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Choosing Sustainable Textiles & Decreasing Textile Waste

Choosing sustainable textiles

Sustainable textiles are made from natural, sustainably and ethically sourced materials.

Go Green: Avoid synthetic fibers

Many textiles today are made with synthetic fibers, the majority of that being polyester. Other common synthetic fabrics include spandex, nylon, and acrylic. These materials are derived from fossil fuels, and their production uses more energy and produces more emissions than the processing of natural fibers. In addition, many chemicals are used in the process, some toxic.

Synthetic fabrics contain plastics and are therefore not biodegradable, taking up to 200 years to decompose, all while leaching chemicals into the soil and water. They also significantly contribute to the world’s microplastic problem: it is estimated that synthetic fabrics are responsible for up to 35% of microplastics in the ocean and 71% of microplastics in rivers. In your own home, 33% of the dust floating around is composed of microplastics from textiles. Read more about plastic pollution here.

Polyester attracts more oil from your skin, requiring more frequent laundering. In fact, one study showed that polyester fibers can absorb odor-causing compounds which may not wash out completely, leading to a buildup of odors over time.

There are many companies that create products from recycled polyester and nylon, and while this no doubt a better option than virgin materials, at the end of the day they’re still plastic.

Instead of synthetic fabrics, choose sustainably grown natural materials, such as cotton, hemp, linen, bamboo, wool, silk, cashmere, or Tencel (aka Lyocell and Modal). There are also products made with recycled natural materials.

Go Green: Choose non-toxic fabrics

Even fabrics made from natural materials can become unsafe if processed with toxic chemicals during the dyeing and finishing processes.

Synthetic fibers can be difficult to dye, so manufacturers use synthetic dyes to permeate the fibers. The good thing about synthetic dyes is that they are very stable in light and high temperatures and can resist even environmental degradation. This is, however, also what makes them bad for the environment.

Synthetic dyes have been found in water, underwater sediment, and even the fish themselves. Being widely used, it comes as no surprise that they have found their way not only to aquatic environments but also into the soil. Researchers believe the toxicity and pharmacological tendencies of these substances are cause for concern.

Avoid performance fabrics, which are materials that are advertised to have certain properties such as antimicrobial, anti-stain, non-wrinkle, or waterproof. Steer clear of fabric coated with flame retardants as well. Many of the chemicals used to achieve these characteristics can be harmful to your health and/or the environment.

Textile certifications

Jargon, aka greenwashing, such as ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘non-toxic’ can be empty and misleading, so look for products with eco-certifications, which verify company and product claims and ensure that rigid standards regarding things like sourcing, production, and/or ethical labor practices are upheld.

The Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) evaluates the processing and manufacturing of textiles on the basis of both environmental and social criteria. There are 2 GOTS label grades: ‘organic,’ requiring a minimum of 95% organic fibers and ‘made with organic materials,’ requiring at least 70% organic fibers.

The mission statement of the Better Cotton Initiative is “to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.”

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. ‘100%’ means the product is made from all virgin material; ‘Mix’ products are a mixture of FSC virgin fiber and/or recycled materials with Controlled virgin fiber; ‘Recycled’ indicates products are made from 100% recycled fiber.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is a certification option in addition to the FSC, essentially adopting similar standards, certification processes, and goals.

Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certifies products containing feathers and down from geese and ducks that are raised on certified farms in compliance with the principles and criteria of animal welfare.

Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) farmers and ranchers must meet animal welfare, land management, and social requirements.

UL Greenguard certification is an important certification to verify a product meets compliance with chemical emission standards for decrease indoor air pollution from harmful VOCs.

CertiPUR-US is a non-profit organization that certifies foam in bedding or upholstered furniture that meets its standards for emissions, content, performance, and durability.

OEKO-TEX 100 certified items have been tested for harmful substances and have been deemed harmless for human health. OEKO-TEX Made In Green certifications goes beyond the standard, that items have been manufactured in environmentally friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions.

Learn more about sustainability certifications here.

How to decrease textile waste

Repair items

Attempt to repair items before throwing them away. Find a good tailor or seamstress (unless you know how to sew) to repair your textiles to prolong their life.

Proper textile care

Read and follow care labels to prolong the quality and life of your clothing and other textiles.

Sustainable laundry practices

How you launder textiles can have just as much or more environmental impact as what you purchase.

Wash on cold

Wash on the cold cycle. I resisted this until just recently because I didn’t think cold water got clothes as clean. But I assure you as I’ve been doing this for months now that it works just as well. What are the benefits?

