When people talk about sustainable fashion, they tend to focus on production and consumption. And that’s understandable: Fast fashion production and manufacturing methods are appalling in most cases, and the associated advertising machinery encourages us to buy more than we need and more than we can afford. There’s a lot there that needs changing.
Less airtime is dedicated to talking about fighting fast fashion by taking great care of what you already own, elongating the life of all of your garments. This practice represents another way to reduce consumption that is easier, in many ways, than committing to buy only clothes made from organic cottons and recycled fibers. It also is helpful if, like me, you want to buy sustainable items moving forward but still have a lot of mall leftovers hanging in your closet. Taking care of your wardrobe items means hanging them up instead of dumping them on the floor, mending them as needed, and carefully treating any unfortunate stains. Of course, it also means keeping them clean.
But, in my humble opinion, you probably don’t need to keep them THAT clean.
There are dozens of books on our modern society’s obsession with cleanliness, and how it may actually be hurting us more than helping us on many fronts. Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean (sent to me by a beloved reader!) focuses mainly on bathing and grooming practices, but also touches on clothes washing and laundry practices and Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies examines America’s cleanliness obsession over the centuries. Anti-perspirants with potentially harmful chemicals, antibiotic soaps and sanitizers that may help breed super germs, and untold gallons of water wasted all in the name of cleanliness.
And, you guessed it, plenty of that wasted water goes toward washing clothes that just don’t need washing. Now, before you get indignant, hear me out. If you’ve played an hour of tennis in a shirt, obviously that shirt should get washed before wearing it again. When you spill soup on your pants, those will need to be cleaned right away. Anything that stinks should probably take a trip through the washing machine before you pull it on to wear again. And anything that sits close to your skin and, ya know, soaks up your personal juicy goodness – think socks, panties, undershirts – those are single-wear items for sure.
But your jeans? They do NOT need to be washed after every wearing. A sweater worn over a tee can likely get aired out and worn again. Blazers and suiting are definitely in the multiple-wears-before-cleaning category, and many skirts will only really need washing if they’ve gotten visible dirt on them. Don’t take my word for it, check out the American Cleaning Institute’s guidelines for washing clothes.
I’m not advocating for letting your clothes get so dirty you feel like PigPen walking around in them – you need to feel good and happy and comfy in your garments. I’m just challenging you to consider washing not-terribly-stinky-or-visibly-dirty clothes less often. Here’s why:
- You wash your clothes less
- You save water – which helps both with your personal water bill, and with making that water available for other uses.
- You add less pollution to the water table, which means the unused water remains clean. You add less pollution to the oceans, which means essential marine life stays healthier.
- Since you’re washing them less, the fibers in your clothes remain stronger longer. They wear out slower, elongating the lives of your garments.
- And of course, you don’t have to do the wash/go to the laundromat as often! BONUS.
Sometimes, what you DON’T do can have a positive impact. Even if you can’t afford pretty Eileen Fisher sweaters made from organic silk or snazzy Everlane trousers created using transparent supply chains, you can do your best to get the most life and wear out of the clothes you already own. And washing them less often will help you do that, guaranteed.*
Image courtesy Amazon
*OK, not really guaranteed. If you are a forestry worker or a pre-school art teacher or a professional mud-wrestler or someone else who is super-duper hard on your clothes just because of how you spend your days? Your clothes are gonna wear our fairly quickly regardless of your washing habits. But everyone else? Well-nigh guaranteed!
**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.