Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” bathrobes, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
While we often hear about the evils of the fast fashion industry, the more mundane things may slip our minds (even if they’re easy to slip on). Bathrobes are one of those everyday essentials that we may not realize can do a lot of damage. Let’s look at how we can make this little moment of self-care more caring towards the environment.
What to Be Wise On:
There is nothing quite like spending an hour after your shower just in your robe. Most bathrobes are made of cotton, polyester, or silk, and the environmental and human impact of each can vary greatly. When it comes to bathrobes, like other soft and absorbent fabrics, consider what it’s made of and for how long you’ll be using it.
The Factors to Consider:
It may surprise you that the largest commercial share, in fact 25%, of the world’s home textile market belongs to terry cloth, which is used to make towels and bathrobes. That soft, fluffy, and absorbent material is made of cotton. But, it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. While cotton is only grown on 2.5% of the world’s arable land, the production of cotton uses a whopping 25% of all insecticides. That number is even higher in developing countries, where roughly 50% of all pesticides are used for growing cotton. Cotton is particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Even scarier is that some agrochemical companies produce and sell cotton seeds themselves... continuing the demand for – you guessed it – pesticides.
What’s so bad about this? Well, pesticides can cause groundwater contamination and, when used improperly, can result in pesticide poisoning. Studies from the WHO and ILO have shown that pesticide poisoning (some cotton-related) has resulted in the deaths of between 20,000 and 40,000 people, like farmers in developing countries, annually. But, not all cotton is created equal.
Enter: organic cotton. Organic cotton is the new kid on the block. It produces around 46% less carbon dioxide compared to conventional cotton and is grown without synthetic agricultural chemicals that are harmful to the environment and people. As always, for an added level of assurance, check for certifications. GOTS is the leading textile standard for organic materials. OEKO-TEX certifications ensure that there aren’t any harmful substances in textiles and that manufacturing practices are socially-responsible. To ensure that you’re buying cotton made by companies that support farmers and their communities, look for the Fair Trade certification.
Polyester is the second-most commonly used fiber type in bathrobes and the most widely-used manufactured fiber (thanks, Fast Fashion). Polyester is a synthetic material made from petroleum, and it requires crude oil and large amounts of energy to manufacture. It’s also carbon-intensive, and some of the emissions that result from its production can cause or aggravate respiratory disease for those who work or live by production sites. In fact, the EPA considers some of these textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators, which is neither cozy nor comfy.
Silk is quite possibly the creme de la creme luxury-wise when it comes to bathrobes, but its impact isn’t that luxurious. Silk is produced through a process called sericulture, which involves cultivating silkworms to extract silk from them. Silk farms require energy-intensive temperature-controlled environments harvesting the cocoons uses a ton of hot water and hot air. There are also some animal welfare concerns around silk: the mulberry silkworm does die in the production of silk. Some brands have even banned the use of silk in their clothing because of these ethical concerns, including ASOS.
That’s not all – a study conducted by WRAP evaluated the carbon footprint produced from the commercial production of silk — from cocoon to end of life -- and it showed that the footprint was equal to or more than that of some synthetic fibers. Another batch of research involving several LCAs found that the commercial production of silk has a larger environmental impact than that of Chinese cotton, nylon, and wool. This can be attributed to agriculture infrastructure inefficiencies in both the electricity supply and irrigation practices. But, it’s not all bad.
Smaller-batch silk (silk that isn’t produced on an industrial scale) can have positive economic benefits for worker livelihood. In China and India, the world’s two largest silk-producing countries, sericulture work has provided women with opportunities for increased economic mobility. Studies have even shown this to have positive impacts on education and nutrition. Thanks, mulberry silkworms! We have to also consider that silk cultivation is an ancient practice – it’s been around for over 5,000 years. All that to say…the scale of silk production now is vastly different, and the commercialization has impacted the way silk interacts with the environment.
Another aspect that requires a lot of electricity is the formation, printing, and dyeing of fabric. The most common dyes used in fabrics are AZO dyes. They’re not too efficient either – 10%-15% of dye is released into the atmosphere during application.
The impact of these everyday items doesn’t end at your purchase. It is important to maintain the longevity of the item so there is less consumption in the long run, as well. Research by Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy shows that laundry is an energy and water-intensive process, and laundry detergents may contain harmful substances, such as ammonia and phosphorus. Without the right filtration processes, this water is harmful to plants and animals. Using it ten times instead of six before throwing it in the laundry decreases its associated carbon footprint per use by about 40%. AKA washing less often and keeping your robe in rotation for longer may help reduce its environmental impact.
A Few Takeaways:
While reducing consumption and just ditching the bathrobe is a great option, if you love some TLC, don’t fret. It is all about finding better alternatives. If you’re in the market for a new robe, spring for a dye-free GOTS-certified organic cotton or small-batch silk robe. You can also decrease the frequency with which you wash your bathrobe. Yes, we’re giving you an excuse to do less laundry.
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“How do I know which material to purchase?”
All materials come with their own specific environmental and human impacts. From our assessment of the available materials, we recommend going for a dye-free GOTS-certified organic cotton or small-batch silk robe. If you’re choosing cotton, keep an eye out for the following certifications:
- GOTS: Leading textile standard for organic materials
- OEKO-TEX: Ensures that there aren’t any harmful substances in textiles and that manufacturing practices are socially-responsible.
- Fair Trade: Ensures you’re standing up for the rights of cotton farmers and workers.
“What can I do once I’m done with my bathrobe?”
Reuse is the name of the game. Cut it up and use it as a rag in the kitchen or get really into your DIY-ing self and throw together a tote bag. The longer you keep your old fuzzy friend in use, the longer it's kept out of the landfill.
“What is the best bathrobe to purchase?”
When we’re talking ‘best’, we’re considering functionality, price, and impact. The best bathrobe (to us!) considers all dimensions of where it came from, who made it and how they were treated, and how well the after-shower version of sweatpants works to keep us cozy.