  • Cold water helps prevent shrinkage and retain colors in your clothes and is better for delicate fabrics.
  • About 90% of the energy used by your washing machine is to heat the water. Using cold water not only saves you money, but it substantially decreases decreases carbon emissions: if you washed 4 out of 5 loads of laundry in cold water for one year, the CO2 emissions would drop to 864 pounds of CO2 emissions, which is equivalent to planting 0.37 acres of trees.
  • Click here to learn more from the American Cleaning Institute.

Air dry

Air dry when you can, especially delicate clothing or things you wear/wash frequently, like workout gear. This prolongs the life of your clothes and saves energy by not using your dryer. If there’s room, install a closet rod in your laundry room to hang damp clothes. I use mine a ton, especially for delicates and workout clothes. I love this drying rack. Consumer Reports has some great line-drying tips.

Limit dry cleaning

Try to avoid items that require dry cleaning, and consider whether the cleaning cost will be worth the cost of the item. Dry cleaning is a notoriously high polluting business. In the U.S., about 70% of dry cleaners use the cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, which is a known toxic air pollutant and can contaminate soil and groundwater.

Just because a clothing label gives ‘Dry Clean’ as an option does not necessarily mean you have to. Items with ‘Dry Clean Only’ labels should be dry cleaned, but for everything else, you can get away with handwashing if you do it right.

If you’re in the market for a new washer and/or dryer, read up on what to look for here. Find eco-friendly laundry detergents, or plastic-free laundry goods.

Laundering synthetic fabrics

Laundering synthetic fabrics has a much more significant environmental impact that you probably realized. With every load, an average of 700,000 tiny plastic microfibers are released into the water. It is estimated that up to 35% of microplastics in the ocean and 71% in rivers come from synthetic clothing. There are a couple things you can do to combat this.

  1. Install a microfiber filter on your washing machine. The PlanetCare microfiber filter is a bit pricey, but third-party testing shows this filter catches 90% of microfibers. When the filter is full, you send it back to the company and they refurbish it to be used again. I just got this for my washing machine so I’ll update how it goes.
  2. If you can’t install a filter on your washing machine or you use a laundromat or communal machines, you still have choices.
  • Wash synthetic fabrics in a washing bag from GuppyFriend. Testing showed it captured about 90% of particles.
  • Another option is the Cora Ball, a ball made of recycled plastics that attracts and traps fibers. You simply place in each load of laundry and clean it as needed. Testing shows it traps about 30% of microfibers, but also helps prevent them from shedding in the first place. The company will recycle them for you when they wear out.

If you’re in the market for a new washer and/or dryer, read up on what to look for here. Find eco-friendly laundry detergents, or plastic-free laundry goods.

Where to donate textiles

You can donate most gently used textiles to a number of places. Here are some ideas:

Recycling textiles can be a tough venture. Drop off locations are hard to find, and some have come under scrutiny for not actually recycling items. But for items that are too worn, stained, ripped, etc. to be donated, these are your best bets.

  • Savers is a convenient option. I’ve been told that you can label your donation as ‘scraps’ and they will recycle them for you.
  • H&M is another good choice for non-donatable textiles. You can drop off a bag at the register and they will give you a coupon for future purchase.
  • Goodwill stores may recycle unusable items; check with a store near you.
  • Coyuchi has a take-back program for their products and will give you 15% off your next order.

As for mail-in textile recycling programs, I think the most promising are through recycling logistics company Supercircle. They work with many individual companies on recycling solutions. One such program is Thousand Fell’s Trade In by TF, which accepts any type of textiles, including shoes, for recycling. Create an account and they will send you a pre-paid shipping label to ship your well-worn goods. Once received, they give you points towards future purchases.

Unfortunately, any other mail-in recycling options are not cheap, especially as textiles tend to be bulky. These include:

  • For Days. For $20 you can purchase a Take Back bag, which will also earn you a $20 reward towards a purchase.
  • Retold Recycling has options for a one-time bag purchase or a subscription to send them your unwanted textiles. They sort through your things and depending on the condition, send them to thrift stores, donation centers, recyclers, resellers and up-cyclers.
  • Terracycle has a Zero Waste Fabric and Clothing box. This is quite pricey though…prices start at $136.

Find many clothing recycling options here.

Composting textiles

The last option (which I have yet to try) is composting. This can be done only if items are made from 100% natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, silk, cashmere, linen, or hemp. Remove decorations, lace, buttons, zippers, elastic, and labels that will not break down. Cut the fabric into small pieces for faster breakdown.

Learn more about composting here.

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