Stop being so damn clean… you’re hurting the environment

Your dirty laundry and the environment

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So you’re about to wash your weekly basket of laundry. It’s the middle of July. Hot as hell. You look at the mini mountain that is your dirty clothes pile for the past week. It’s stuffy and slightly smelly of sweat and body odor. You bring that smelly mountain to your washing machine and start stuffing clothes into it without a second thought. At the back of your mind, you may even be thinking: “Man these clothes smell like they could wake the dead” and maybe you should wash them more than once a week.

Well, don’t. You’re hurting the planet, and Captain Planet wouldn’t like that.

But seriously folks, washing your clothes every couple of days is unnecessary and wasteful, even during the summer months. In fact, the greatest impact on the environment that your clothing can have over its lifetime is not in its production, transport, or disposal, but in its use by the consumer – by washing, drying and ironing. In other words, you are responsible. This is actually normal according to Kate Fletcher, who in her 2008 book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys looked at the environmental impact of the fashion industry and reported that up to 82% of its energy use, 66% of its solid waste, and over half of its emissions to air come from washing and drying clothes. That translates into almost 400 loads of laundry each year for the average American family, consuming about 13,500 gallons of water.

So why do we wash so much?

Our standards of cleanliness have greatly developed over the last 200 years. Before that, weekly, monthly, or even yearly baths were pretty normal. Yeah I can see that cringe forming on your face. Sounds pretty gross I admit, since we now know that germs can cause diseases. But once we’re clean enough to stay healthy, becoming a germophobe has no advantages. Our preoccupation with cleanliness is partly due to technological developments – it is simply easier to wash your clothes today than 50 years ago. But a bigger influence is a change in social conventions. Marketers peddling cleanliness products sell us elevated cleanliness ideals to increase their business opportunities. With a population of over 300 million people, the American market is simply too big to let go, not to mention a growing middle class from developing countries.

How do we reduce the carbon footprints our clothes leave on the environment?

  • Simply, wear it more than once. Obviously socks and undies are excluded, but the best way to cut back on your laundry’s impact is to just do less of it. Wearing your clothes more than once before tossing them in the dirty pile is the first step in greening your laundry habits. The United Nations Environment Programme crunched the numbers and discovered that you can consume up to five times less energy by wearing your jeans at least three times, washing them in cold water, and skipping the dryer or the iron.
  • Use green laundry detergent more often. Conventional detergents can contain ingredients that aren’t good for you, your clothes, or aquatic ecosystems where the dirty water we wash down the drain can end up. Phosphates in conventional laundry soaps can cause algal blooms that negatively effect ecosystems and marine life. When shopping for eco-friendly detergents, look for labels that indicate a product is readily biodegradable and phosphate-free, and made from plant and vegetable-based ingredients (instead of petroleum-based).
  • Maximize your washing machine for energy efficiency. If you have a top-loading washing machine from the last century, chances are it uses twice as much water per load than a newer machine. It is time for an upgrade. Front-loading washing machines (also called “horizontal axis” machines) bearing the Energy Star logo typically use between 18 and 25 gallons per load, compared to 40 gallons for older machines. If you’re not looking to upgrade, there are still things you can do to increase efficiency. First, wash in cold water. A whopping 90 percent of energy used for washing clothes goes to heating the water. Also, be sure to wash only full loads of laundry, which ensures that you get the most out of each wash. 
  • Skip your dryer. There are upward of 88 million dryers in the U.S., each emitting more than a ton of carbon dioxide per year. Because a dryer uses so much energy, skipping it altogether can make a real difference. Bonus? Clothes last longer when you line dry because there’s less wear and tear than when you use the dryer.

Many of us want to live more sustainably, but our water and energy intensive lifestyles have such a huge influence that simply being aware of the issues requires serious self-reflection and a re-think about our cleanliness standard: a standard based on reality and pragmatism and not arbitrarily pushed by marketing.

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portrait of William Lee

About the Author

This is Will, current content coordinator at Trusted Clothes. Will is a writer at heart with a journalism print background. An award-winning writer and video producer, Will divides his time between super-heroing at Trusted Clothes and being a complete die-hard Star Trek fan. And wearing funny Captain Picard shirts too.

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