Clothes to Me

Once Valledupar's main economic produce; Cotton

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I watched a show yesterday called Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living.  In this episode, they  followed the life of a cotton t-shirt. Apparently, cotton crops are some of the most heavily sprayed in the US agricultural industry. Cotton crops also consume a vast amount of water, over 2,700 litres (700 gallons) per pound of cotton. The heavily sprayed seeds and other plant parts are also fed to cows, which we then eat. According to this show, we are actually consuming more cotton through eating beef than through purchasing clothes. Hmmm.

After it is picked, the cotton is cleaned and shipped overseas, mostly to China, where it is woven into cloth, using more water and dyes and chemicals. In many cases the cloth is shipped again to another country where the garment is put together, and then shipped again back to North America, where it is put into stores for us to buy.

Our clothes really have an amazing journey, even before we walk around in them for the first time! Just as importantly, our clothes consume a lot of water, even before we have washed them for the first time. Finally, our clothes have been responsible for a whole lot of pesticide use, almost 1/3 of a pound per t-shirt. If you think about it, the pesticides used to produce a regular cotton t-shirt, can weigh more than the t-shirt itself. Ewww.

Before turning all green last November, I had never once thought about the impact that my clothes had on the environment. I had never considered my clothing footprint.

We have an insatiable appetite for new clothes in North America. The fashion industry feeds this frenzy, by making us feel decidedly un-cool if we don’t buy new clothes each season. Many people have racks and racks of clothes, some of which they have only worn once or twice, some still with the price tags.

If we all knew the environmental cost of making our clothes – would we still buy so many?

As part of my Nothing New challenge, I have not purchased any new clothes for myself, husband or kids since January 1st. It honestly has been very easy. We have so many clothes to begin with there is no reason to buy more. However with kids it can get a little tricky. Take my son for example – he is five years old and plays rough and tumble on the floor. The knees of his pants can take quite the beating. Since our challenge began, he has blown out the knees of 3 pairs of jeans. I still let him wear them, just not to school.

My next problem is socks – my socks. It seems like I am getting holes in all my socks all at once. The other day I had to try on 3 pairs of socks before finding one without new holes.

My community held an “I’ve Outgrown It” sale last weekend. It is an annual event where they stuff a school full of used kids clothing and toys. It is like a giant garage sale! There are great deals to be had. I purchased 4 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shorts and 5 shirts for my son, and 2 pairs of pants, 3 pairs of shorts and 5 shirts for my daughter. I got all this for $100. Several items had never been worn and still had the tags on them. Others were high-end, brand name items that had seen very little wear. So I am now set up quite nicely for spring and summer.

I am closing in on my 3 month challenge of nothing new, with only about 2 weeks left. It has me thinking about what I will do once the challenge is over. Will I rush out and buy a bunch of new stuff? Will I continue to not buy any new stuff at all? Or will I take a hybrid approach and purchase new only when absolutely necessary?

I have not quite decided. I do know that I am very aware of the huge footprint my clothing has, and will opt to wear what I have instead of purchasing new.  If I have to purchase, I will try to purchase used whenever possible. If I have to purchase new, I will buy from stores that offer high quality fabrics that don’t wear out as fast – it may cost more but it will last longer, and someone else is more likely get some use out of it when I am done. I am also going to be on the look out for organic cotton fabrics in my area. I would like to save some pesticide poundage! I will also get out my mending skills and see what I can do about those nasty holes in my socks and my son’s jeans.

Umm… wait a minute. I think I just committed to darning my socks. Seriously?

I guess so! :)

Air Dry II

So the results are in. Air dry was a success. Folding took less time as expected, due to the pre-sorting involved with hanging. After a short while, my four loads of kid’s clothes looked like this (minus the socks, underwear, bathing suits and tights):

My one worry was the crunchiness of the clothes after air drying. This proved not to be a problem for most items. Out of everything, the cotton was the stiffest. However cotton knits were not a problem at all, and luckily, most of my kids’ clothes are cotton knits (pyjamas, pants, t-shirts). To get out wrinkles, all I did was smooth them out with my hands. This is what I normally do with dryer-dried clothes anyway. Here are pyjama pants before the smoothing:

Here they are after. No problem.

