H2O Radio
Textiles sutainablity
Coming Clean About Our Wardrobe's Water Footprint and Toxic Legacy

It’s been said that "you can know the color of fashion's next season by the color of rivers in China." Fifty percent of global textile manufacturing in the world happens there, and packs a mighty punch in terms of water consumption—and pollution. Are our wardrobes killing the planet? Or is it possible to dress for sustainable success.

H2O Radio examines the lifecycle of clothes, from the typical way they're manufactured and dyed, to how they're cleaned. What is the true water footprint? Is dry cleaning really dry and therefore less water consumptive? Is it safe for us and the environment? How would a consumer know?

If our clothes could tell us—they might divulge some dirty secrets.


Jamie: Shopping for clothes, you have lots of choices—fit, style, fabric, price to name the obvious ones.

Frani: But there’s some less apparent decisions Jamie and I are making as we peruse racks of clothes at a department store in an upscale shopping mall in Denver, Colorado.

Jamie: Whether Frani decides on the mango fringed suede skirt and silk blouse (Hey! She can pull it off!)

Frani: Or Jamie wants to make a statement with a nautical themed striped jersey, we’re supporting some profound, if not subtle choices about sustainability. Where was the fabric grown? Is it cotton from drought-stricken California or another water-scarce region?

Jamie: Was it dyed in a mill in China where factories are contaminating rivers?

Frani: Was it stitched in Vietnam and then flown to Italy for finishing touches on the cuff and collar giving it a huge carbon footprint?

Jamie: For one article of clothing the answer to all of these questions could be yes.

Frani: And that means that one garment potentially did some laps around the globe and gulped down water along the way.

Jamie: But how could we know? How can we make more sustainable choices?

Frani: Wouldn’t it be great if clothes could talk and tell us their journey? And if they did, would they talk dirty?

Linda Greer: There isn’t a hangtag or label that’s out there that could tell somebody this has been responsibly manufactured.

Frani: That’s Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC.

Linda: We looked across the whole lifecycle of apparel to figure out where the biggest environmental footprints were from start to finish.

Frani: We put our question to her. What are the stops along the way that went into making the jersey that Jamie chose, for example.

Linda: So one is in growing the fiber, particularly cotton which is a really thirsty crop and sadly is being grown in a lot of parts of the world that have water shortage problems with California being the good example. We grow cotton in California. There’s a big unfortunate overlay between where we grow a lot of our cotton and where water is in scarce supply.

Frani: And what about dyeing the stripes in the jersey?

Linda: In fact it’s quite water-intensive to dye cotton. People have no idea, it’s a very heavy industry in terms of lots of steam and bubbling vats of colored water and then a lot of off-spec fabric that have to be run through again. Just very water-intensive.

Frani: And a lot of this is happening in China, right?

Linda: Yeah, fifty percent of global textiles are dyed and finished in China primarily in just three provinces within the country so that’s where the heavy footprint is of the industry. It’s a very concentrated water utilization and water pollution problem there.

Frani: Because of the heavy impact on the environment NRDC launched their program “Clean by Design” with ten best practices to help factories not only have more efficient production, but also save money.

Linda: It's a very carefully researched and designed program..really a good blueprint layout for where the most promising opportunities to reduce water and energy use can be found in these factories.

Frani: But what about the designers and buyers who want the fabric? Can’t they be encouraged to source their materials from factories that are less polluting?

Linda: A lot of companies even still today in 2015 don’t know where their fabrics is dyed and finished. Their supply chain is very opaque. Truthfully they like it that way.

Linda: They will all admit when confronted that the lion share of their environmental footprint is in their manufacturing—that is after they finish telling you and I that it’s actually with us for washing our clothes too often.

Frani: It’s us? We wash our clothes too much?

Jamie: Actually studies show that the amount of water used in washing clothes doesn’t come close to the amount used to make them.

Frani: But that’s not to diminish the fact that laundering our clothes does contribute to a garment’s total water footprint.

Jamie: With that in mind, more and more of us are using a high-efficiency washing machine.

Frani: But you can’t wash everything. What about a wool sweater? Throwing that in the wash could result in something more apt to fit a Barbie doll.

Jamie: So there are instances where our wardrobe is gonna require a professional—a dry cleaner.

Frani: So if it’s dry cleaning—it doesn’t use water and problem solved?

Jamie: Nope. Just because it’s called dry cleaning doesn’t mean it’s “dry.” It’s called that because it doesn’t use much water—but rather uses solvents to clean and spot treat clothes.

Frani: For decades now, the most common solvent to clean clothes is a chemical called Perchloroethylene or "PERC" as it’s more commonly known.

Jamie: According to dry cleaning lore the method came about by accident when in 1855, Jean-Baptiste Jolly, noticed that his tablecloth became cleaner after his maid accidentally spilled kerosene on it. Since he owned a dye-works company, he decided to offer a new service and called it "nettoyage à sec," or "dry cleaning."

Frani: Dry cleaning caught on and early proprietors used kerosene or even gasoline to wash clothes. A practice that led to many fires—and explosions.

