I want to talk about a growing trend in sustainable fashion. Dry cleaning. With clothing sharing brands like Rent the Runway becoming more and more popular, behind the scenes dry cleaning is becoming the norm. But, what is dry cleaning? Why is it needed? And, are clothing rental companies actually sustainable if they use it?
Rent the Runway claims to be the sustainable “earth friendly” option to buying a new dress for a special occasion, and now, even for work. But, when it comes down to the garments full lifecycle, is all of the shipping back and forth, and cleaning chemicals used between customers really all that sustainable?
And, could it actually be more eco-friendly to buy fast fashion at the local mall than rent your clothes?
Let’s take a look.
I remember the first time I saw dry cleaning in action. I am sure many of us have memories picking up our parents work clothes from the dry cleaner. But, I am talking about the first time I learned what dry cleaning really was while I was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.
Our teacher did a demo. First, he put a small square of cotton poplin into a beaker filled with water. The fabric came out dripping with water. Then he put another cotton poplin square of fabric into a beaker filled with a mystery liquid. The fabric came out totally dry.
And, so, my class learned why we call the process dry cleaning. The fabric never really gets wet even though it is technically submerged in liquid.
I was so amazed by the science behind what was happening, at the time, I never took a second to ask - What exactly are these chemicals? And, are they safe?
What is dry cleaning?
What was in the beaker was the chemical solvent tetrachloroethylene. Two other common dry cleaning chemicals are trichloroethane and petroleum spirits.
Dry cleaning has a special place in black history. Inventor Thomas L Jennings was the first ever African-American to receive a patent in 1821 for his processes of “dry scouring”.
Scouring is a process we will learn about in Textiles 101 chapter on finishing. Basically, it is a process that removes (usually sizing but in this case dirt) from fabric yarns.
In 1825 Jolly Belin, using turpentine, made dry cleaning accessible to the masses. More on the turpentine process later, and how it is secretly in most “ethical and sustainable” clothing.
By 1855, thanks to Jean Baptiste Joly in France, many dry cleaners were using petroleum-based solvents. The only problem with this was that they were highly flammable.
Around 1918 after WWI, dry cleaners upgraded to chlorinated solvents that were less flammable and also were better at cleaning.
By 1930, the dry cleaning was done with tetrachloroethylene solvents, aka PCE. And, these chemicals could be used and reused again. Making it more sustainable… kind of I guess. But, it wasn’t really all that eco. The PCE was released directly into the atmosphere (today the fumes are collected, processed, and used again).
What is interesting is that dry cleaning became organized during this time. And this was because it was a pretty dangerous process. So, because of the dangers of the chemicals and potential for fires, local dry cleaners would collect clothing and then ship them out to a larger factory outside of cities and areas with a dense population. The factory would then send them back to the local dry cleaner when they were ready.
But, today, with laxer regulations and safer chemicals, it seems like there are dry cleaners on every corner of every major city, and in every small town.
Basically, dry cleaning is just like regular garment washing, but instead of water and detergent, stronger chemical solvents remove stains.
Is it safe to wear only dry cleaned clothes?
Perc (the main chemical in dry cleaning) enters the bloodstream via respiration or through skin absorption.
This means that the probable human carcinogen perc is not just a threat to dry clean workers, it has the potential to contaminate anyone who wears the clothes.
Many dry cleaners argue that through the process they suck off all the chemicals that could cause harm. IDK. Have you ever noticed that dry clean smell that lingers on your clothing? Something is definitely left behind.
Exposure to perc shows an increased risk of cervical and esophageal cancers, lymphoma, vision problems, and Parkinson’s disease.
Just how toxic is dry cleaning?
Let’s look at a case study that doesn’t involve the fashion industry.
Dry Cleaners decreasing your property value
Recently my boyfriend found his clients their dream condo in NYC. It was perfect. A spacious penthouse overlooking the East Village, and just in their price range. The only problem, a dry cleaner in the retail space below.
Hearing from him how difficult the dry cleaner made selling and buying the property made me question even further fashions widespread environmental impacts.
