Buying less clothing is an important part of the sustainability equation: Estimates from the consulting firm McKinsey and the World Economic Forum suggest the number of garments made each year has at least doubled since 2000.
But changing the way you care for clothes is also an effective lever. Here are six tips for reducing the environmental impact of your favourite outfits.
A Better Washer Could Be a Front Loader
The good news is washing machines are keeping up with the latest innovations in efficiency. Energy Star-certified machines use about 25% less electricity than older models. You might save even more if you’re into European design: Consider swapping out a top loader machine for the front-loading ones. The latter consume not only less electricity but also less water. Top loaders rely on parts that twist and turn to keep clothes circulating, whereas front loaders take advantage of tub rotation and gravity to tumble things around. Front loaders use water more efficiently by spraying rather than soaking clothes. Energy Star estimates there are about 59 million top loaders in the US. If they were replaced by front loaders, the savings would be roughly equivalent to the electricity used by 1.3 million homes annually, according to the energy efficiency program’s website. It would also cut water use by 170 billion gallons.
Recycle Hot Air With a Heat Pump Dryer
While progress has been made on the efficiency of washers, dryers remain mostly unchanged. The machines weren’t added to the Energy Star efficiency program until 2014—making them one of the last major appliances to be included. A Natural Resources Defense Council report found that while the average washing machine in 2014 used 75% less power than it did in 1981, the power consumption of dryers barely changed over the same period. Because most are sold in washer-dryer sets, the main focus had just been on making sure they looked like the washing machine, the NRDC said. There have been some recent improvements in efficiency. A heat pump dryer recycles hot air instead of venting it out, but it’s among the priciest models on the market. For those on a tight budget, using a normal dryer at a lower temperature setting over a longer period of time is less energy-intensive. Also, aim to use your dryer when grid demand is low—at midday if you’re in a place with lots of solar, otherwise, late at night.
Take in a Breath of Free Air
Still, the cheapest and most environmentally friendly solutions almost always come from nature. Why not hang your clothes out to dry? The savings will add up quickly. Dryers in the US consumed 57.4 billion kWh of electricity in 2015—more than the entire nation of Bangladesh. For the US as a whole, this represents about 5% of household energy use and 1.4% of total electricity consumption. The carbon footprint for dryers equals that of 9 million cars driving on the road each year.
Beware of Microplastics
Estimates from the consulting firm McKinsey and the World Economic Forum suggest the number of garments made annually has at least doubled since 2000, and many of those clothes are made from petroleum-based fibers, such as polyester. Each time we wash these fabrics, especially when they’re new, tiny pieces called microfibers break off and float away.
Research suggests that microplastics reduce oceanic plankton’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. This could severely affect the vital role these tiny organisms play in maintaining the ocean as a carbon sink. Oceans have historically absorbed 30% to 50% of CO2 emissions from human activities.
Buy a Filter
Starting in 2025, France will require manufacturers to install filters in their washing machines to catch microplastics—a measure the European Commission is considering as well. Even if your machine doesn’t come with a filter, you can hack it. Companies such as PlanetCare and Filtrol make filters you can snap on to an existing machine. While they take a little bit of work to attach and cost more than some garment bags that are designed for filtering laundry, the results are effective, makers of the products claim. Filtrol says its reusable mesh filter removes 89% of the fibers that peel off clothes during washing.
Say No to Fast Fashion
You can also help control microfiber pollution by becoming more selective with clothes purchases. Natural fibers such as cotton might seem like a good choice, but they’re often heavily processed and leach chemicals. A straightforward solution is to get off the hamster wheel of fast fashion. Buy clothes in a style and fabric that look good for longer. It’s not just consumers who must act but manufacturers as well, according to Harmen Spek, innovation and solution manager at the Plastic Soup Foundation, a nonprofit marine conservation organization that targets plastic waste. “The problem is coming from the fashion industry,” he says, “so the fashion industry should provide the solutions.”