We have become used to replacing instead of repairing, which is hardly surprising when fast fashion can cost less than fast food. But keeping your garments for longer both reduces your demand on the planet’s resources and reduces your waste output. Slow fashion tries to extend the life of clothing by making it durable, but nothing lasts forever and even the best-made clothing falls apart eventually.
This is why truly sustainable practices focus on the entire life cycle of clothing. A brand produces and sells a garment, but after the point of sale it’s really up to the consumer to further reduce their impact through properly washing, storing, mending, and disposing of their garments. Our habits make a difference, so let’s walk through what it means to take care of your clothes in a sustainable manner.
“You need to learn how to care for your items if you care about sustainability.”
- Céline Semaan
First, it’s important to know what to look for when shopping. Expensive clothing does not necessarily mean high-quality, so here are some tips for what to avoid. As a rule of thumb, thicker fabrics last longer than thinner ones. There are a few ways you can test for this. Hold garments up the light, and if you can see light coming through, it’s too thin. Or if you can see your hand through the fabric, it’s too thin.
You also want to make sure the sewing construction will pass the test of time. Try gently tugging on buttons, or turn items inside out to look at seams and gently tug on the threads. Not hard—just enough to ensure nothing will unravel or pop off.
Laundry can be harmful to both your clothing and the environment, so wash as little as possible. Most of us do laundry way more often than we need to, though how often you should wash your clothing is different for everyone and will depend on the type of garment, how much you sweat, the makeup of the fabric, and your daily activities. Some fabrics are naturally antimicrobial, like synthetic SilverTech and natural alpaca wool, which means they can go even longer without washing.
The best way to determine if an item needs washing is to check for signs of visible soiling or sweat, then give it a smell, and re-wear if possible. You can refresh your clothing in other ways, such as spot-cleaning tricky stains or letting wrinkled garments steam in the bathroom while you shower. Steaming is more gentle on clothing than direct heat from an iron, especially for delicate fabrics like silk.
If your clothes are not visibly dirty but have a faint odor or mustiness, try airing them out by hanging them outside for a few hours or popping them in the freezer overnight. In a pinch, you can also spray them with a natural fabric refresher. You’ll be amazed at how much these tricks remove any smells and make your clothes feel fresh.
When you do need to wash, make sure to read the tag with washing instructions as each item may have specific constraints based on its fabric type or dye. It’s important to follow these instructions to avoid the risk of damage, but here are some general tips and tricks that will apply to most garments.
Hand washing uses less water and is much gentler, which makes it better for both your clothes—especially delicate items—and the environment. But we get that hand washing is a lot of work and the washing machine is basically a godsend! When using a machine, place delicates in a laundry bag to reduce to the risk of tearing, and choose cold water, which is gentler on fabrics and requires less energy.
By now we all know about microplastics floating in our oceans, but did you know that 35% of it comes from washing synthetic textiles? These fabrics shed tiny plastic particles that follow the water run-off into our oceans. The best way to prevent this problem is to wash synthetic textiles inside of a microfiber filter bag, also known as a guppy bag or Guppyfriend. These bags will catch the microplastic particles so that they can be disposed of properly.
In terms of detergents, there’s not a huge difference between liquid and powder. It’s more important to focus on choosing brands that use biodegradable surfactants and avoid phthalates and phosphates. These detergents are better for your skin and the environment.
The dryer is a handy convenience, but it uses a lot of power and it also exposes your clothing to high heat and agitation that can damage fabrics. It is especially harmful to elastic items, like workout gear or bra straps. If you have to machine dry, do so on low power. But as a general rule, air drying is always kinder for clothes and the environment.
Keep in mind that wet clothes can be extra heavy, and hanging them improperly can result in stretching, especially for knit items like sweaters. It’s best to dry these flat, either on top of a clothes rack or on top of a towel, to prevent gravity stretching them down.
We all go through messy phases, but the more orderly your clothes are the less you’ll need to steam out wrinkles. Items with knit fabrics, like jerseys and sweaters, can stretch over time even when they’re dry, so it’s better to fold them than hang them.
Natural fabrics are very tasty for pests like moths. To prevent them chewing holes into textiles, you can store your clothing with repellants like mothballs, cedar wood, or lavender-scented paper. For expensive items, consider storing them in cotton suit bags, which will also protect from light and dust.
Shoes & Bags
Look after your leather by wiping dirt off regularly and treating it with a leather conditioner every few months. You can also spray leather with water-repellant and stain-resistant spray as a preventive measure.
For shoes, it’s also a good idea to add protective rubber soles so you don’t wear out the originals. Either way, when your soles eventually do wear out, rather than buying a new pair of shoes, just get yours resoled at your local cobbler! It’s much cheaper and you’ll get to keep your favorite shoes for longer.
Not so long ago, people learned basic sewing skills to patch things up. If you’re good with your hands, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube that teach you basic mending techniques. Small, simple tasks can be done by hand, like sewing on a button, while more complex tasks may require a sewing machine. Otherwise, getting to know your local tailor is a great investment for your clothes. They’ll help you mend tears, replace missing buttons, and tailor ill-fitting garments to suit you perfectly.
When you finally need to throw out a garment, don’t just ditch it in the trash. If it’s still wearable, give it to a friend, sell it at a local consignment store, donate it to a thrift shop, or repurpose it for something new. Get creative and think about what else the fabric can be used for. Spandex clothing such as swimsuits can be cut into pretty hair ties, and old t-shirts make great, absorbent cleaning rags. There’s no limit to up-cycling.
For anything that is beyond repair, there are a few ways you can recycle it. Some large brands have recycling programs, such as H&M, Levi’s, and The North Face. Or you can order a box from TerraCycle, fill it with unwanted clothing, and send it back to them for recycling. If you’re in the US, you can also find your nearest textile recycling location on Recycle Now.
We hope this guide is helpful and will keep your clothes spick and span for longer. If you have any other tips or tricks, please comment below!