How to Read a Clothes Label

Washing and tumble drying contributes significantly to the carbon emissions generated by an average shirt during its lifespan. Clothing tags can be a useful starting point to understanding everything from a garment’s traceability to the required washing process. Here’s our guide to reading your labels.

It is often said that the most sustainable thing you can wear are the clothes already hanging in your wardrobe; with Wrap’s ‘Valuing Our Clothing’ report stating that “clothes washing and care accounts for a third of the total carbon footprint of clothing.” This falls under the production of the fibre, the highest contributor to carbon emissions, and the processing of the fibre. The carbon emissions associated with the consumer mostly derive from the washing of clothes, with drying only emitting a third of the amount in comparison. A consumer study by Wrap analysing the change in washing habits between 2012 to 2016 has proven that as a result of a wider knowledge of the environmental benefits of washing on lower temperatures and reducing tumble drying has already reduced the carbon footprint of clothing by 700,000 tonnes.

One of the easiest ways to determine how best to care for your clothes is a quick glance at its label. From this, it can be determined how best to wash and dry your clothes, in addition to offering more information about how your clothes were made and their ethical and environmental impact. Learning how to read the label can help you learn more about the materials, processes and what will happen to the garnet at the end of its useful life.

Things to Look Out For

  • Is it a blend or 100% one material? Anything other than 100% indicates that the material is a blend of fibres. This means compromising the biodegradability or recyclability of the product by the end of its life.
  • Look out for certifications such as GOTS to determine if the material is organic, meaning the plant has been grown without the use of toxic chemical pesticides.
  • Choose natural fibres such as linen, cotton, silk, wool or hemp as these are biodegradable and can be returned to nature at the end of the garment’s life-cycle.
  • Use the ‘made in’ information as a starting point to further investigate the supply chain and ethics of the company. Following this, search for the company’s policies on transparency and learn more about who was involved in the process of making your clothes.


The ‘In-Use’ Process

Pay attention to the fabric composition as different materials require different washing processes. For instance, wool should be washed on a delicate cycle at a temperature no higher than 30 degrees and tumble dryers should be avoided as can cause shrinking. Denim should be washed infrequently and when needed, washed on low temperatures to reduce fading or damage.

Though the clothing label may suggest to wash on high temperatures, keeping to low temperatures of 30° or less helps to reduce the carbon emissions associated with your clothing. A 2018 study found that “if every household in the UK switched from 40 to 30 degrees throughout the year, it would be the equivalent to the annual emissions from around 1,550 typical homes.”

Tumble drying also requires a significant amount of energy to run, with air drying being a more sustainable option, in addition to protecting the fibres from being damaged in the dryer. Dry cleaning is a highly chemical intensive process, so choose environmentally friendly cleaners offering non-toxic services, or avoid all together. Most delicate items labelled as ‘dry clean only’ can be washed on gentle, lower temperature cycles – unless it has details that could be damaged in the machine.

Learn more about how to care for your clothes to increase their longevity.

Read our fabric guides to caring for wool and denim.