Did you know local dry cleaners are the leading source of environmental liability on commercial retail properties? Some sources suggest that a single dry cleaner can generate 660 gallons of hazardous wastes a year. And, because the business of dry cleaning is so poorly regulated dry cleaners tend not to use the best practices while storing, using, and throwing away their chemicals.
A leaky drum of perc requires a better cleanup than a simple moping, and this is something that most dry cleaning operators simply don't know.
That is because perc is able to penetrate the concrete and move quickly with gravity to settle at the lowest point possible. As a result, the perc makes its way through concrete basement floors, into the soil, and eventually the groundwater.
Cleanups for mismanaged chemicals start at, at least $100,000 and quickly go up from there. Sometimes reaching millions depending on how widespread the contamination is. Thus, decreasing your properties value, and putting you at risk for lawsuits if not handled correctly once in your ownership.
What does the devaluation of property that once housed or is in close proximity to a dry cleaner tell me? Well in the land of NYC where the property is scarce and prices per square foot average $1773 or more, it tells me that these are some serious chemicals with long-lasting impacts.
If you are wondering if the people got the apartment, they didn't. Ultimately the liability of the dry cleaner was too great a risk.
Effects of dry cleaning on workers
Perc exposure has been known to cause
· irritation to the upper respiratory tract and eyes
· kidney dysfunction
· neurological problems, including mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, sleepiness, and unconsciousness.
· inhalation of PERC causes neurological effects, including headaches, impairments in cognitive and motor function as well as an impairment of color vision (how crazy is it that you could lose your ability to see color from exposure?)
· other effects of perc inhalation are cardiac arrhythmia, liver damage, and possible kidney damage.
· studies of dry cleaning workers exposed to PERC suggested an increased risk for a variety of cancers in general
It’s not just workers...
· PERC pollutes air and groundwater and contributes to smog and water pollution
What about organic dry cleaning?
Reformation recommends “85% of dry cleaners use a nasty chemical called Perc that’s linked to respiratory issues, birth defects, and air pollution. Skip the standard dry cleaning and opt for green dry cleaners--a non-toxic, environmentally safe alternative. These cleaners often use CO2 or water as the primary solvent, but they have fancy equipment so it’s not like washing it at home. Even if your cleaners advertises as "green" or "organic," be sure to ask if they use Perc, hydrocarbons, or D-5 cleaners, and be sure to avoid the toxic stuff. Just say no to Perc.”
Is organic dry cleaning really eco-friendly?
What does organic dry cleaning really mean? When most of us hear the term organic we think chemical free and healthy. This isn’t exactly the case when it comes to dry cleaning. What dry cleaners are referring to is the scientific term for organic which literally just means “compounds containing carbon”. So, anything that has carbon in it is technically organic. Perc technically has carbon in it, which makes it organic.
Wow, that’s a serious loophole and marketing with a lot of greenwashing. Reformation (who participates in greenwashing themselves) actually gives some pretty good advice in regards to picking a dry cleaner. But, it’s not as simple as they make it sound. Simply avoiding perc is not really enough. There is a whole new crop of chemicals at organic and “green dry cleaners” that should be avoided too.
This chemical manufactured by Exxon-Mobile falls into the family of petroleum-based solvents and is advertised as an alternative to perc. In reality, the EPA considers it a neurotoxin.
GreenEarth Cleaning Method
This method uses D-5 silicone aka decamethylcyclopentasiloxane. Silicone sounds safe, right? I mean its in everything from baking pans to medical equipment. Wrong, well kind of. D-5 silicone is still new to the market and enough research has not been done to determine the long term effects.
The European Chemical Agency reports that D-5 is very bioaccumulative. When something is bioaccumulative it is difficult to break down and can collect, over time, in our bodies. This means that each exposure leaves us with more and more of the chemical in our system with no way or processing it out. D-5 has also been linked to uterine cancer.
Instead, opt for...
Liquid CO2 Method
This process converts CO2 from its gas form to a liquid. The liquid CO2 then cleans stains. Essentially seltzer is washing your clothing. I guess there is something to the old wives tale of using club soda to remove a stain.
Professional Wet Cleaning
Sometimes all it takes is a pro and a little elbow grease to get that stain out. No harsh chemicals are necessary.
How sustainable is rent the runway?
