As much as I’ve tried to escape it, laundry remains an inescapable part of life. In this section, we’re going to look at ways to make laundry lower impact.
The detergent you use in your laundry can have a huge impact on the environment. Choose detergents with biodegradable ingredients that won’t pollute local water sources or cause harm to wildlife. Avoid phthalates and chlorine bleach, which can be toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Look for products labeled “green” or maybe “natural,” and always check labels carefully before deciding what to buy, to avoid greenwashed claims. (Also remember that “natural” isn’t automatically better. Lava is natural. So are very large tigers. You wouldn’t want either of these in your laundry room.)
Consider avoiding synthetic fragrances. Not only are there are increasing number of people allergic to these things (I’m one of them!), there is some evidence to suggest that they may not be good for us.
Wash Clothes Less Frequently
We all want our clothes to be clean and fresh, but you might be washing your clothes too often. Unless you work in a manual labour job where you’re sweating a lot or exposed to a lot of odours that cling to you, chances are you don’t need to throw them in the wash after one trip out of the closet. This is also true of your bath towels. You’re theoretically clean when you come out of the shower, so you can simply make sure your towel can air dry easily and only throw it in the wash after several uses. You’ll save energy, water, and money on soap. Not to mention time doing laundry…
Use Free Drying Solutions
If you have the time and space, you can hang your clothes up on a line to air dry them, or use one of those indoor drying racks. If you’re like me and are super pressed for time, consider investing in a solar panel and battery setup to provide power for this energy intensive appliance. Speaking of which…
Energy Ratings For the Win
If you’re in the market for a washer or dryer (or both) make sure you’re selecting for high efficiency ratings. Avoid natural gas powered appliances, because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the fewer opportunities for methane leaks there are, the better.
Consider Cold Water Washing
Most machines now come with settings for both hot and cold water temperatures when washing clothes but cold water can do just as good of a job. Make sure your detergent works in cold water. If you’re not convinced by cold water, try warm instead of hot. Compromise!
Ditch the Fabric Softener
This is one of things a lot of us buy reflexively because it’s how our parents did it, but unless you’re drying your clothes on the line… you don’t need it! Clothes come out of the dryer softened already as the tumble action ensures they don’t get stiff. Liquid fabric softener is rarely biodegradable and often laden with fragrances; dryer sheets are the same plus the sheets have to go in the garbage when you’re done.
But the static! I hear you cry. Dryer balls eliminate most of this problem. Get one or two wool dryer balls and chuck them into every load. They’re reusable and they may also reduce drying time, saving you money.
Washing Machine Lint
We’re used to thinking about the dryer lint trap, but washing machines generate lint too… and all of those clothing fibres go into the water system. Even if they’re natural fibres (more on that in a second), that’s a lot of lint going back out through your sewer. Check to see if your washing machine has a lint catcher, and if it doesn’t, consider purchasing one to add to laundry loads to reduce what gets washed out of your machine.
I don’t know how many people actually iron their clothes anymore, but if you’re one of them, you can cut down on the amount of ironing you need to do by setting a timer on your phone (or elsewhere) and taking clothes out of the dryer when they’re still slightly damp. Hang them up immediately and you’ll avoid one major source of wrinkles: clothes sitting around in dryers.
Finally, let’s consider the clothes themselves. Synthetic fabrics — think polyester, nylon etc. — have many positives, but they’re not particularly earth friendly. They’re hard to recycle, so often end up in the dump, where they take decades to break down, if at all. Washing plastic-infused clothes releases micro plastics into our waterways, where they accumulate in ocean wildlife. As you replace your clothes, make sure your old clothes are properly disposed of and consider using natural fibres.
But What About Cotton? Isn’t it Bad?
It’s true that cotton processing, especially when it comes to making jeans, is a particularly water-intensive affair. Dying cotton makes use of a lot of chemicals that aren’t always handled properly or treated before going back into our rivers, streams and lakes.
On the plus side of the equation, cotton clothes do last pretty much forever with care (think of how many ancient t-shirts there are in your closet right now), so the water costs are at least amortized over a number of years. And it is possible, with a little work, to source from clothiers that are making an effort to clean up their chemical processes and reduce water use.
You can also look into clothing made from hemp fibres and bamboo as alternatives. These can be more expensive to purchase up front, but we’ll talk about wearing them long term and discuss fashion choices in a minute. Just as with your detergents, watch out for green washing. Just because something is made from one of these fibre sources doesn’t mean it’s made in a sustainable way. Take a bit of time to look into the company and their practices. Which brings me to…
Clothes Should Be an Investment
For too long now, we’ve considered clothes to be ‘disposable.’ We’re encouraged by clothing retailers and fashion magazines to change our look almost weekly, and the pace of trends (short hem, long hem, skinny jeans, low riders?) seems to have increased.
Worse, some retailers engage in horrifically wasteful practices. This season’s summer tops? If they don’t sell, they often are deliberately destroyed by floor staff (who are following corporate policy) and head to the dumpster rather than a charity shop. It wouldn’t do to have ‘the look’ of the moment just given to the poors, you see.
So… I would encourage you to ditch fast fashion too. Consider clothing a long term investment. Buy pieces that you can mix and match in a large number of combinations, but resist the urge to follow the latest trend.