Is dry cleaning unethical?


I never thought much about dry cleaning other than its cost. But when I went home to Michigan for a visit, we stopped by a new dry cleaner’s my mom had started to frequent. Why the change? “It’s environmentally friendly,” she said.

Huh? In my ignorance, I had never considered that cleaning your clothes could be bad for the environment.

Turns out it’s very bad.  Traditional dry cleaning (a misleading term, since the method actually involves a liquid bath in chemicals) is incredibly harmful to the environment because of its use of the solvent perchloroethylene, also known as “perc”. Perc has been linked to cancer and neurological troubles in some cases. (Is anyone else thinking of John Travolta in A Civil Action?)

The good news is more and more “organic” dry cleaners have been popping up in this green day and age.   But an article in today’s New York Times addresses this issue that despite names indicating that these businesses are environmentally friendly, there is no regulation of the alternative or “greener” methods and some of them appear to be only slightly less toxic.

So what can you do? Check with your cleaners to see if they dispose of hazardous waste safely, if they recycle hangers, if they use biodegradable plastic and packaging, or fuel-efficient vehicles.

An even better alternative is to avoid buying clothes marked “dry clean only.” Which is likely easier said than done….