The Key to Accelerating Climate Action? Rethinking the Laundry Cycle

A low-impact laundry load is a little more complex than simply washing at 30 degrees. As Ruth MacGilp discovers, there are a few small changes that can be implemented at home to help reduce the emissions derived from a clothes wash, but how can brands play support in minimising this impact?

According to Mckinsey’s Fashion on Climate report, 21% of fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions come from product use at the consumer stage, with 11% of a garment’s total emissions originating from how it’s cleaned and cared for. The majority of emission reductions at the use phase—up to 186 million tonnes of greenhouse gases—can happen simply by reducing washing and drying. So why aren’t fashion brands talking about this?

The truth is, the more stats like this place the burden on the consumer’s shoulders, the more executives can relax a little in their boardroom chairs. If so much of fashion’s environmental impact relies upon consumer behaviour to change, there is less pressure on brands to take action at the production level. But as the report declares, the potential for accelerated abatement of emissions during use requires brands to significantly adapt their offerings through better care instructions, more durable materials and circular business models.

Unsurprisingly, raw materials are still the biggest polluter in the fashion life cycle, including fabric production and processing. But circularity goes far beyond just developing sustainable materials; according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation one of the most important cogs in the circular economy system is keeping products in use for longer, which in fashion means stretching out the useful life of a garment as far as possible.

Here, there are countless ways for brands to make it easier for consumers to increase product longevity. For example, offering clear and concise care instructions (large print, prominent positioning, plain language), including extra replacement buttons or embellishments, creating social media content about care andstorage, and vitally, utilising materials that require less intense cleaning

Images: Organic Basics, Silvertech™

Organic Basics is one brand that has been working to help reduce the frequency that activewear needs to be washed. Their Silvertech™ fabric keeps leggings and sports bras fresh for much longer using a combinationof recycled nylon and Polygiene®, a recycled silver salt designed to prevent the growth of odour-causing bacteria. The brand assures that this treatment is safe, permanent and has no harmful effect on the environment during washing.

Of course, as consumers we also have a responsibility to make more conscious care choices. According to Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola De Castro, sustainable consumption is not just about what we buy, but how we extend the life of what we have. Her new book Loved Clothes Last is a much-needed lesson in learning to fall in love with our wardrobes again, offering actionable advice on cleaning, storing, upcycling, repairing and rewearing our existing clothes.

To reduce your carbon footprint (and your energy bill) even further, the Fashion On Climate report suggests basic measures such as skipping 1 in 6 washing loads, washing half of loads at below 30 degrees, and substituting every sixth dryer usage with open-air drying. You can also get clued up about the symbols on your care label and follow these top tips on making your clothes last longer.

Another important aspect of working towards a low impact laundry cycle is the products you use to clean your clothes. Some detergents and fabric conditioners wreak havoc on delicate fabrics, and dry cleaning uses harsh chemicals. Eco-friendly clothing care brand Clothes Doctor recommends hand washing using gentle products to help reduce up to 25% of a garment’s carbon footprint. “We always recommend using natural, cruelty-free, palm-oil free and biodegradable products that are specially crafted to be ideal for low temperatures,” says Mafalda Ortigao, marketing executive at Clothes Doctor.

The truth is, contrary to popular belief and misleading care information from brands, most of our clothes don’t actually need to be washed very often at all. “Over-washing our clothes is the number one reason that a wardrobe favourite might fade, shrink, or lose its shape. Washing too often will age a garment prematurely by causing the fibres to deteriorate faster,” says Ortigao, suggesting alternatives such as steaming, spot cleaning and dry brushing.

Images: Guppy Bag

An additional area of concern in the somewhat unglamorous but crucially important sphere of clothing care is microplastics. Each time we wash a garment made from synthetic materials, including recycled polyester, thousands of microscopic plastic fibres are released into the ecosystem which threatens the entire food chain. Guppy Friend is one product that aims to catch microfibres before they reach the ocean by developing a secure bag for washing synthetic clothing. An additional benefit of products like this is the ability to protect clothing from damage as the washing barrel spins. Delicate items like underwear and anything embellished or embroidered can be better cared for in a laundry bag, protecting loose threads, elastics and beading.

It is important to note that while consumer actions and brand efforts can make a positive difference, we also need government solutions to these issues. For example, in order to tackle the microplastics problem at the source, we need significant improvements on filtering systems at wastewater treatment plants, investment in more energy efficient washing and drying facilities in housing, and tighter regulations on synthetic materials (just like we see with microbeads in beauty products). What’s more, the impact of clothing care ongreenhouse gas emissions ultimately depends on a greener energy system overall, so we need to keep the pressure on policymakers to switch to renewables so our appliances aren’t reliant on fossil fuels in the first place.

The future of fashion, according to The State of Fashion 2021, is a circular economy, but this will require acollective effort from stakeholders across the entire supply chain. In this utopia of a fully circular fashion system, where every garment is reused, recycled, resold or rented, we need to get back to basics. Remember that with each new owner or end-use, the quality of a garment quickly degrades, and fast fashion products are clearly not built to last. If you welcome the new year with one simple resolution, let it be this: quality over quantity. Only then will our washing habits truly make a difference.