The crunchiest items were the jeans. To soften them up a bit, I just rubbed them together at the waistband.

The weave cotton items could not be smoothed out. So out of the nearly 100 items washed, I decided to put 4 cotton weave dresses and 1 pair of pants into the dryer for one minute to fluff. It worked okay, not great. I am not sure I will try it again. It is a small stain on my otherwise dryer-free experience. Purist! An iron was probably necessary but I was too lazy.

The next step is all the adult clothes and linens/towels. I have completed 2 loads so far! As expected, hanging is a breeze as there are way fewer items than with kid’s clothes. Plus, drying rack space does not get used up so fast. Bonus.

Overall, the entire process was not nearly as hard as I thought, and more gratifying than I ever imagined. It sounds weird, but I feel more connected to the clothes, more responsible for them somehow. Just doing this has opened my eyes to the full impact that our clothes have on the environment. The fabric production process utilizes an astonishing amount of water, and then we continue to use water and energy to maintain them. So that has me thinking – what else can we do to reduce our clothing foot print?

Air Dry

I have never air dried my clothes. There is one exception – when I was pregnant I borrowed maternity clothes from a friend and didn’t want them to shrink. She air dried them, so I did too. All other clothes have always gone in the dryer, every time.

I briefly thought about this fact when we were in Australia 6 years ago. Apparently most people air dry their clothes there and don’t even own dryers. I felt a slight twinge of guilt for not doing the same, but that feeling quickly passed when I realized how much extra work it would be. Plus how are you supposed to dry your clothes outside when it is below freezing 6 months a year? This is not Australia people, this is Canada.

Once I had kids, the thought of having to air dry all the little baby clothes and blankets seemed crazy to me. Have you seen how much laundry babies make? Kids can make even more, due to the sloppiness of eating and the dirtiness of playing. I felt thankful for my dryer, and continued to push through load after load.

Well, I have been putting laundry off since I have turned over my fresh new environmental leaf (about 3 weeks ago). I now have a totally different way of thinking. One of my main goals is to live the life I want everyone else to live, so I really want reduce my carbon footprint. Now I am pretty sure the big 5 – fridge, stove, dishwasher, washer and dryer – are pulling out a lot of wattage. The most wasteful one right off the bat seems to be the dryer, since there is a relatively easy viable alternative. This is the reason why Australians hang their clothes, as do many people in Europe. So I should just suck it up, and give it a try.

Today I went out and bought two extra hanging racks. Check it out (third rack not shown):

As stood in front of the washer and drier I wondered how I was going to deal with all the little socks and underwear. Then I realized it was staring right at it – laundry shelves! Perfect. You can see by the amount of underwear (note that there are additional rows in some places) that I have been really putting off laundry.

My husband said when he saw all the kids’ underwear and socks, that it gave him the same image of someone comin’ home after a duck hunt. Ewww.

So anyway… here is the analysis, having just completed the hanging:

  1. Load by load, this is much faster. I mean, you have to wait about 50 minutes between each cycle when you use the dryer. With the washer only, you can be in there to switch loads in about 25. So for these 4 loads it took just over 2 hours.
  2. Load by load, it takes a lot longer to hang all these little people clothes up, compared to chucking them in the dryer. It took me about 15 minutes per load to hang, and I was getting faster by the end. The grownup people loads would be even faster of course, as there is about one-third the items per load.
  3. I feel like although it took longer to hang, it will be faster to fold. Much of the sorting is done (some pairs of socks already hanging together as you can see).
  4. I actually don’t mind the act of hanging, or folding too much. It is somehow relaxing, and I cannot explain why.
  5. I feel good. My dryer stayed quiet and cold.

There is one thing I am a bit worried about – what shape the clothes will be when they are fully dry? The climate here is quite dry in the winter, so wet things dry really fast. This is a good thing, since I have another 8 loads or so waiting in line… But drying fast means that fabric can feel stiff, crunchy even. Maybe excessive shaking out or precision folding will help with that. Worst case scenario is that some items go back in to the dryer for one minute for a fluff. I will let you know.

Being an accountant, I want to put numbers to all this stuff. How much power do I actually save based on my total drying time and the kWh used by my dryer?

Find these things out, I will.