Jamie: To solve that problem, after World War I, cleaners started to use various chlorinated solvents. These solvents were much less flammable and as it turned out had much greater cleaning power. By the mid-1930s, the dry cleaning industry had adopted PERC as its standard bearer.

Frani: And why not? It was stable, nonflammable, has robust cleaning ability, gentle on most garments—and fast. Which is why many cleaners could offer same day service. It was a godsend.

Jamie: Or not. Turns out PERC is pretty nasty stuff.

Frani: It’s been listed as a hazardous air pollutant by the Clean Air Act and a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. California is phasing it out and other states are poised to follow.

Jamie: But currently the majority of dry cleaners in the country still use PERC. It’s everywhere and it’s persistent in soils and groundwater—and in the air.

Frani: Studies have shown that it goes right home with you—when you take off that bag there’s still residual PERC.

Jamie: So...what are the alternatives?

Frani: There are several options, but the bulk of cleaners are using liquid silicone or hydrocarbon solvents.

Jamie: Yes, hydrocarbons. Solvents manufactured by companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron Phillips that are an improvement over PERC, but hydrocarbons are classified as a volatile organic compound that contribute to smog.

Frani: Also, petroleum is a non-renewable resource and if we’re trying to make the lifecycle of our clothes more sustainable, it’s not a great option.

Jamie: And how would you know if the cleaner you use is cleaning with hydrocarbons? Many of them will call themselves “organic” because—technically if you remember from chemistry class—the definition of organic compounds is a molecule that contains carbon.

Frani: This is not the same as buying something organic at the supermarket. That implies food is healthy and pure. The gasoline you fill your car with is “organic,” but we doubt you’d want to drink it. Calling hydrocarbon cleaners organic has been attacked as cynical greenwashing from many industry watchers.

Jamie: We’re in Castle Pines, Colorado to meet with Joe Blaha of GreenEarth Cleaning. We’re here at their flagship store because GreenEarth claims that its method is the only one that is completely environmentally non-toxic.

Joe: Let’s take a look in the back. If you’ve never been in a dry cleaning plant these are the actual machines that we do the dry cleaning in.

Frani: GreenEarth uses liquid silicone, also known as "D5" to clean clothes.

Jamie: Standing in the GreenEarth facility it looks like a typical dry cleaner with clothes on a moving carousel, bagged and ready to be picked up. Joe shows us the machine that uses the liquid silicone. It looks like an industrial washer, but has a side computer panel with rows of buttons to program the load.

Frani: It’s called liquid silicone, but it is still dry cleaning, right?

Joe: It’s really a discussion not so much of wet or dry like liquid or not liquid. Dry cleaning itself uses a solvent rather than water. Stuff goes in dry and comes out dry because it’s all done in the machine. The washing and the drying happens within the system.

Jamie: But is GreenEarth a better alternative to PERC and hydrocarbons?

Frani: Joe hands us something that looks like a glue stick.

Joe: One side is a chapstick lip balm and the other side is actually a sunscreen. So when you take this little wrapper off. The inert carrier in this... This is one of the things... when I said you can actually eat GreenEarth, I certainly wanted to give you an opportunity to try and eat it. If you rub it on your lips—between you and me, you’re eating it. That’s how safe it is.

Jamie: But there may be a wrinkle in that claim.

Peter Sinsheimer: I do know that there’s toxicological issues associated with D5.

Frani: That’s Peter Sinsheimer of The Sustainable Technology & Policy Program at UCLA. We asked him to help explain dry cleaning solvents and their impact on the environment as well as on human health.

Peter: There is an advisory with USEPA that still stands and there’s other regulatory agencies like OEHHA who obviously have concern.

Jamie: OEHHA is the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. It and several research institutes have raised concerns about GreenEarth’s D5. They all cite issues around aquatic toxicity, bioaccumulation and persistence in the environment.

Frani: Add to that, just last month The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) whose function is to evaluate the adverse impacts of chemicals in the European Union found that D5 met the criteria for being ‘very persistent' and ‘very bioaccumulative.’ They will be considering a UK proposal to restrict its use in personal care products, but not dry cleaning.

Jamie: In defense of their process GreenEarth cites a report from Environment Canada in 2012 concluding that D5 does not pose a danger to the environment. And they claim the European study is based on modeling and not on how silicone actually behaves in the real world. A decision on whether to limit D5 in personal products in Europe is expected by December.

Frani: So what’s a consumer to do? This is obviously too complex an issue to be condensed into sound bytes of ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe,’ ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ But if a dry cleaner is telling you that they’re “organic,” or ”green,” or ”environmentally-friendly,” are they adding a little too much spin to the spin cycle?

Frani: The answer to that question may be as simple as “Just add water.” Again Peter Sinsheimer.

Peter: The fact is that the vast majority of stains on clothes are water-based stains. Water is a particularly good solvent for removing water-based stains.

Frani: Sinsheimer is a strong proponent of something called “Professional Wet Cleaning.”

Jamie: But he doesn’t mean like your home washer & dryer.

