Lack of transparency in the clothing industry makes it difficult to make informed purchasing choices. If you don't want to conduct a major research project before making purchases, care tags can provide some useful information for healthy and green clothing purchases.
Tags typically indicate where a product is made, how to launder it and what materials are used. Read on for four ways care tags can help you purchase more sustainable products.
Synthetic chemicals are widely used on flammable petroleum-based products. Over the last four decades, these chemicals have grown in popularity and are now commonly found on textiles, furniture and electronics.
Among the most toxic are brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which include polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Studies indicate that PBDEs are endocrine disruptors, interrupting the hormone processes in the body. They may also cause liver and thyroid toxicity. Even minimal exposure at critical points in development can cause difficulties in learning, motor skills, memory and hearing, as well as damage to reproductive systems.
Pajamas are frequently treated with flame retardants, but this information is often stated on the label. Look for "flame resistant" on care tags and avoid purchasing such garments. Many tags will state that they are not treated, stating "wear snug fitting, not flame resistant." To reduce exposure, avoid products made of synthetic fibers, which are more commonly treated with flame retardants, and select naturally less-flammable alternatives such as wool.
Leather tanning methods commonly use numerous concerning chemical inputs, creating a chemical cocktail. One of the most concerning is the use of chromium (III), which can becomes chromium (VI), a known carcinogen. Despite the water, solid waste, air and worker health problems chrome tanning causes, it still accounts for 90 percent of tanning production because it creates a softer and more pliable finished product. Even if chromium is phased out, there are still numerous other concerning agents used in the tanning and finishing process, including potential carcinogens: chlorophenols, aniline dyes, formaldehyde, methyl mercury, arsenic and benzene.
Whenever possible avoid leather and seek alternatives, such as barkcloth, glazed cotton and cork.
The EPA recently listed tetrachloroethylene (PERC), a widely used chemical in the dry-cleaning industry, as a likely human carcinogen. PERC is known to leave a residue on clothing and off-gas, impacting indoor air quality. In addition, use of PERC by dry cleaners can create hazardous working conditions and sometimes infiltrate drinking water sources.
Although most dry cleaners use PERC, there is an alternative. Wet cleaning is considered a safe, effective alternative that uses less energy than traditional dry cleaning. This method uses water as a solvent instead of concerning chemicals. Ask your dry cleaner if they use PERC, or search the Internet for PERC-free dry cleaners in your neighborhood.
Johanna Bjork of EcoSalon says that many clothes with labels stating "dry clean only" are indiscriminately placed by clothing manufacturers. "Some synthetic textiles like rayon and acetate, as well as knits like wool and cashmere, should never be washed, but otherwise it’s almost always safe to run them on the cold, delicate cycle in the washing machine," she says.
Another alternative is to not purchasing clothes that require dry cleaning. If you must dry clean clothes with PERC, allow them to air out for a few days in the garage before bringing them into your home to reduce off-gasing indoors.
Even if a care tag indicates washing in warm or hot water and tumble drying, gentler and more eco-friendly methods can be used. Almost 90 percent of energy used by a washing machine is for heating water. Using cold water and line drying both save lots of energy.
In fact, Procter & Gamble even created a detergent, Tide Coldwater Clean, to encourage consumers to switch from warm or hot to cold water and save energy in the process. During Earth Week, it launched the #TurnToCold campaign.
Levi Strauss launched special care tags to shape consumer behavior stating, “Wash less, wash in cold, line dry, and donate when no longer needed.”
Image credit: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.