Why Sustainable Fashion Must Move Beyond Toxic Dry Cleaning

Dry clean only fairtrunk

How many times have I seen a wonderful, hand-made, naturally-dyed, beautifully tailored garment and then seen an ugly ‘Dry Clean Only’ label on it which made me put it back on the rack? Too many.
Purchasing a “Dry Clean Only” product and subscribing to a lifestyle where ‘Dry Cleaning’ is normalised negates every piece of good that garment and you might have set out to do with your ‘Ethical Purchase’.

Source: Times of India

Dry cleaners will often “greenwash” their marketing messages in a shameful manner, claiming that by dry cleaning you are ‘saving water’ and thus being ‘sustainable’, when the truth is that dry cleaning, as widely practiced today, is considered ‘dry’ because it avoids water but it instead dips your clothes into toxic chemicals that are severely hazardous to the environment and to human health. Not to mention, it and adds to your carbon footprint hugely.

What makes Dry Cleaning toxic?

The primary issue with dry cleaning is the use of a cleaning solvent called PERC, short for perchloroethylene. The horrific nature of this solvent came to my attention about ten years ago while reading about Superfund sites in America.
A Superfund site is land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a site in need of a cleanup, because it poses health risks to human health and/or the surrounding environment.

Here is a rundown of why a Dry Cleaning is so bad for the environment:

  • Exposure to PERC is linked to cancer, endocrine system disruption, miscarriages, kidney failure, and neurological dysfunction leading to behaviour change.
  • Clean up of PERC is expensive and involves the removal of buildings and replacement of underlying soil.
  • Trips to the dry cleaner guzzle fuel.
  • Plastic bags are used heavily by dry-cleaners.
  • Even if a dry-cleaner is being responsible, the disposal of dry cleaning solvents requires transportation to a hazardous material site, and is energy-intensive.

What are the alternatives to the Dry Cleaning?

The future will hold self-cleaning fabrics, there is no doubt about that. In 2014 I had blogged about some remarkable innovations in textiles, and there probably have been many such inventions since. Until that point however, what do we do?

  1. If you seek convenience then there are professional washing services, such as Lavado, who undertake all your cleaning and don’t try to force a toxic dry-cleaning on you.
  2. There is also better dry-cleaning technology, which will use something other than PERC to do your cleaning. After many attempts that were disputed by PERC-based businesses (e.g. a silicone-based replacement solvent), technology which stands out as a truly sustainable way of dry-cleaning is to use CO2 and Ozone.
    (Unfortunately, none of this is available in India at the moment.)
  3. If you want to save money then you can clean the garment at home with a gentle hand wash and a gentle detergent, remembering never to wring out the article and to dry it flat. The rule is to be gentle.

DIY cleaning fabrics at home

Remember how I wrote that Reetha powder was used to traditionally clean silk saris? Well, with some time and care you can hand-wash any garment and even remove stains from it, at home.

  • Wool: Gently hand-wash with a mild soap in warm water. Throw a little white vinegar in the water when you rinse, and then lay it flat and stretch it to its original size to dry. Keep out of the sun to dry.
  • Silk: Use your hands to swirl silk around in cool water with some gentle pH neutral soap (castile soap). Dry the garment indoors because UV rays can damage silk. Instead of ironing, steam out creases.
  • Rayon: Hand-wash in cool water with soap or detergent and rinse. Don’t twist or wring out the water; press it out of the garment after rinsing.

Steam can also be a great way to clean clothes as the heat kills bacteria which helps with odour removal and eradicates harmful bacteria. Steaming is great for clothes that went through a mild one-time use as it uses less water overall. 

You can place your delicates in the dryer with a damp washcloth and run a normal cycle. Add a few drops of essential oils to the washcloth for some fragrance. 

You can hang your garments in the bathroom and turn on the shower or jump in to the shower and don’t just run the water and waste it!. Finally, you can use your garment steamer to steam out armholes and eliminate the tough odour from those spots.

Vodka is something that theatre departments have been using for decades to remove odour quickly from stage costumes. The vodka is sprayed onto the garment without diluting it, and it quickly evaporates taking the odours with it.


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DIY Stain Removal

Stain removal at home is also a well-researched subject. The internet has plenty of tips from users who have discovered all kinds of methods to get stains out.
The trick, many a time, is in knowing what’s the right water temperature and time. Protein-based stains, for example, should never be washed with warm water.

Saving India from toxic dry-cleaners

Dry Cleaning chains are starting to mushroom all over Indian cities. The industry is being touted as a ‘great investment’ and a ‘growth opportunity’. It is truly sad that even when we are at the brink of an environmental collapse there doesn’t seem to be a shred of remorse amongst these businesses to disclose an honest picture as to how harmful their business is to health and environment.

These chains do not reveal the fact that they use a harsh chemical, classified as hazardous waste as their dry-cleaning solvent on a customer’s clothing in lieu of water, nor do they encourage any kind of restraint about the number of times you get your clothes dry-cleaned. They do not disclose to the landlords they are renting from as to how this chemical needs to be disposed off safely. They are likely polluting the real estate and water in their neighborhoods, just as the many “caused-by-dry-cleaning” Superfund sites in America have done.

However they will continue to aggressively sell you the convenience factor, and put the fear of ruining your clothes with water if you don’t Dry Clean them. This is in fact a toxic culture, of selling chemically-heavy processes for profit, without disclosing the real, harmful fallout and risk to health and risk of land and water contamination.

Thankfully, after much lobbying on the part of folks like myself (writing emails and making phone calls!), I am grateful to see some NGOs like Toxics Link (New Delhi) and the Indian media picking up on the danger and trying to spread the word so that consumers are no longer being asked to trade their health and our collective environmental safety over something that is so insidious and can be avoided.

I also hope that designers start to think about how to avoid the need for dry-cleaning while making their garments, so that fashion no longer encourages the destruction of the environment.

Further reading:

  1. Dry cleaning alternatives
  2. Dry cleaning alternatives
  3. Dry cleaning ill effects
  4. PERC has long term ill-effects
  5. Astonishing toxic legacy 
  6. Rules for removing laundry stains
  7. How to wash silk clothes

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