A Clean Conscience : Fashion: Some concerned consumers are developing shopping and laundering techniques to avoid dry-cleaning garments.


Nancy Grundahl, a pollution-prevention specialist in Philadelphia, was irritated by an article in her local paper. Headlined “Clothes With a Conscience,” it detailed how leading fashion designers were coining slogans and donating dollars to increase awareness of environmental crises.

There wasn’t a word about dry-cleaning.

“The designers are missing the point,” Grundahl says. “If they really wanted to make a significant difference, if they really wanted to change the world, they should switch from ‘dry-clean-only’ fabrics to washable fabrics.”

Grundahl and other dry-cleaning foes worry about solvents such as perchloroethylene touching their skin, polluting the air and contaminating ground water. They also object to plastic bags and wire hangers, which typically end up in landfills.


These concerned consumers have developed shopping and laundering techniques that allow them to avoid dry-cleaning many garments. They scour stores for cottons and other fabrics that are easy to wash. They stock their utility closets with biodegradable laundry powders and liquids along with ironing boards, irons and portable steamers. They outfit their gardens, patios and bathrooms with useful gadgets like retractable clotheslines and fold-away sweater dryers. They tend to ignore many dry-clean-only warnings. But if a garment, such as a wool business suit, must be cleaned, they make sure it happens as infrequently as possible. And before they wear any dry-cleaned item, they let it air out.

It’s debatable how long the airing process should take. “You know that dry-cleaning odor? That’s perc (perchloroethylene),” says Grundahl. “To be safe, clothes should be aired outside for 24 hours.”

Debra Lynn Dadd , in her book “Nontoxic, Natural, & Earthwise,” advises a longer waiting period. “If you absolutely must have an item dry-cleaned,” she writes, “remove the plastic covering as soon as you get home and hang the item in a well-ventilated area--preferably outdoors--to encourage evaporation of the solvent. This could take up to a week.”

Dadd, who became a consumer advocate after learning she was “very sensitive to petrochemicals,” works out of her home near San Francisco. She says she is steadily “moving away from things that require dry cleaning. Ten years ago I would buy silk shirts and wool blazers. Now I buy cotton shirts, more free flowing skirts and jackets that are not as strait-laced, so they don’t have to be as pressed.”

If a professionally ironed look is essential, Dadd suggests washing the garment at home, then taking it to the cleaners to be pressed. If the garment can only be dry-cleaned, she says there are ways to minimize the frequency. One of the easiest--and most old-fashioned ways--is to hang the item up immediately after use in an airy space to give odors, such as perspiration or smoke, a chance to dissipate.

Dry-cleaning opponents will take on just about any fabric. Dadd, for example, hand washes “a beautiful rayon suit without a lining,’ in biodegradable liquid soaps available in health food stores.

Grundahl experiments with $5 thrift-shop purchases. “I wouldn’t wash a $100 dress,” she says. “But I take my chances with these. I wash them in the machine on cold and put them in the dryer for just a few minutes to get them fluffy, then I hang them in my basement. Dryers tend to over-dry,” she cautions. “All that lint you take out is just your clothes being stripped away.”

In department stores, she selects only cotton or acrylic fabrics, which means she frequently snubs a favorite designer: “I keep thinking Liz Claiborne must have stock in a dry cleaners. When I look at her clothes, my impression is that 1%-2% is washable. It drives me crazy. I love her things. I just keep thinking the designers could do something.” (A spokesperson for Liz Claiborne Inc. said the company had no comment.)


Manufacturers seem to slap dry-clean-only labels on everything these days--even cotton. Bob Berg, executive director of the Textile Assn. of Los Angeles (TALA), defends the practice: “Especially in higher-priced garments, they are attempting to retain for a longer period of time the nice hand and look of the fabric.”

But Phillip Menges III, a publicist and free-lance writer, says he stopped taking anything except a few suits to the dry cleaners 10 years ago, after he found “they would smash the buttons and the fabrics seemed to wear out faster.”

Menges has become so good at doing his laundry, he even tosses some of his unlined linen suits into the washing machine on the delicate cycle, than hangs them up to dry. And he takes preventive measures. If he is wearing a silk tie, for instance, he flips it over his shoulder before he washes his hands--to avoid water spots that could send him to the dry cleaners.

The more luxurious the fabric, the less likely it is to be washable, says Berg. He includes most silks, which tend to stain and shrink in water; wool, which shrinks and looses its natural “tufted appearance” and rayon, which, because it is made of wood pulp, “tends to shrink much more than other fibers used for clothing.”


But a number of designers have found ways to make rayon washable. “Most of our rayon fabrics can be hand-laundered because we have them double hot-washed before we use them. That eliminates 95% of the shrink,” explains Hilary Anderson, who with husband Michael, designs menswear for their Los Angeles store, Clacton & Frinton.

“We often put dry-clean labels on our shirts as a safeguard, but we tell customers they can be washed and how to launder them,” Michael says. Unnecessary trips to the cleaners are among his pet peeves. “The minute some people get a spot on something they take it to the dry cleaners. On a lot of wools, I will just use a damp cloth and a bit of detergent instead of all those dreadful chemicals.”

It isn’t just chemicals that turn consumers off. At Na Na, a trendy specialty store in Santa Monica, co-owner Nancy Kaufman says many customers want washable clothing “because they don’t want to pay for dry-cleaning.”

In a random check of Los Angeles cleaners, the cost for a man’s two-piece suit ranged from $5.10 to $8.50; a woman’s no-frills silk dress from $5.15 to $10.75.


Sheryl Nevitt takes exception to those people who prefer to pay rather than deal with “time-consuming” chores. The co-owner of Ecoalternatives (an Orange County business specializing in “ecofriendly goods for everyday use”), she says: “If you compare the time it takes to drive to the cleaners, find a parking place, go back, pick it up, you’ve got at least a 20 minute investment. And that’s all it takes me to hand wash a silk jacket for my husband. I usually do one jacket at a time, rinse it out, throw it in the dryer on ‘air,’ hang it on a wooden hanger and it comes out fine.”

Nevitt puts solvents at the top of her dry-cleaning complaint list. Claudia Keith, a spokesperson for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, understands why. “Our biggest concern (with dry cleaners) is that some of the solvents contribute to the smog problem,” she says. She has also seen studies “that indicate perchloroethylene has been found to be carcinogenic in animals. The risk it poses to humans is currently being evaluated.”

But Bill Fisher, vice president of the International Fabricare Institute (IFI), which identifies itself as “the only national association of professional dry cleaners and launderers,” says IFI studies indicate perchloroethylene “is possibly only a mouse carcinogen--and very possibly not a human carcinogen. It is not a contributor to smog.” And he says he is “unaware that perc has been showing up in ground water samples.”

Fisher says his industry has made important strides in reducing the use of perchloroethylene. “Newer types of equipment have greatly reduced consumption of solvent. Since the mid-'70s our use has dropped by almost 50%, while the number of garments has increased by 10% to 15%.”


George Laumann, executive director the California chapter of IFI, says members are “recycling as much solvent as we can. With our current equipment we cannot get to zero, but most equipment is designed to reclaim between 80%-85%.”

Other changes in the industry include recycling bins for plastic bags and the acceptance of wire hangers in good shape. At Regal’s Class Act cleaners in Tarzana, owner Loren Farell not only has a bin and gladly reuses hangers, he is also participating in a test program in which customers are given nylon bags to transport their cleaning back and forth.