Few people realise that the largest energy consumption in the lifecycle of a garment is actually after it’s purchase and use. Washing clothes repeatedly adds to the total energy expended. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 75% of energy expenditure of a garment’s life is from washing our clothes.
While some of the energy expended from washing clothing is justified, truthfully, we all wash our clothes too much. An Australian report on garments and carbon clearly states we wash our clothes more than necessary. The result of over-washing clothing impacts the environment through increased water consumption, introducing chemicals from washing detergents into the environment and increasing the demand on energy sources.
Some of the attitudes regarding washing clothing has largely come from the age-old phrase, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
While you may scoff at this idea, the belief before the 1950s was that dirty clothing indicated disease due to poor hygiene habits. Once the washing machine was invented people washed their clothes more frequently and now we mostly wash our garments out of habit.
So how often should we be actually washing our garments? This depends entirely on the type of clothing you’re wearing and the activities you partake in while wearing them. One study by a RMIT PhD student Tullia Jack recruited thirty people to wear a pair of jeans for thirty days straight - without washing them. By the end of the experiment, the jeans weren’t noticeably unwashed or dirty. Another experiment by a Canadian university student discovered the levels of bacteria were unchanged in a washed pair of jeans and a pair that were worn and unwashed for several months. Earlier this year, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh expressed that his jeans only need to be washed yearly, if that. These stories emphasise that unless we are active or the clothing is visibly dirty, it probably doesn’t need to be washed.
Fabric innovations are moving towards self-cleaning properties and while this is still being developed, it’s likely to be used in garment construction within our lifetime. Until then, we can all help reduce our energy consumption. The biggest change people can make to reduce energy use is to wash with cold water. All garments can be washed in cold water, however, not all garments can be washed in warm or hot water as it can cause dyes to run or fade and fibres to shrink or change. Not only will changing the settings on the washing machine prolong the life of your clothing and save the environment, it will also save you money. Yep, using cold water reduces the electricity used and saves you money on your power bill. Other important changes to make are using a clothing line to dry your garments and to switch to a biodegradable washing powder. Combining these simple changes with getting more wear (and less wash) out of our clothes, you can make a positive difference to the environment - and your wallet!