Buying sustainable clothing is the first step to reducing fashion’s impact, but something we don’t hear a lot about is caring for clothes in order to extend the lifespan of each garment. But how? We know it can be hard to know what’s best for our clothes and the environment. We’re here to help! Before you jump into these suggestions, the first thing to do is read the label on your garment. That’s where you’ll find the best advice for your particular pieces. No one knows your clothes better than the people who made them. When the label is lost, fuzzy, or non-existent, here are tips to keep your clothes strong, lively, and clean.
The first thing to note is that you don’t have to wash your garments every time you wear them. If they aren’t stained and don’t have an odor, you can let them air out a bit, then wear them again. Every wash brings your garment closer to the end of its life, so wearing your clothes more than once before washing adds immensely to your clothing’s lifespan. Especially in the world of fast fashion, clothes are made to be cheap and produced quickly. Many items from major fast fashion labels are not made to be washed more than a few times before falling apart. If you’re going to buy fast fashion, then make it last as long as you can.
Hand washing is the way to keep clothes in their best condition (and it saves on electricity ⚡️). It’s especially important to hand wash your underwear and bras. This is because machine washing destroys the elastic over time.
What if the label says ‘dry clean only”? Most ‘dry clean only’ garments can still be washed in this gentle way. If it’s your only option, look for eco-friendly dry cleaners, as most dry cleaners use chemicals that harm the environment and your clothes.
1. Fill up a sink or basin with cool or room temp water and a gentle detergent (read your label for the best type for your clothes)
2. Immerse your clothing in the water and swirl a few times over the course of 30 minutes. The water may turn color. Don’t worry. This is normal. Your clothes won’t lose pigment!
3. Rinse thoroughly
4. Remove and squeeze out excess water
5. Air dry
This is what a machine washer does, just a lot less kindly.
If you have a machine with a "delicate" or "hand wash" mode, that could also work. You’re generally pretty safe opting for a gentle wash even if your clothes can withstand a harsher setting.
Level up and put your clothes into a washing bag. Think of the garment bag as the armor of your wardrobe. Who would go into battle without their armor? Not us. Washing bags are perfect for protecting precious clothing from getting snagged, stretched, or entangled. Don’t have a washing bag? Using a pillow case and tying off the end works in a pinch.
A bag like this will also protect your underclothes if you choose not to hand wash them.
Air Drying: laying the garment flat on a clean surface to dry is ideal for maintaining its shape, avoiding shrinkage, and preserving its color.
Machine Drying (not ideal): dryers break down your clothing faster, but for some of us, it isn’t always practical to air dry. Most people around the world don’t own dryers, but if you do, the lowest possible setting is best since it tends to be gentler with your clothes and saves electricity (and on the bills).
Side note: We love warm, fluffy towels, and we know that when they air dry, they crisp up. We find that the best way to handle this is to air dry an entire load (including the towels), then pop the towels into the dryer for five to ten minutes to soften them up.
Properly storing your clothing can keep you from having to break out the iron or steamer, but sometimes you just have to get them out somehow (hello, linen pants). Steaming is generally gentler on your clothes. Ironing is only necessary for adding creases or tackling ultra stubborn wrinkles. But there are other ways to smooth your rumpled clothes.
One recommendation is to hang your wrinkly garments up in the bathroom while you take a hot shower. That will create the steam effect without using a steamer! You can also use a hair-dryer, an eco-conscious wrinkle remover spray, or make your own spray. All are perfectly valid. Fabrics respond differently to steaming and ironing, so make sure to check how they will react before giving it a shot. For all you ever wanted to know about steaming, check out: What Fabrics Can Be Steamed?
Although there are many good uses for bleach (when used safely), it can be pretty harsh. It’s also been linked to health issues and there are conflicting reports on how toxic it is for the environment. Erring on the side of caution, we recommend eco-friendly bleach alternatives.
There are many natural and effective ways of whitening your clothes and removing stains using products around your home. One of our favorites is distilled white vinegar (even dissolves pet stains!), but you can use lemon or lime juice, hydrogen peroxide, or baking soda, among others. The sun is also pretty good at making your whites whiter, so you can leave them out for awhile and make use of our solar system for free.
Before you throw away smelly clothes that have a lingering odor, check the materials they’re made from. Studies have shown that synthetic fibers (like polyester, lycra, and rayon) are stinkier than their natural counterparts. That funky odor comes from bacteria living naturally on human skin feasting on specific oils in our sweat.
Natural fibers absorb moisture (including the smelly compounds made by bacteria snacking on oil), but synthetic fabrics do not. Oil sits on the surface of synthetic fabric, which invites bacteria who want to hang out with your clothes and stay awhile. We love to use TENCEL because while it’s technically a synthetic fabric, it’s one of the most sustainable fabrics on earth AND its natural properties help inhibit the growth of bacteria. So it’s less stinky.
If you find that your clothes need refreshing, spritz them with an enzyme spray before you throw them in the hamper. Or you can try these tricks using baking soda, vinegar, borax, and other household items.
Whew! We know that’s a LOT of information, but we hope you’re leaving this article feeling like we’ve equipped you to care for your clothes and get the most wear out each piece.
Sustainability Tip: The best way to make your wardrobe sustainable is to wear your clothes over and over for as long as you can (#30WearsChallenge!)
Kate is a roleplaying gamer, and Stellari is her favorite store on the Citadel. She’s eagerly awaiting Life is Strange: True Colors and her next tabletop session of CyberGeneration. She's also a k-pop mashup artist and video editor who makes every girl group song 90% more gay.