Peter: Professional Wet Cleaning is defined as a process that is used for sensitive garments that uses water plus surfactants and cleaning agents in a very delicate process of washing that essentially simulates hand washing.

Jamie: It’s the agitation that’s particularly hard on clothes. With Professional Wet Cleaning a computer carefully controls the rotation of the drum for each particular fabric, as well as the amount of specially formulated detergents. Finishing equipment restores suit jackets, pants, or any other tailored garments to their original shape and size.

Frani: But we’re in the arid west. Does Professional Wet Cleaning present a dilemma?

Peter: So in fact if you’re in a drought-stricken area there should be additional motivation to switch cleaners to Professional Wet Cleaning because it uses less water.

Frani: That’s because there’s less demand on boilers for refrigerated condensing and distillation which are functions that don’t exist in Professional Wet Cleaning.

Jamie: Before starting this story we hadn’t even heard of Professional Wet Cleaning.

Frani: Sinsheimer wants to change that. He and others want to change the care label you see sown inside your clothes.

Jamie: Instead of "Dry Clean Only" he wants the tags to say "Professionally Clean" or "Professionally Wet Clean" to raise awareness with consumers that they have a choice and that there is an environmentally-friendly alternative.

Peter: Even if an apparel manufacturer thought it was in the best interest from an environmental perspective...that wet cleaning was the best interest...they’re not legally at this moment in time in the United States allowed to label their garments Professional Wet Clean.

Frani: That’s because the Federal Trade Commission controls those labels and you might be surprised to learn that the label is not a directive, like dry clean this or else...

Peter: The Federal Trade Commission has determined that even though a garment can be labeled 'Dry Clean' or 'Dry Clean Only' it is legally permissible for a cleaner to clean that in water if they think it’s in the best interest of the garment.

Jamie: And your dry cleaner might be doing that—whether you know it or not.

Jamie: If all this information makes you feel like you’ve been put through the wringer, relax. Things are moving in the right direction.

Frani: PERC is being replaced in many places and the Federal Trade Commission has a label change under advisement.

Jamie: And high profile apparel retailers like Target, Gap and H & M are participating in Clean by Design.

Frani: But keeping the momentum going might come down to you and me, and what we as consumers demand. Style drives behavior. It’s about how we look and feel. Again, Linda Greer.

Linda: The only thing that I’ll leave you with was the CEO of H & M...and they are the quintessential fast-fashion industry. And he said something that I thought was just a really interesting way to capture the nut of what we’re really trying to work on here.

He said, “It’s not a matter of making fashion sustainable, it’s a matter of making sustainability, fashionable.” 💧


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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is one of the nation's most respected environmental action groups. Learn about their innovative program "Clean By Design" which focuses on improving process efficiency to reduce waste and emissions and improve the environment.


The Sustainable Technology & Policy Program (STPP) at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) is a joint undertaking of the School of Law and Public Health focused on identifying and promoting the use of safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals found in consumer products and used in industrial and agricultural production. Visit their Garment Care website and view their guide on Professional Wet Cleaning:

Professional Wet Cleaning Guidebook


OEHHA is the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. It's mission is to protect and enhance public health and the environment by scientific evaluation of risks posed by hazardous substances. It is one of six agencies under the umbrella of the California Environmental Protection Agency. View their evaluation of GreenEarth D5:

Comments on Human Health and Environmental Hazards for "Green Earth"


The Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell provides education and training for companies; sponsors research into the development of cleaner, safer materials and technologies; provides grants to companies, community organizations, and municipalities; convenes business working groups to address specific environmental challenges; conducts policy research and analysis; and provides laboratory and library services. View their assessment of dry cleaning options:

Alternatives to Perchloroethylene in Garment Care

San Francisco Department of the Environment

The San Francisco Department of the Environment creates policies and programs that promote social equity, protect human health, and lead the way toward a sustainable future. View their assessment of dry cleaning options:

Comparison of Hazards, Regulatory Concerns, and Costs for Alternative Dry Cleaning Technologies


The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) is a statewide research and technology transfer center funded by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Rochester Institute of Technology and its partner universities, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Clarkson University, and the University of Buffalo, along with the state's ten regional technology development centers (RTDC) together comprise NYSP2I. View their documents on wet cleaning:

The Benefits of Professional Wet Cleaning

Professional Wet Cleaning Implementation Guide

GreenEarth Cleaning

The GreenEarth brand name refers to an exclusive dry cleaning process that replaces the petrochemical solvents traditionally used in dry cleaning with liquid silicone. The GreenEarth Cleaning process is patented, and its name and logo are trademarked (there are no “generic” forms of GreenEarth). Any dry cleaning in silicones (in any percentage) is covered under GreenEarth’s intellectual property.


The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates care labels on clothes. View current rules.


Music: "Violet Pinguins," Esra Uccan, Creative Commons

Music: "Ouverture," Laurent St JAC, Creative Commons

Music: "Et J'ai Beau Voir," Laurent St JAC, Creative Commons

Music: "Tout a change," Laurent St JAC, Creative Commons

Published: May 22, 2015
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Journalism About Water and the Environment
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