Eco Style: How Your Wardrobe Can Save the Planet

BlogHer Original Post

J. Be honest: the last thing you think about when you're standing in front of the closet in your underwear every morning is saving the environment. But you should be. Recently, the New York Times reported on a new study that articulates the connection between disposable fashion and global warming:

With rainbow piles of sweaters and T-shirts that often cost less than a sandwich, stores like Primark are leaders in the quick-growing “fast fashion” industry, selling cheap garments that can be used and discarded without a second thought. . . . But clothes — and fast clothes in particular — are a large and worsening source of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, because of how they are both produced and cared for, concludes a new report from researchers at Cambridge University titled “Well Dressed?”

The authors of the Cambridge study suggested several solutions: consumers should buy more polyester (which requires less energy to care for over the life of the garment) and more expensive and better made pieces (which will last longer). They also suggested leasing clothes and then returning them for recycling at the end of a season or a trend cycle.

I am intrigued by the idea of leasable clothing (women should be able to rent evening gowns, for example, like men rent tuxedos), but I’m not entirely sold on this option; I am also not willing to wear polyester, even if it will save the planet. My fashion philosophy is that you are best off with a smaller wardrobe of well-chosen pieces that you love and wear and care for thoughtfully. Put together an eco-friendly wardrobe of fabrics that can be hand-washed and air-dried, and choose styles that transcend trends.

Cashmere is practical and durable; a cashmere sweater, in any style, is always fashionable. The best environmental news about cashmere is that it should NOT be dry cleaned; the chemicals will make the fibers brittle and decrease the life of the garment. Instead, hand wash in cold water with baby shampoo (which has fewer surfactants than regular detergent) and dry flat. Think beyond the traditional twinset--look for hoodies and short-sleeved tees and sleeveless tanks. J. Crew has a nice selection of colors and styles, including the sweater pictured above, which is currently on sale for $99.00.

Linen, silk, and washable wool
The authors of the Cambridge study advocated replacing natural fabrics with polyester, because it requires less energy to wash and dry. If, like me, you balk at the idea of swathing yourself in polyester, chose natural fabrics that are designed to be hand-washed. For winter, layer a washable silk blouse under a cashmere or wool sweater; for summer, pair it with a linen skirt. If you're concerned about wrinkles, spritz garments with a little Downey Wrinkle Releaser.

Don’t treat denim as disposable; whether you spend $20.00 or $200.00 on jeans, buy a style that you REALLY love and handle them with care. Machine wash inside out or--even better--hand wash with Woolite; no matter how you wash them, hang jeans to dry. This conserves energy AND preserves the finish on your jeans, which gives them a longer life. Do the same for chinos or corduroy pants as well. If air drying leaves your pants a little stiff, toss them in the dryer on the FLUFF setting (which typically only blows cold air and uses less energy than a full dryer cycle) for five minutes.

Anything labeled DRY CLEAN
Not all dry clean clothing is created equally. Pieces labeled DRY CLEAN ONLY should not be washed; however, pieces labeled simply DRY CLEAN often can be. Test a small spot on an inside seam for colorfastness before washing. Use a detergent designed for delicates. Hang or dry flat. Items that do need to be dry cleaned can be worn more than once; after each wearing, hang them somewhere they can air out overnight (the bathroom, for example--not in your closet; packing them in a small space will trap odors, or pass them to other clothes). Spot treat stains with Woolite and cold water; spray lightly with Febreeze to remove odors. Drape sweaters overnight on the back of an armchair; this will give them a chance to regain their shape. Keep dry cleaning to a minimum.

Taking care of your wardrobe goes beyond the laundry room. Treat stains immediately; fix tears or holes yourself, or take the garmet to a tailor for repairs. Repurpose things that have outlived their original style or function: a dress can be made into a skirt, and pants and skirts can easily be shortened. Items that you are no longer wearing can be sold at consignment or donated. Pieces that are completely worn out can often be recycled for craft materials.

Be thoughtful about what you wear and how you care for it, and the next time you find yourself in front of the closet in your underwear, you'll know you are helping the earth. Even if you don't know what exactly to wear.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Susan Wagner writes about fashion at Friday Style and about everything else at Friday Playdate. Have a style question? E-mail her at fridaystyle.susan AT gmail DOT com.


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