Why secondhand isn’t always green.

In a word (OK, two words), dry cleaning.

Vintage green ballgown

Beautiful dress. Shame about the dry cleaning.

I took a gorgeous dress that I’ve worn to a few parties recently to be dry cleaned today. Man, that made me uncomfortable.

I only buy (or get for free) secondhand clothes. I’ve bought almost no new clothes for years and it now feels scandalously wasteful to me to buy new when there is so much unwanted stuff available (kinda like buying a dog from a breeder when you could take a rescue dog).

My main motivation is to reduce my eco-impact. However, it has other benefits too. It saves me soooo much money. Spending more than a fiver on anything feels extravagant these days. In fact, spending money on clothes at all feels extravagant, given how much I get for free.

And I get great clothes. I love vintage pieces, for their quirkiness, their style and their quality.

Plus I never see anyone wearing the same stuff as me.

The proportion of my vintage stuff that has to be drycleaned is a serious drawback though. Apart from the money it costs (some of my vintage items end up costing me more in drycleaning than they did to buy), dry cleaning’s far from eco-friendly.

I minimise the packaging involved by taking a clothes bag and hanger with me so I can refuse the disposable ones I’d otherwise be given. If the item is already wrapped, I swap the hanger for my own. I don’t leave the plastic wrapping as I suspect they’d put it in the bin.

If I end up bringing a plastic bag home, I put it in a plastic bag recycling bin and, if I end up taking a hanger home, I return it to the dry cleaner for reuse.

Worse than the packaging though is that most drycleaners use perchloroethylene, or perc.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency classifies perc as an air contaminant, which must be handled as hazardous waste. Its website says:

"Breathing PERC for short periods of time can adversely affect the
human nervous system.  Effects range from dizziness, fatigue, headaches
and sweating to incoordination and unconsciousness.  Contact with
PERC liquid or vapor irritates the skin, the eyes, the nose, and the
throat.  These effects are not likely to occur at levels of PERC that
are normally found in the environment.

Breathing perchloroethylene over longer periods of time can cause
liver and kidney damage in humans.  Workers exposed repeatedly to
large amounts of PERC in air can also experience memory loss and
confusion. Laboratory studies show that PERC causes kidney and liver
damage and cancer in animals exposed repeatedly by inhalation and
by mouth.  Repeat exposure to large amounts of PERC in air may
likewise cause cancer in humans.Perchloroethylene by itself is
not likely to cause environmental harm at levels normally found
in the environment.  PERC can contribute to the formation of
photochemical smog when it reacts with other volatile organic
carbon substances in air".

Nasty, huh?

Some time ago, I heard of an alternative. GreenEarth Cleaning is a dry cleaning system that, instead of using petroleum-baesd solvents, uses liquid silicone, which breaks down to sand and trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide after use.

However, at that time, it wasn’t available in the UK so I’ve continued simply to use the nearest dry cleaner to me. In researching this blog post though, I’ve discovered that Johnson’s the Cleaners are now using it. Fantastic!

I’ll still favour clothes that don’t need dry cleaning, and have the ones that do need it cleaned as rarely as I can get away with. And I’ll still take my own hangers and clothes bags. From now on though, my dry clean only clothes will be cleaned in silicone, not perc.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Juliet on May 16, 2011 at 10:38

    Great, I’ve been trying to find an Eco dry cleaner in Brighton for ages. I have hardly any items that need dry cleaning (try to avoid buying them in the first place) but I do occasionally need to use a dry cleaner and I always feel guilty. Where is Johnson cleaners?


  2. Glad the info’s useful. There’s one on London Road and one on Western Road. If you click on the link to Johnsons in my blog post, it take you to their website which you can use to find branches using GreenEarth (both of the Brighton ones do). I don’t know whether you have to specify GreenEarth when you take your stuff in, or whether all their cleaning uses GreenEarth. If you find out before me, post here to let me know.


  3. Most of my clothes are vintage and plain old second-hand. A few years ago I went into a very ritzy vintage shop to ask if they could recommend a dry cleaner that would handle old and delicate beaded garments and they told me they just washed everything. I couldn’t believe my ears, but they reassured me that garmnents get wet in the “dry” cleaning process anyway.

    Ever since then I have washed the most unlikely things, often putting them into a pillowcase and tacking it closed with a few large stitches to protect it (and the machine). The biggest risk is shrinkage and I can’t say that this has never happened, it occasionally has, but generally not by much and it only shrinks once!

    I always wash on either cold or lukewarm woolens cycle using Ecover detergent or baby shampoo. Never use fabric softener, it ruins things, and never use detergent with optical brighteners. If you hand wash, rinse very thoroughly and squeeze dry by laying the garment on a flat towel, folding it in on itself and then twisting it like a big skein. Dry flat and not on a radiator. don’t even think about a tumble dryer (although, being green, I’m sure you wouldn’t!)


    • Hi Carol. That’s true, ‘dry’ cleaning is a misnomer. The clothes still get wet, just not with water.

      Good to hear that you, too, find you can wash vintage clothing. The things I’m too nervous to wash tend to be ones made from acetates or other synthetic materials, which I suspect might shrink or crumple irrevocably.

      That’s how I hand wash/dry too though, like you, I generally use the gentle cycle on my machine. And I haven’t got a tumble dryer. 🙂


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