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What’s The Deal With Clothing Care Symbols?

Do you know how to read the care labels on your clothes? What happens if you don’t take proper care of them? Read on to find our more about the clothing care labels in use and why they matter to the fashion industry and our environment. 

By the time our kids are grown up, do you think they will even write words? Increasingly, especially with globalization, we’re relying more and more on photos and images to communicate. Emojis, anyone??! We joke about sending full text messages composed entirely of emojis, but communicating in symbols might be closer to reality than we realize.

Images offer a more universal “language” that’s definitely helpful, in theory, for everyone to understand. But learning what certain sets of “standard” images mean is like learning a whole new language. Before we know it, we’ll have come full circle and be back to using Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Texting our friends in emoji exchanges isn’t exactly the end of the world, but communicating in symbols can sometimes be quite a pain and have more extensive consequences. For example, have you checked the care labels on your clothes lately? If your care labels look anything like mine, they include a handful of symbols and images that mean nearly nothing to me.

Years ago, clothing labels used words to explain how to clean and take care of the items. I remember when everything was in English. Then I remember long labels with care instructions written in a variety of different languages. Given the amount of space required to spell out directions in multiple languages, these definitely aren’t ideal. Lately, clothing care labels are covered in symbols that mean zilch to me. I have no idea how to interpret the little pictures, so I’m losing the ability to know how to care properly for my clothes.

In a world where we already have issues with clothing being a ‘disposable item’ and languishing in our landfills for ages, not knowing how to properly care for our clothes compounds the problem. Without proper instructions, it’s almost to be expected that many people will inadvertently ruin their clothes by cleaning them in ways that wear down or even destroy the fabric or quality of the piece.

Learning to properly care for our clothes can greatly contribute to the longevity of our clothes and reduce the frequency with which we feel we need to buy new clothes. While I think it’s often overlooked, lack of proper care is definitely a component that feeds into the fast fashion frenzy.

Where Did These Symbols Come From?

I suspect I’m not the only one feeling like I’m reading a foreign language when trying to decipher how to care for my clothes. I decided to do a little digging to find out where these relatively new (at least to me) symbols came from, what they mean, and how I can learn this new language to ensure I take care of my favorite garments and make them last.

The clothing care symbols are designed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). They have updated the symbols over time, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires manufacturers to use ASTM Standard D5489-96c Standard Guide for Care Symbols for Care Instructions on Textile Products. Without getting into too many details, here is the chart from the ASTM site that organizes all the symbols.

Seeing all the symbols together and in an order that explains their relevance, I can start to understand what they mean and see how the symbols were derived. Knowing a few of the basics, like the general symbol for “wash” or “dry clean” or “iron”, helps put into perspective the more complicated variations on these symbols that give details about water temperatures, special chemicals, etc… But without studying this chart or printing it out and posting it on my closet wall, I’m not sure I could make heads of tails of most of the symbols. Certainly an average consumer isn’t going to be investing time to understand and execute on all these symbols.

I understand that we need to start somewhere, and hopefully these symbols become more socialized over time. For now, however, I wonder how much effort has been made to educate consumers about these symbols and the importance of understanding what they mean.

More importantly, I suppose, I’m making a giant leap to assume an average consumer cares enough about the longevity of their clothing to prioritize following suggested care instructions. That’s a much deeper issue and one that deserves an entire series on it’s own, but not something to be ignored for sure.

Why Do The Clothing Symbols Matter?

When we don’t care for our clothes, they wear our and get ruined much more quickly. They don’t provide much value to a secondhand shopper, and only a small portion of used garments can be recycled into products like insulation and commercial rags. Most of our poorly constructed and poorly cared for clothing ends up in landfills.

According to the Council for Textile Recycling (CTR), the largest non-profit organization in the United States working to reduce the amount of textiles that ends up in our landfills, every person in the United States throws out 82 pounds of clothes per year. That could be an entire wardrobe?! Every. Single. Year!

Only 15% of the textile waste is donated or recycled meaning that 70 pounds of textile waste per year per person end up in our landfills. This equates to 5.2% of the total municipal solid waste generated. The infographic below from the CTR displays these and other facts about our textile waste habits. Does this seem crazy to anyone else? Why are we throwing away so much of our clothing and textiles?

The answer to my somewhat rhetorical question is multi-faceted. We don’t know how to care for our clothes properly. We no longer have skills to mend and tailor our clothes. The clothes are of such poor quality it’s not worthwhile to mend or tailor them. Clothes are so cheap that it’s less expensive to trash them than fix them. Due to the rise in fast fashion, we’ve come to accept ill-fitting and poorly made garments, likely without even realizing how terrible they are. The list goes on.

Needless-to-say, we carelessly throw away so many clothes. The last thing we need is a complicated set of care symbols that no one understands and that will likely lead to more clothes ending up in our landfills.

What Can We Do?

If we want to slow the pace of textiles clogging up our landfills, we can all start by printing out the care symbol chart and putting it on the wall in our closet or next to our washer and dryer. If you have a great memory, by all means just lock this information in your head.

If you use a shared laundry space, ask if you can hang the symbol sheet on the wall. It might just spark a conversation or encourage people to be a bit more curious about how they clean their clothes.

When it’s relevant, bring in up in casual conversations with your friends. Ask them if they know what the symbols mean or if they care to follow the instructions.

While buying new clothes, pay attention to the care instructions and do your best to buy clothes for which you know you can take proper care. If you’re not into hang drying your clothes, then don’t buy things that get ruined in a dryer. If nothing else, that’s a waste of money.

Hopefully over time, much like we’ve learned to text in emojis, we will learn to read clothing care labels in symbols. We may have come “full circle” to the days of hieroglyphics, but at least we will all be speaking the same language.

Have you ever stopped to think about the care labels on your clothes? Were you able to decipher the meaning of each of the symbols without a key to crack the code?

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