looking for a new dry cleaner and there is one of these near my house!

        • How strange! Are they 100% cotton (or 98%, they might have a bit of elastane in them) ? Almost all jeans are, but I do remember having a pair of jeans that had a good chunk of polyester in them a while back, and that would make them less breathable and therefore more smelly for sure. Otherwise different finishes might affect that too.
          Glad I could help you out with the dry cleaning :)

          • 99% cotton, 1% lycra. They are not less breathable; it’s not a people-smell. I’m not sure if they are innately smelly themselves or if they just pick up smells around them. Lots of airing tends to do the trick.

  2. Thank you for writing on this important topic, Emma!
    Besides underwear, I only wash my clothes if they are visibly dirty or they smell. I think a lot of it can depend on your own body as to how often you need to wash an item. Thankfully, I don’t sweat much at all and don’t have much body odor. (An aside, I actually smell the least when I use a baking soda and cornstarch deodorant. Regular deodorants, especially antiperspirants, make me smell worse.)
    Others I know who sweat a lot or have strong body odors need to wash clothes (and their body) more often.
    When I do need to do laundry I wash on cold and hang all of my clothing unless it’s something cotton I’m trying to shrink. As for linens, unfortunately those get washed in hot water and dried in the dryer as I have a really bad dust mite allergy. Everything is washed in an eco-friendly detergent and I don’t use fabric softener sheets. Those things really seem quite useless to me and they just leave a film, especially on towels which makes them less absorbent.
    Regarding how to prevent getting clothes dirty at home, I always wear an apron when I’m making food and will often leave it on until I’m done eating it. :)

    • Hi Emmy,
      That sounds great, I’m glad these tips are things you already do.

      I think that like with any way of making better clothing choices, we often need to adapt them to suit our lifestyles. So for health reasons you need to wash your sheets in hot water and dry them in a dryer, and I don’t think should feel bad or disheartened because of this. It sounds like you don’t need to wash your clothes as often as someone else might, so we all have our strong points and our weaker points.

      I think many people see eco/ethical choices as an all-or-nothing scenario, but doing whatever is possible to us is worth it, and something we can always build on :)

      I like your suggestion for wearing an apron, that’s definitely something I could benefit from!

  3. I think you’re right that we don’t tend to think as much about our environmental impact while owning our clothes as we do how they’re made. It’s actually great to know that we can prevent so much damage just by how we’re washing them – how nice to hear some not totally overwhelming news about this kind of subject, huh?

    Personally, I always wash everything but whites in cold water (I was under the impression hot water makes colors run?), with vinegar for softener, and a gentle homemade detergent. All of my work clothes I dry indoors on drying racks, so weather doesn’t affect my laundry, but I’m guilty of throwing my loungewear in the dryer just to get it done. And I do wash everything once a week. I had to laugh when you mentioned washing something so you didn’t have to fold it, because that’s exactly what I do. When I get home from work I just toss my clothes in the hamper after a shower, because I have no easy place to air them out instead. In the past I’ve been pretty good about spot-cleaning then wearing most bottoms and some tops multiple times before they go into the washing machine, I’ve just been lazy about it lately.

    But…I’ve also been more conscious about my appearance. It’s nice to hear the study you mentioned found its participants weren’t “socially challenged” by wearing their jeans a few times in a row, but I wonder how applicable that is overall? For myself, I have a job that requires I get up and present in front of varying audiences almost daily, so my personal appearance is pretty conspicuous, and I can’t wear something as casual/durable as jeans. Since a washing machine is a lot better at removing hard to spot stains than I am, that’s another major reason I’ve been relying on it more. Of course, I don’t want to just provide an excuse and continue to possibly waste resources, so perhaps I should do my own experiment to see if multiple wears applies to “dress” clothes as well, ha.

    • Exactly, I feel like this is a very accessible place to start. Rather than saying to people, you need to completely change how and where you shop, suggesting that they change the way they wash/dry their clothing can be a good first step.

      Sometimes making something easier for yourself can make a huge difference in how likely you will do something – arranging a towel rack or another space to air out clothes can be the difference between you throwing them in the washing basket after a long day or wearing them again. I’ve found this the case with other habits (Such as keeping my makeup tidy. It just didn’t happen until I bought suitable storage containers and made a dedicated space for them) so maybe try that :)

      What I would recommend with dress clothes is firstly choosing fibres that don’t need to be washed as much. Natural fibres are infinitely better than synthetics, and merino wool is particularly good – airing out a wool garment does make a significant difference, whereas with polyester you will need to wash it make a difference.
      Other than that, I would begin by focusing on washing bottoms (skirts, trousers) less, since these are often darker and don’t come in contact with sweat as much.

      I’d be keen to hear how it all goes for you, Caer :)

  4. Great tips Emma. Its good to be reminded about the impact of the way we care for our clothes. There tends to be a big focus on ‘buying’ sustainable – and its easy to forget how important the after buying phase is.

    Thank you for sharing my post bout washing less.

    • Hi Tricia, I definitely agree that what happens after we’ve bought something deserves more attention. Thanks for sharing your experiences with washing less!

  5. Putting clothes in the freezer for a bit (things you don’t want to fade – like dark jeans) kills bacteria and you need to wash them a lot less. This also works to kill moth larvae from woolens you buy second-hand.

    I use a homemade laundry detergent and put my clothes in the dryer with a wet handkerchief in a zipped up bag in the dryer for 30 minutes to “dry clean” them. Other than that, the only items that go in the dryer are towels and sheets.

    I hand wash my woolens and silk and line dry most clothes. They last a lot longer.

    And yes, you can absolutely hand wash woolen “dry clean only” suits with a gentle hair shampoo and drip dry them.

    • Thanks for your tips, nutrivore :)
      I find hand washing keeps clothing in good condition for a long time too, especially delicate lace, silk and wool. I also use shampoo for my merino sweaters and silk.

  6. How you wash clothes affects their longevity as well as the environment. http://ladysarahinlondon.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/wardrobe-maintenance-cashmere-care-washing-storing/#more-1964 personally I don’t believe , I’ve I have ever washed anything at 90 degrees, not trying to sterilise my clothes… I never use a clothes dryer either, what is wrong with some fresh air? Clothes dryers are terrible for the environment and absolutely ruin anything,you put in them. I have a special rail up where I hang clothes to dry indoors, on their hanger. They hardly need ironing then either.

    • Machine washing and drying definitely take their toll on clothing and like you said, wear it out super fast. And great point about the ironing – if you hang up your clothes soon after the cycle has finished and shake them out well, you really can minimize the ironing needed!

      • The ironing thing is more to save time and effort, but I guess yes – it saves a little bit of electrical energy as well. I was mortified when visiting some friends of my sisters, they were literally nuking their clothes, washing everything super hot and pouring the washing and softener liquids by the gallon. More is not better people! Stop it! Having said that, I can’t stand I then people don’t wash enough and start getting smelly…

        • Yes I remember learning the shaking out trick from my mum, she HATES ironing :P
          I spent some time living in France and Germany and both people I stayed with insisted on hot water, fabric softener and using the dryer, too. My clothes came out all weird, and now I see that it’s just as bad for the environment too.

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