Where can we best see the impact of our throwaway culture: Plastic bags choking the oceans? Disposable coffee cups piling up in landfills? Or the 39,000 tons of fashion leftovers that are dumped into Chile’s Atacama Desert every year?
Fast fashion drains resources and produces waste at a shocking rate. According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the textile industry uses nearly 26.4 trillion gallons of water and 98 million tons of oil per year. The number of garments we purchase has increased by 400% in the past 20 years.
But the average article of clothing is discarded after only 10 uses. Less than 1% of discarded clothing is recycled into new garments; 73% is burned or ends up in a landfill. Central America’s Atacama Desert, with its towering mounds of unwanted new and used clothing, is a striking and tragic testament to fashion waste.
Last season’s sweater may look innocent resting in your trash bin with your coffee grounds, greasy paper towels and banana peels, but give it a few years in a landfill and the story will take a turn for the worse. The coffee grounds are a fine composting agent, and the paper towels will break down within two to six weeks. Banana peels take longer to return to the soil, but within two years they’ll be gone. Your sweater, on the other hand, will probably have come in and out of style dozens of times in the centuries that will pass before it decomposes.
Yes, centuries. Clothing can take more than 200 years to decompose in a landfill, according to the World Resources Institute. (And in the dry, arid ecosystem of the Atacama Desert, where even vegetation can take hundreds of years to decompose, it’s painful to even think about how long mountains of discarded clothing will be a part of the landscape.) During the decomposition process, textiles generate greenhouse methane gas and leach toxic chemicals and dyes into the groundwater and our soil.
Longer-lived clothing for a longer-lived planet
The most sustainable clothing is the clothing that’s currently in your closet. Reducing the rate at which you cycle through new clothing has a direct, positive impact on the health of our planet.
What makes us discard a piece of clothing and replace it with new garb?
Aside from fleeting fashion trends, clothing turnover happens because clothes are no longer in a condition that we feel comfortable wearing. In Europe, 70% of the clothes thrown away is because of irreversible damage such as color fading, stubborn stains (including color bleeding) or shrinkage.
Most of that damage can be prevented by knowing how to care for your clothes a little better. The best thing? Smart clothing care – the kind that prevents damage and makes your clothes last longer – actually means less work for you.
Additionally, environmental research commissioned by Electrolux shows that extending the lifespan of clothing by an extra nine months can reduce the garment’s carbon, waste and water footprints by between 20% and 30%.
Your time, your clothing budget, the planet – knowing how to extend your clothing’s lifespan brings wins all around.
The care habits of smart clothing owners
How do you decide what settings to use for a load of laundry?
Many of us have inherited our laundry habits from our parents. Or we take a peek at the care label and follow the instructions.
Unfortunately, most care labels specify the harshest treatment a garment can handle, not necessarily the ideal if you want to preserve the quality of your garment over time. And times and technology have changed since we were kids; modern machines can use lower temperatures and less water and still get identical – or better – results.
Lower temperatures. Less water. Less frequent washing. This is the modern way to care for clothing, being gentler on the fibers in the garments and helping fabrics last longer.
But old habits die hard. Despite being encouraged to wash clothes at 30°C or lower for better results and longer garment durability, nearly two-thirds of Europeans (63%) continue to wash at 40°C or higher and 15% wash clothing at 50°C or higher, according to Electrolux’s The Truth About Laundry study, which surveyed 12,000 adults in 2021.
If each of us, as a clothing owner who cares about our planet, could break this pattern, the results would be monumental.
As Electrolux points out in its call to consumers to join in sustainability efforts, “If 30°C and lower became the norm across Europe, the equivalent CO₂ savings from turning down the dial would be the same as removing over 1.3 million cars from the road. Every year.”
Aside from washing at lower temperatures, Electrolux actually recommends doing less laundry. (Hooray!) Most clothing doesn’t need to be washed every time it’s worn. And if it doesn’t need to be washed, then it shouldn’t be. Overwashing can create wear and tear on fabrics and fibers.
