I keep observing – and dealing with – several mental hang-ups that hamper access to a more sustainable living. The great taboo of cleanliness is at work! It’s very natural as notions of purity and cleanliness lie at the very core of cultures, separating good and bad, beneficial and pernicious. Even more – and this coming from a sociologist – there is a clear evolutionary need to distinguish rotten and smelly as bad (i.e. inedible; cheese came into being long time after) for our survival.
However, industrial societies have brought the hygiene revolution a tad too far. With the advances of chemical industry, household appliances and the new abundance of garments, it’s all too easy to become overzealous with cleanliness.
Apart from health and overall environmental implications (look those up anyway, please!), I want to bring your attention to two areas where twisted notions of hygiene affect the sustainability of our wardrobes: care of garments and ways to obtain them.
So, first of all, when it comes to basic care issues, reconsider your laundry habits:
When I’m taking off a garment after wear, I check it for smell and stains. If the item can do with just airing, back to the wardrobe it goes. I know this is a hard one to overcome, especially if you come from a “you’ve worn it, put it in the laundry basket” household. For inspiration (and courage!) I suggest you read up care advice from top denim brands. Despite the fact that those are intensely worn and constantly crotch rubbing garments, Nudie Jeans’ advice is “six or more months of daily wear before washing“. Boom!
If you have items that need washing machine to get back into shape after one wear, I suggest you get rid of them. One wear per wash is a very bad deal for anything except underwear and socks.
Work around the care labels. Read them but see if you can hack them. For example, “dry cleaning only” is usually a hoax. The only thing they’ll do is break your buttons, take your money and, depending on method used, might flush down the drain all kinds of nasties meanwhile. If the item is especially delicate (or you need it for tomorrow), wash it by hand, either in the sink or bring it with you in the shower.
Wash with cold water! Unless you have exceptionally dirty clothes (hardcore food stains, mechanical oils, etc.), cold water will do. Upgrade to 30ºC if very dirty and save 40ºC for special occasions. In our household 60ºC is for our grimy tea towels and 90ºC only for very persistent stain treatment (which happens maybe once a year and involves bleach, yuck!).
Working with these low temperatures I’ve realized that separating colors is a laundry superstition. In my washing machine everybody goes in together and only very occasionally the whites come out baby blue or light pink. Learn to recognize possible dye leakers and separate them. Letting go of this separation makes sure you always have full loads.
Upgrade your detergent to a better alternative (inquire with knowledgeable people, like these) and consider getting rid of the fabric softener, it’s offensively smelling black magic anyways.
Line dry if possible. Depends on your dwelling and on your household composition, of course. We are very lucky to be able to line dry on the roof of our apartment building. I feel that only extra laundry needs, like having small children, justify investing in a dryer. I’m biased, because that’s not a typical household appliance neither in Latvia nor in Spain. The only ones I’ve ever used have been in laundromats when I lived in Brussels. And I don’t miss them.
Rethink if ironing is an activity you want to invest in. I iron only my handkerchiefs. And only in winter, the handkerchief season.
OK, so you’ve let go of many things your mom taught you about laundry. Now we can tackle an even trickier one: the great secondhand prejudice. Making your own stuff last for years and obtaining clothing second hand can be linked with the purity taboo, specially if you find yourself among people that sneer at pre-worn garments.
My sensation is that fear of poverty tends to be at the bottom of the second-hand aversion, much more prevalent among people that have experienced scarcity (hello, Eastern Europe of 1990s!). Seems that the key for embracing second hand is not having fear of being perceived as poor and abandoning the idea of new as intrinsically better.
(A toxicity side note about newness: when dealing with fast fashion, you are much better off with pre-used and pre-washed items that have lost some of possible toxicity of pesticides and dyes that garment might have had when fresh off the shelf, provided that the re-seller hasn’t sprayed it with any new crap. Community swapping is a way to avoid this hazard.)
If the ones mocking your pre-loved outfits are other people, f*ck them. Try, at least. Ignoring what (significant) others say is very hard, I know. However, in this case you have your Values by your side. The next time your grandma asks if you are really so poor as to wear other people’s stuff, let that comment fly over your head knowing that goddesses of sustainability are by your side. I’m sure you are already ignoring other similarly well intentioned but off mark advice. So let go of this one as well.
If the cockroaches are in your own head (we all have those, relax), it might help to think about all the other things in life you share with people. This exercise might be triggering for some, but most (more or less) neurotypicals should have no problem admitting that we share tableware with strangers at restaurants we frequent. We go to hotels and sleep in bed linen many other people have slept before. We share soap and hand towels (and other personal care items depending on household) with partners and family. The logic we routinely apply is that things become as new after a good wash. If you have a hygiene-based aversion to second hand garments, I suggest two things:
First, calm down. As with all subtractions, this is a friendly invitation to review and question certain aspects of your everyday life. However, sometimes it makes sense to keep things the same after that critical examination. And that’s fine. You’ll just know that your wardrobe detox strategy shall be one of replacing with sustainably made new things. It takes google time and money, but it surely doable. As I’ve explained before, for me it makes more sense to buy my underwear, hosiery and footwear new. But here you have an example of how underwear does not have to be bought new.
Second, consider the gradient formed by different strategies of obtaining pre-worn garments. The true thrift shop with certain levels of mess, tackiness and that particular smell is the most hardcore way of incorporating second hand items in your wardrobe. Depending on your personality and mood, it can be an exciting treasure hunt or an exhausting nightmare, especially if you are looking for something very specific. A very basic notion for for thrifting is looking for broad categories (“a full skirt”, “a dress for my cousin’s wedding”) instead of a something exactly as you have imagined. And always keeping your eyes open for unexpected gems. I did a lot of thrifting in my adolescence, but that was stopped first by my incursion into fast fashion browsing habit and then by change in acquisition dynamics via hand-me-downs and swaps. But that’s still the kind of fashion browsing I could get behind.
A more pleasant second hand experience can be consignment stores and curated vintage places, but you’ll pay for the selection work done for you. Usually these places are much smaller and tailored according to curator’s taste. So you might find a shop that’s a match made in heaven for your style, but don’t hold your breath for that!
If your aversion comes from the fact that second hand garments have spent unknown time in containers, trucks and warehouses, and you have no idea where they are coming from… clothes’ swaps could be your thing! Depending on how they are done, those could be events with things from relative strangers, but you’ll be sure that the garment came directly from their homes. So no mystery locations and smells to get rid of. I don’t even wash the things I adopt at swaps, I just wear them and they become mine. Without infrastructure, transportation or money. Pure magic!
If strangers make you squeamish, organize an intimate swap with people you know. Make a party out of that or just casually ask if your friends have stuff they are not wearing (or volunteer to assist them with a wardrobe revision).
The lowest stress option on the pre-worn gradient is shopping your own wardrobe and wearing your stuff. Many times. As long as it makes sense for you. This is why I do the strictly controlled spreadsheet thing: it shows me what’s working for my current lifestyle and what has to go. Those “not for me, not now” pieces then return to the circular fashion economy via my friends and community, and keep wearing and re-wearing my wardrobe heroes.
The #30wears hashtag is going around promoting this exact idea. Thirty seems a rather low threshold for me. Just during the 3.5 months of last winter my trench got 50 wears… I wish there was some mechanism in our apparel counting wears. I’m sure that some of my garments have seen several hundred wears.