We're gonna play a little game to test your knowledge about greener decisions.
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If the item has a high-value and is still high-quality, we recommend reselling it first. However, so long as the item is not low quality and can still has value, both reselling or donating are good options.
The best way to minimize the lifetime impacts of clothing is to use it many times. Reselling is our preferred option because when people buy that used item, they are doing so with the intention of wearing it; they can then resell it again or donate it to further extend its life.
Most donations are low-quality goods that cannot be resold; therefore, a high percent go to landfill or are exported to developing countries and produce local waste or economic problems.
Plastic is often the environmentally-preferable option because in its life, it requires less energy, generates less carbon emissions, and is more durable.
Most lifecycle assessments (LCAs) indicate that cardboard has a higher environmental footprint than plastic, especially as it relates to their respective carbon footprints. In addition, it is not as durable as plastic packaging and degrades after it is recycled. Using recycled content can lower the impacts of both, but again, plastic requires less energy and produces less carbon emissions to recycle.
However, certain plastics, especially plastic films/bags, are a litter nuisance, and enter waterways and oceans when not properly disposed.
Washing at home is nearly always the best option, especially when you wash with cold water and line dry. However, you need to make sure you are washing your clothes with the proper wash cycle to prevent damaging them.
When you look across the lifecycle of a garment, the biggest impact is typically from washing that item. That's because it is only produced once, but washed 5, 10, or even more times in its life. Further, it is typical for people to use hot water rinse cycles to wash their clothes; however, heating the water requires significant energy consumption. New laundry detergents have the same performance in cold water, so look out for a cold-water laundry detergent.
Dry cleaners, on the other hand, use industrial solvents that cause health issues with workers and are major contributors to groundwater contamination. Environmentally-friendly cleaners are becoming common; they use biodegradable detergents and hydrocarbon solvents.
The jury is out on this, but if you drive to stores to make purchases, the carbon footprint of a delivery is generally lower.
Home delivery vehicles and postal delivery typically have a low carbon impact because they have efficient and optimized routes, and are delivering many packages. On the flip side, driving your car to the store consumes more fuel and produces more carbon emissions.
As usual, there are caveats. First, if you take public transit to the store, or you make multiple stops on one trip, you're reducing the impact associated with the single purchase. Also, returning delivered items (because you didn't try them on in store) produces an unnecessary carbon impact.
So, take public transit if possible or bundle your stops if driving. And make sure you really need the item and that you are ordering the correct one if buying online.
Let's be clear: both of these options are better than virgin cotton. But our recommendation is to opt for recycled cotton when given the chance.
Cotton is world’s largest non-food crop and often requires intense water consumption and chemical usage. However, certified organic cotton cultivation (which does not use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides) still requires significant water and fuel.
Recycled cotton comes from two sources: pre- and post-consumer wastes. Pre-consumer wastes are discarded by textile factories; both would go to landfill or incineration if not for being recycled. Currently, textile wastes need to be sorted by material (e.g., cotton) and color, then mechanically shredded, which lowers the fiber quality. However, it can be blended with virgin fibers to increase material strength. New chemical recycling techniques are being developed to maintain the strength of recycled fibers, but those techniques may use significant energy, water, and chemicals.
Reusable bags have a significantly higher production environmental footprint. However, we recommend them over disposable alternatives so long as you consistently reuse them and do not accumulate them.
Again, reusable bags -- typically made from cotton or polypropylene plastic -- require more material, energy, and water, and chemicals to produce than disposable bags.
However, you need to consider the impacts per use, not just the one-time impacts of production. So, if you use a reusable bag several times (which of course is the intention), you reduce the impacts per use.
That said, it takes 173 uses before a reusable cotton bag matches the impact per use of a disposable plastic bag. And reusable polypropylene bags take 14 uses to match that impact.
So, reusable bags are the preferred option so long as you minimize the number of them that you buy, and you use them often.
Though this decision is hotly debated, the science says that plastic bags are generally more environmentally preferable to paper bags.
According to most studies, plastic bags hold more contents than paper bags. Also, they use less material, energy, and water to produce, and require less energy to recycle. However, plastic bags often cannot be recycled curbside (and risk becoming litter in the environment if they are) so we recommend taking them back to a grocery store for proper recycle.
Of course we also need to mention the risks associated with plastic bag litter: plastic bags do not biodegrade, so when they are not properly recycled, they risk entering our waterways and affecting marine life like sea turtles. Ocean plastics is one of the most concerning environmental issues of our time and we must do everything we can to eliminate the use of single-use plastics and plastic litter.
Buy used clothing, which mitigates the need to produce a new item.
There are a number of sustainable brands and products entering the market. This is a positive development since it is directing innovation and resources toward the production of more sustainable items.
However, every new item, even the most sustainable, will require new materials (or recycled materials, which still consumers energy and water), production, and shipping. It's rare that even the most sustainable brands can reduce the impacts of those activities to be competitive with the impacts of reusing an item already in existence.
Also, according to the #GreenwashingOrReal research, it's often unclear how sustainable certain brands' practices really are.
We recommend you look for hemp products over cotton (even organic cotton).
Cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop, and often requires intense water consumption and chemical usage. Organic and recycled options have been shown to reduce the lifecycle impacts of cultivation.
Hemp is a derivative of the fibers from the cannabis plant, and its cultivation requires much less water and chemical input than cotton. Most hemp is grown organically. The downside is that its processing uses chemicals and inefficient factories that undermine its environmental benefits; however, as demand for hemp grows, so too will the modernization of its production.
We suggest you look for leather made from alternative materials -- like cork, pineapple leaves, eucalyptus, apples, mushrooms, and more -- which are now becoming more widely available.
Genuine leather has severe environmental impacts from raising livestock (deforestation to create grazing land and greenhouse gas emissions), and chemicals, wastewater, and air pollution from tanning. Workers' exposure to tanning chemicals, as well as animal rights abuses, are also issues. But, there are working groups developing practices and standards to reduce these impacts.
To note, genuine leather production is primarily a by-product of the meat industry, meaning that it goes to waste when it's not used for products. And most of the current vegan leather is primarily composed of polyurethane, a derivative of crude oil; it requires energy, water, and chemicals to produce, and is often not recycled. However, recycled PU is an environmentally-preferable option.
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