Electrolux has embarked on a mission to inform and inspire consumers to modernize their care habits, in parallel to its existing commitment to reduce the environmental impact of garment care by making washers and dryers increasingly energy and water efficient: “By modernizing care technology for all fabrics and inspiring better care habits, our aim is to halve the environmental impact of aftercare and prolong the average life of garments.”
Reuse, reduce, upcycle
The fashion industry is currently responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. The MacArthur Foundation reports that if consumer habits don’t change and we continue buying new clothes at the current rate, the fashion sector could consume a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
Buying less — and its inherent link to manufacturing and selling less — is critical to a sustainable planet. We must better maintain our clothing, towels, sheets, tablecloths and the other textiles we already own. We can learn to properly launder, mend and store these items… and we can make the effort to graciously donate and accept secondhand items.
Electrolux, in collaboration with Swedish fashion designer duo Rave Review, made a striking and stylish statement about reusing our wardrobes through the creation of the unique Atacama Collection. Rave Review are known for their commitment to sustainability and fashionable upcycled collections. The Atacama Collection consists of small collection pieces of clothing made entirely from the contents of garments retrieved from the Atacama Desert.
The clothing in the collection isn’t intended for sale; it’s a statement intended to provoke thought and create inspiration. Through the Atacama Collection, Electrolux and Rave Review hope to inspire consumers in the market for a new piece of clothing to look first in their own closet and see the upcycling possibilities.
Through small changes in the way we care for and think about clothing, we can make big changes for the future health of our planet. Better, modernized care for our clothing means they’ll last longer, so you can keep enjoying them while reducing their carbon footprint. And if your clothing is perfectly wearable, but you no longer find it attractive, either use your creativity to upcycle it and bring out its fashion potential – or share it with someone who can.
After all, it’s much better that our formerly loved clothing moves on to create beauty for another human being… than to create a mess of a clothing graveyard in the Atacama Desert.
Why and how to do less laundry
Up to 25% of each garment’s carbon footprint comes from the way we wash and care for it, according to Fashion Revolution. Nine out of 10 pieces of clothing end up in landfills long before they should, often because over-washing has caused irreparable color fading, shrinkage and misshaping. So give yourself and your clothes a break and stop doing so much darn laundry!
Don’t wash clothing every time you wear it. Obviously, socks, undergarments and soiled baby clothes need washing after each wear, but most trousers, skirts and tops can get by with being spot-treated for stains and machine-washed after two to four wearings. Even Martha Stewart agrees that some clothes that don’t sit directly on our skin can be worn four or more times before needing a wash.
Wash towels once a week. Although towels have direct contact with your skin, there is no need to wash them every day since you don’t have them on your body for more than a few minutes at a time. And, anyway, your bath and hand towels are touching clean skin! The same once-a-week rule goes for kitchen towels used to dry freshly washed dishes, though a few especially soiled towels may need more frequent laundering.
Wash bed linens once a week. Washing sheets every three to four days is ideal if your pet sleeps in your bed or you tend to eat midnight snacks there. If you get coffee, tea or food stains on your sheets or have marks on your pillows from oil or face cream, the lifestyle diva recommends pretreating the area with an oxygenated-bleach stain solution. If your pillowcases are stain-free, turn them over every night to freshen them up!
Mend and make new. It’s not just consumers who are learning to tend and mend. Environmentally committed brands are promoting longer clothing lifecycles and limiting waste by offering repair services to encourage consumers to wear their clothes more and make them last longer.
A leader in sustainability, outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia has repair and care guides on its website and operates Worn Wear, a recycling and repair program.
Women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher is doing the same, buying back clothes and reselling them through its Renew program. Garments in good condition are washed and cleaned; those needing minor repairs are sewed and fixed; those damaged beyond repair are repurposed and remade into something new – artworks, pillows or wall hangings.