The next step is care. In his 1954 essay Soap Powders and Detergents, semiotician Roland Barthes wrote about the use of foam – not strictly necessary in the cleaning process – in an advertisement for detergent: “What matters is the art of having disguised the abrasive function of the detergent under the delicious image of a substance at once deep and airy which can govern the molecular order of the material without damaging it.” The idea persists that washing somehow renews and refreshes but, in fact, as Barthes points out, it’s quite destructive. Most sustainable clothing experts agree: wash clothes less – and wash them cooler, properly sorted, with gentle, natural laundry detergents, and inside out to prevent colour and prints fading.
In 2019, designer Stella McCartney put it best when she told The Observer: “The rule is you do not clean it. You let the dirt dry and you brush it off. Basically, in life, rule of thumb: if you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t clean it. I wouldn’t change my bra every day and I don’t just chuck stuff into a washing machine because it’s been worn. I am incredibly hygienic myself, but I’m not a fan of dry cleaning or any cleaning, really.”
“Garment care is still something people get wrong on a day-to-day basis,” says Mekler. “I wash a lot of garments, especially the finer things, even jeans, on a wool wash unless they’re really dirty.” Consider hanging lightly soiled pieces in the bathroom while you take a shower and allowing the steam to do the job. Avoid tumble drying; shake out your clothes and hang them out to dry. And then revel in the positive environmental benefits of your new routine. According to the EPA’s energy efficiency programme Energy Star, the average washing machine uses 6,500 gallons of water a year, about half as much as you’d drink in a lifetime. Plus, every time we wash, we flush chemicals and microfibres from synthetic garments into overburdened waterways. Finally, most of the emissions produced during the “in-use” stage of an item’s life cycle originate from washing and tumble drying. Cut that and you’re basically a sustainable fashionista.
To have and to hold
Once you’ve cleaned your clothes, resist the urge to throw them on the floor or ball them up at the back of the sofa. Correct storage does half the work of clothing care; top tips include keeping cleaned clothes away from sunlight and heat, in cool, dry spaces, with enough space between them to breathe. Professional organiser Katrina Hassan uses the KonMari Method of tidying. “Awareness and positive habit change is at the heart of the process,” she says. “And a key principle is to store things so that you can see everything easily. When you know exactly what you own, you’re far more likely to take care of it.” Periodic assessments allow you to connect with your items and assess their quality over and over again. This is when it’s time to start getting hands-on.