Rent the Runway owns and operates the country’s largest dry cleaner. And, By the end of this year, Rent the Runway will offer fifteen thousand styles by more than five hundred designers, with a total inventory of eight hundred thousand units. That’s a lot of clothes. But, more importantly, a lot of dry cleaning. Especially considering the average wear for 1 garment in their system is at least 30 times.
Unfortunately, dry cleaning is necessary for a business like Rent the Runway that rent high end, and often extremely delicate garments. Dry cleaning allows them to clean the garment for the next person without causing much damage to the clothing. Sending some of their dresses through a regular home laundering cycle would almost definitely result in the garment being ruined.
So, no. When we look at the Rent The Runway business model as a whole, it is not very sustainable to be constantly using dry cleaning.
We know that dry cleaning is dangerous to our health. But, what about all that shipping? That’s a lot of packages!
Did you know that in 2016 transportation became the number one producer of carbon dioxide, dethroning a long time running top contender, power plants?
It might feel like packages magically appear at your doorstep. But, they don’t. They require a lot of resources that cause air and water pollution.
And, some consider shipping to individual houses more damaging than a traditional brick and mortar store. Let’s think about it. Instead of one shipping container, shipping to one store we have hundreds or thousands of individual garments going out on smaller trucks, to hundreds and thousands of customers doors. That is a lot more fuel.
And, what makes Rent the Runway even worse is their breakneck shipping speed. The super fast shipping speeds are due, logistically, to more trucks going out for delivery. Thus, leading to more pollution. And trucks, have a much heavier environmental footprint than the standard commuter car.
Because of all of this, it is more or less accepted that driving your car to the mall is the more sustainable option for online, or in this case, reuse, shopping.
So again, no. The Rent The Runway system is not sustainable. When it comes to actually acquire the garment, going to the mall and buying a new one might actually use fewer resources.
So is Rent The Runway Sustainable?
The verdict is out. My personal research leads me to believe its a close match, and for now a tie. The only positive of Rent the Runway is that it makes luxury items attainable to the everyday person.
A few people have asked me about the ethical aspect. Isn't it better to invest in better brands? Well, the sad reality is that most of the brands on Rent The Runway are not making in ethical factories. Remember just because a dress retails for $600 that does not mean it was made ethically.
So what can Rent the Runway do to be better?
It would be unfair for us to call Rent The Runway out without offering up some suggestions. Here is what I think.
1. Switch to CO2 cleaning. This will be an expensive undertaking, with each CO2 machine costing over $100,000 but if they really want to be the more sustainable option to traditional shopping, they need to put their money where their mouth is. Or invest in more spot cleaners that do not use chemicals.
2. Ship with electric and hybrid trucks and cars.
Little secret most sustainable and ethical brands don’t know about.
Hidden away from the happy artisans and factory workers of sustainable and ethical fashion is the dirty job of spot treating.
In most of the developing countries where our clothing is made infrastructure is poor. Fabric suppliers will load up motorcycles and tuck-tucks with fabrics to transport without any protection from the outside environment. And, factory floors tend to be dirty, tracking in dust from the outside unpaved roads. The results are stains. And, lost of them.
Stains on small scale “ethical” production are impossible to avoid. So factories have gotten really good at getting them out. Their secret weapon? Karosean and Terpintine.
Workers use kerosene and sometimes turpentine to spray out stains. Usually in poorly ventilated corners of factories hidden from visitors. Most people do not even know that this practice exists.
Dangers of kerosene
Inhaling kerosene fumes cause dizziness or nausea. And, breathing the fumes long-term could result in neurological or kidney damage, including blood clots that damage the brain, heart or other organs
Turpentine has similar dangers to kerosene. Breathing it can irritate the nose and throat causing coughing and wheezing. And, Turpentine also causes headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion and increased heart rate. Turpentine may even damage the kidneys, the bladder, and the nervous system.
What's a small brand to do?
So, all you small ethical and sustainable clothing brands out there that I hope are reading this. Please, ask about how your clothing is spot cleaned. If they say it’s not. They are 100% lying to you and find a new supplier. If they say they do, ask to see the facilities in operation than help to offer suggestions about sufficient ventilation and fresh air if needed.