How to care for non-sustainable fabrics in your closet so they don’t end up in a landfill

Hannah Nussbaum

Hopefully if you’re reading this, it means you’ve made a decision to clean up your closet act – to start shopping with your ethical compass as your guide, to get over trend-addled fast fashion in favor of slow fashion that lasts. If this sounds like you, congratulations: you’re making the jump to shopping better.

That said, we’ve all got skeletons in our closet, and when I say skeletons, I mean basics and statement pieces that we’ve accumulated over the years that don’t exactly have the sustainability seal of approval. In all likelihood, unless you’re some sort of fashion Mother Teresa, you’ve got a closet full of non-sustainable fabrics, conveniently mass-produced cotton tops, and phytochemical filled synthetic nylon trousers. Don’t worry, we’ve all shopped fast fashion, and now the name of the game is damage control.

If this sounds like you, your overarching concern should now be caring for the non-sustainable fabrics in your closet so they don’t end up in a landfill. The only thing worse than buying unsustainable is throwing away unsustainable.

Before we get into a few basic How-Tos, first let’s get our definitions straight.

Unsustainable fabrics refer to fabrics that are created using farming and manufacturing processes that are environmentally degrading. The term also covers fabrics that are non-biodegradable, which will sit in landfills, changing local ecosystems and contributing to the process of chemicals leaching into the air and soil. There’s a long list of unsustainable fabrics out there (many of which you likely have in your closet) but a few of the top offenders are:

Inorganic Cotton: it requires pesticides and a huge amount of water to produce.

Nylon: it’s crafted with non-biodegradable phytochemicals and its manufacturing process creates huge amounts of nitrous oxide.

Leather: it has intensive farming impacts and animal rights issues tied to it.

What about Sustainable fabrics? This term refer to textiles that are manufactured with a reduced environmental footprint. Sustainable fabrics are biodegradable and are derived out of plant crops that are ecological, easy to cultivate, pest-tolerant and agro-chemical free. A good example of a sustainable fabric is Hemp. The cultivation of Hemp is super sustainable, requires very little water to grow, and actually enriches soil. Most importantly, the resultant yarn is used to make biodegradable garments.

BUT assuming we haven’t all reached the point where we have super chic hemp capsule wardrobes (we’ll get there eventually), what in the world should we be doing to keep our inorganic cotton, nylon, and leather as far away from the landfills as possible?

Keep your cotton around for longer

For your inorganic cotton, the name of the game is smart washing. Inorganic cotton is prone to shrinking and stretching during the wash cycle, so to avoid this pitfall, make sure you wash your cotton pieces in cold water. Opt for a gentle cycle in your washing machine, or even better, wash by hand. Combine these super cool and gentle washing practices with a strict air-drying policy. The dryer doesn’t generally play nicely with inorganic cotton, so to keep your T-shirts around for as long as possible, lay them out flat to dry. Pro tip: smooth the creases out before drying, to avoid having to iron things too often. In fact, avoid ironing whenever possible, as cotton is easily burned and damaged by super high heat.

Keep your nylon up and running

If you look at the labels of any activewear in your closet, chances are they’ll have nylon on the list. Nylon is a super lightweight synthetic fiber that’s typically added to athletic textile blends to give stretch and elasticity. While it might make nice yoga pants, it’s a super unsustainable fabric that you should avoid throwing away. To keep it up and running (or downward dogging) for as long as possible, the battle you’re fighting is against pilling. Fabric pilling happens when loose bits of fiber congregate on a single thread of textile, forming a tiny ball. Pilling is generally caused by friction, which is exacerbated by using chlorine based bleached and stain removers and high setting dryers. Like cotton, you should opt to air-dry your nylon to prevent damage. And for washing, opt for a gentle plant-based detergent that won’t weaken the integrity of each individual thread.

But what about the nylons you have in your closet that are already pilling? Try using a pumice stone to manually shave off the tiny pills. And to avoid future pilling, make sure you aren’t throwing your workout clothes loose in a dirty gym bag. Excess dirt and dust will mix with nylon threads to exacerbate pilling, so be smart about storage to keep friction and dirt accumulation to a minimum.

How to make your leatha’ foreva’

Leather care is a somewhat complicated subject, with advice that varies depending on the type of leather, how it’s treated, and what kind of garment you’re working with. But in terms of basic leather care – that is, the kind of basic care that will help your avoid dumping your leather in a landfill – there are three main strategies that you should be adopting.

The first is cleaning your leather. Leather is a living material that darkens over time, but to keep it from darkening at a rapid pace, clean it once a month with plant-based unscented soap and a leather brush. Exfoliate the dirt and grime off your leather piece to keep it looking newer for longer.

Second: keep your leather out of the rain! Leather plus a rainstorm will equal drying out, shrinking, and potentially cracking. Do not - repeat DO NOT - put leather on the radiator or in the dryer.

Third: acquaint yourself with a naturally nourishing leather oil that you can treat your garment with. There’s a whole cottage industry of products designed to keep your leather soft and supple, plus keep the material protected from external elements (particularly UV rays). Opt for a formula that uses beeswax, cocoa butter, or sweet almond oil.

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There you have it: a few tried and true tips to keep your clothes from making a trip to the landfill. All this said, caring for your non-sustainable fabric is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is investing in sustainable textiles and high quality goods with super long lives.

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