WHAT TO BE WISE ON
The environmental impact of a dish towel can be wildly different depending on the type of material used, and maybe even more importantly, depending on how often it’s used before it’s washed. Dish towels are made from both plant-based and synthetic materials, which come with varying levels of environmental impact on water, soil, and emissions. Regardless of which type of dish towel you end up with, using it as often as possible before washing and throwing it in with a large load of laundry will have the greatest bearing on its carbon footprint.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet. Unfortunately, it is a water-intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 5% of global pesticide sales and 10% of global insecticides sales come from the cotton industry. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet (see organic cotton below). In general, a plant-based material like cotton requires less energy to manufacture than a petroleum-based alternative like microfiber.
Organic cotton is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton produces 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface, and groundwater use falls anywhere from 48% to 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%. While we think dish towels made with organic cotton are the best option, we recognize that they’re harder to come by. Less than 1% of all cotton produced is organic.
Linen is one of our favorite textile materials. It’s incredibly soft (and gets softer over time!), and highly durable. Even though it is usually more expensive than cotton, linen tends to last longer. It’s made from the fast-growing plant flax, which is primarily grown in boreal forests unassociated with deforestation. Plus, linen uses far less water over its life cycle than cotton. While pesticides are hardly used in flax cultivation, it’s still better to get linen dish towels that are certified organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard to ensure you’re avoiding pesky pesticides.
Microfiber is a textile made from ultrafine (hence ‘micro’) synthetic yarns, namely polyester and nylon. Since each fiber is many times smaller than human hair, it can get into every crack and crevice that cotton or paper towels can’t reach. As a result, it has become a popular textile for dish towels due to its high absorbency (microfiber can absorb 7-8 times its weight in liquid). While this is quite the feat, we have a couple of bones to pick with microfiber… First, it’s derived from fossil fuels. Extracting petroleum (which is needed to produce polyester) involves drilling and fracking, which have a host of negative environmental consequences (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*) that are not infrequent and can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. The environmental effects of drilling overwhelmingly impact people of color and low-income folks, who are more likely to live in communities near these sites.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the chemical treatments used by polyester manufacturers are toxic and known to cause neurological damage and even cancer at high levels of exposure, putting factory workers at risk. Plus, every time polyester gets washed, it sheds tiny pieces of plastic threads that enter our waterways and devastate marine ecosystems or even find their way into our bodies. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic pollution in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. We’ll pass!
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on dish towels.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS is the gold standard of textile certifications (which is why we like to pronounce it GOAT-S). It requires that at least 70% of the materials in the product are organic and that the product complies with multiple environmental and social criteria along its entire supply chain. If you opt for a dish towel made with cotton or linen, definitely prioritize finding this label.
The OEKO-TEX standard guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which predominantly impact people working at manufacturing facilities. This label means that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the dish towels AND the people who use them.
One of the highest areas of environmental impact in the lifecycle of a dish towel comes from its use phase. In fact, the emissions associated with the use of a dish towel can vary from as low as 1.14 grams of CO2e per use to as high as about 242 grams of CO2e per use. There’s such a large discrepancy here because a dish towel’s impact varies based on the type of detergent used, the number of uses per laundry cycle, the number of items washed per laundry cycle, and the type of washer and dryer used to launder the dish towels. Of that list, the biggest variations come from the number of times between washes and the number of items per wash.
Did you know that when you wash 12 dish towels per load (which is roughly about half a load of laundry) instead of one dish towel per load, the carbon footprint per load decreases by about 92%? Holy guacamole stain! When you increase the load size to 24 dish towels (a full load of laundry) from 12 dish towels, we drop another 50% or so. Pretty awesome, huh? On the flip side, when you decrease the number of dish towels in a load of laundry from 24 towels (full load) to 1 towel, the increase in the carbon footprint is a whopping 2274%. The impact can also vary significantly based on how many times you use a dish towel before you throw it in the laundry. Using a towel ten times instead of only six times before washing decreases the associated carbon dioxide emitted per use by about 40%.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
Dish towels are one of the few things we’d recommend tackling as your next DIY project. Old t-shirts, bath towels, and socks make incredible kitchen towels, and you might be surprised to hear that old yoga pants make delightful dish towels too since they’re super-absorbent. If you find you have nothing worthy of reuse in this way, then we recommend linen or organic cotton dish towels that are GOTS-certified. And remember, how you use your towels makes a huge difference on their environmental impact! Prioritize reusing them as many times as possible before washing them and make sure they’re going in a full load of laundry.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of dish towels are the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” dish towels because of the energy-related emissions from washing them, we came up with this list of more sustainable dish towels based on what else they’re made of.
“Are dish towels better for the environment than paper towels?”
Finch did some internal research and found that there’s no clear winner in a battle for the lowest emitter between single-use paper towels and reusable dish towels. No matter what kind of washer and dryer you have, try to use your dish towels as many times as possible before throwing them in the wash, and when you do throw them in the wash, be sure that the load is full. You’re not doing anyone any favors by only using your dish towels a few times and washing them solo. If that’s your MO, you might want to consider sticking with paper towels instead.
“Is cotton or microfiber better for dish towels?”
It seems like the wrong question to be asking when there are more superior options on the table. It’s like asking if you should take Dots or Candy Corn while trick-or-treating when there are Kit-Kats and Reese’s being offered. We think linen or organic cotton dish towels are your best bet. Still, if conventional cotton and microfiber are your only options, then we’d say cotton. Since cotton is a plant-based material, it requires less energy to manufacture than microfiber, which is petroleum-based. Plus, cotton doesn’t release microplastics into our waterways when it gets washed. When in doubt, opt for cotton.