After years of working from home, I just started a new job—one that requires me to look presentable at all times. What's the most eco-friendly way for me to keep my clothes neat and wrinkle-free?
You're right that all that increased wardrobe attention comes at a price. A 2006 study from the University of Cambridge calculated that just 40 percent of the energy that goes into a typical cotton T-shirt over its lifetime is associated with its manufacture and sale—the rest is used for washing, drying, and ironing. If you want to keep this new job, you can't just stop washing your clothes. But you do have a lot of options when it comes to drying and de-wrinkling, and the choices you make can have significant impacts.
Your first consideration: to tumble dry or not to tumble dry? A dryer will get your clothes neat and fluffy, but it'll use a lot of energy in the process. After your fridge, it's likely to be the second-hungriest appliance in the house; dryers are responsible for 4.2 percent (PDF) of the average American home's energy diet, according to the Energy Information Administration's annual outlook report. In 2007, clothes dryers in the United States consumed about as much energy as 13.4 million cars.
A clothesline is generally a better option for those who have the opportunity to use one. Not only does solar drying require zero fuel and cause zero emissions, it also lessens the wear and tear on your garments, allowing you to go longer between replacements. Line-dried clothing can get a little crunchy, though—not exactly a boardroom-ready look. Clothesline enthusiasts recommend hanging garments as soon as they come out of the washer: The weight of the water will help pull out any wrinkles. Shake out garments vigorously, smooth them by hand, and try to find a spot that's out of direct sunlight. Apartment-dwellers, don't feel left out: There are plenty of indoor clotheslines for you, too.
If you do decide to use your tumble dryer, there are plenty of things you can do to make the process more efficient. Don't pack your machine too tight, and keep clothes separated by type and weight.Use the moisture-sensor function, which cuts the power as soon as your clothes are dry, and keep the lint filter clean. Most important, take out your clothes as soon as the buzzer rings and keep your hangers at the ready—the longer your stuff sits in a pile, the stiffer the wrinkles.
There's always the option of splitting the difference between your clothesline and your dryer. Get your clothes mostly dry on the line and then toss them in the dryer for a few minutes to tumble out wrinkles, and you'll still manage to cut your energy use significantly. (If wrinkles have already set in, throw in a damp towel.)
However you dry your clothes, you may need to do a little gussying to get them crisp enough for the office. There's always the old trick of hanging your clothes in the bathroom as you shower, letting the steam relax the fabric. (Heat and moisture cause wrinkles; they also smooth them out.) This method has the added benefit of making your shower a little bit greener, since it piggybacks on your wasteful hot water usage. However, as Laura Moser found when she tested travel steamers for Slate, this technique offers less-than-impressive results. A handheld, plug-in steamer will be far more effective and use less water.
But if you need to look really sharp, there's no getting around it: You'll have to haul out your iron. Despite its small size, the average iron pulls a lot of juice. At 1,000 to 1,800 watts, it's about as thirsty for power as a vacuum cleaner. Estimates from the Department of Energy suggest that an hour's worth of ironing draws about one kilowatt-hour of power, but it's unclear whether that figure takes into account the fact that irons typically cycle on and off to maintain a constant temperature. Actual electricity use may be as low as 0.22 kWh per hour. A typical electric dryer, on the other hand, uses about 3.3 kWh over a full 45-minute cycle. *
So long as you're not going overboard, line-drying and the occasional pressing should save a significant amount of energy over a full cycle in the dryer. Just try to do all of your ironing at once, starting with delicate items before cranking up the heat.
Finally, if your new gig has you giddy to go shopping, consider your future energy costs and look for clothes with a lower crumpling threshold. Many green-minded clotheshorses balk at permanent press or easy-care fabrics, but mostly for health reasons—these garments can release small amounts of formaldehyde because of the chemical finishes used to alter the fabric's polymers. Most of the formaldehyde will dissipate after a single washing, but textile finishing remains a resource-intensive process that produces high amounts of effluents. The Green Lantern won't rule out easy-care garments entirely, but it's important to realize that the potential energy savings have a cost on the front end. Better yet, look for office-ready outfits made from lyocell—a recyclable, biodegradable textile, much beloved by sustainability experts, that has the added benefit of being highly wrinkle-resistant.
Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and check this space every Tuesday.
Correction, March 30, 2009: The article originally miscalculated the relevant energy figures. They were calculated as kilowatts, though kilowatt-hours are the appropriate measure. (Watts are a measure of power use at a given moment; kilowatt-hours are a measure of total energy used.) ( Return to the corrected paragraph.)