WN2: What’s so wrong with dry cleaning?


It’s spring. Well, at least it is here in Vancouver. Time to bring out my double-faced cashmere Polo coat the color of Cream of Wheat. It’s beyond beautiful: Valentino couture; trapeze like at the hem, it cinches at the waist, with an enveloping portrait collar that says, ”I’m ready for my close up.” The fabric, I’m sure, is what spawned frotteurism. You know, lewd acts of “accidental” rubbing that take place in a crush of people. It just goes with the territory: after all, it has what fashionistas call “fabulous hand.”

The coat’s pale loveliness speaks of a type of insolence that we associate with celebrity, you know: the rules don’t apply. Moi? I taunt the gods. It also speaks of sheer idiocy. Whatever this stunner cost me, I’ve paid out a bajillion times in dry cleaning costs. Buying a damn-near white coat is just asking for trouble.

Inexplicably, gleeful, muddy labradors love this coat. Migrating birds, returning home from the south, instinctively home in on it. Waiters sabotage it with dripping coffee pots and the pale luxury fabric makes a most excellent pairing with red wine.

Yes, it’s an affront to Mother Nature. It’s also been an affront to my savings account. Let’s do the math. First off, let’s pretend I paid $1,000 for the coat. This will not only keep the math simple, it will make me feel less like I was a drunken sailor on shore leave.

Now say that dry cleaning it runs about $40. It has linen brocade trim so, naturally, ipso, ergo, and thusly, that adds to the cost. So if I dry clean the coat fifteen times, I’ve dropped 60% of the cost of the coat on top of the purchase price. And being the stain beacon that it is, the coat has a track record of visiting the dry cleaner following each outing. (I’m typing with my elbows while covering my ears and humming as I write so that I don’t have to hear myself admit this.)

Now, let’s factor in 30 round trips – yes, drop off and pick up – to the dry cleaner. Do you want to assign a value to your time? How ’bout to your monthly fuel bill? Shall we calculate the eco-cost of dry cleaning chemicals, carbon emissions and other attendant nasty factors in the equation? Let’s!

Yes, the ivory coat is an Enemy of the People. Not only is it responsible for propagating all sorts of toxins, it’s my immediate nemesis. Its come-hither creaminess is undoing my careful efforts to be a poster girl for RRSPs and responsible citizenship. I’m not going to get rid of it – it’s just so damned fetching! – but I can tell you what I now do when I’m beguiled by an item while shopping. I do the math you saw above, and I do a little science.

Dry cleaning is essentially a process where clothes are cleaned with chemicals, chiefly perchloroethylene, commonly called perc. Perc is a clear, colorless liquid, kind of like vodka. Only perc is not a social solvent; perc is a toxic chemical solvent. This chemical is added to your clothes and agitated in a manner similar to your own in-home laundry process. Your clothes are then dried, pressed back into shape, and bagged in polyethylene thereby ensuring that the toxins are efficiently transported to your home environment.

Now, the thing about perc is that it degrades to a potent carcinogen, and being heavier than water, it has the ability to make a mess of aquifers.  Perc can be reused but it must be changed regularly and it’s critical that it be decommissioned properly. This is not something every Mom and Pop dry cleaning operation can guarantee.On another level, high levels of even brief exposure can cause nausea, membrane irritation, fatigue, dizziness and confusion. Confusion! Perhaps my ivory coat saga is part of a perc-induced delusion!

Since the early ’90s environmental agencies have wrung their hands about perc but it remains the primary professional cleaning method. The Great Green Hope in this issue is something called multi-process wet cleaning, essentially a controlled application of – you may have heard of this – soap and water.

Years ago, a furrier told me of a process I recall being called “luring”. I thought it had something to do with the commodity exchange that furs represented to women and the men that offered them. But no, it was a method of cleaning a fur coat by simply wiping down the surface with a wetted cloth. Multi-process wet cleaning is akin to this. Not all garments can be wet-processed, but the finished result when professionally pressed is identical to the perc process except that it won’t kill you or future generations.

An interesting parallel is early cosmetics which used lead or even arsenic in face powders. It turned out to be not such a hot idea. A top dollar beauty offensive that yields a beautiful, but untimely, corpse begs a little more thinking. So, a lovely blouse, deeply discounted, can be disqualified from being a true bargain if it requires constant dry cleaning. Even the environmentally sound cleaning choice is going to set you back about $10 and two round-trips. If the item in question needs care, feeding and attention, it may as well be a child or a husband. They, too, are a lot of work but they can at least be expected to take the garbage out…theoretically. And the good ones won’t try to kill you…on purpose.

Read more by Jane Macdougall:
national post.com/macdougall,
@Janemactweet, pedviz.com,