In the discussion about fashion and sustainability, the focus is often placed on the ills of garment manufacturing and consumption. But what about how we care for our clothes? Waste water and microplastics, the chemicals used in detergents and dry cleaning, poorly-considered packaging and energy use all contribute to the ways the clothing we wear affects the planet.
Some appliance makers and cleaning product startups are taking up the mantle of greening the laundry experience but there are also simple – sometimes surprising – steps we can take to improve the weekly wash.
At-home hacks can quell doubts about dry cleaning
“Dry clean only” has become shorthand for how we tend to our most treasured closet items. But the maintenance of a designer dress or heirloom suit can be taxing on more than our wallets.
The traditional dry cleaning process relies on the chemical solvent perchloroethylene (or PERC), which was added to the list of Toxic Substances Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act more than 20 years ago. As a result, we’ve seen the rise of the eco-friendly dry cleaner, whose methods include professional wet cleaning and processes that use alternatives to PERC. As with many aspects of the discussion around sustainability, however, “eco-friendly” is an unregulated term with no specific criteria.
For laundry evangelist Patric Richardson, concerns about the environmental impacts of dry cleaning – and the damaging effects it can have on textiles – provide the perfect impetus to get more engaged with your garment upkeep. According to him, you can actually home launder just about anything.
In 2021, Richardson wrote the book Laundry Love: Finding Joy In A Common Chore. He says that the biggest mistake people make is using too much detergent. “You know, we have this idea that more is better, and that’s so not true,” he says. When clothing gets clogged by an abundance of cleaning agent, water has a more difficult time rinsing it out and it will also take clothing longer to dry.
As for the frequency of doing laundry, Richardson says most people wash their clothing far too often. “I think you should wear your jeans 10 times before washing them,” he says. To maintain pieces in between cleanings, Richardson offers this perhaps unusual advice, which also alleviates the necessity of keeping chemical-laden, wastefully packaged fabric freshening products in your home: use (cheap) vodka as an odour-controlling spray. “When it dries, it’s odourless and colourless,” he says.
Richardson says a mesh bag is useful for cleaning delicate items and a horsehair brush can help with scrubbing stains. He also extols the virtue of air drying, not only because it minimizes energy use but also because of the abrasion your garments can encounter in a mechanical dryer.
Technology is tackling energy and water use
Appliance brands are leaning more heavily on artificial intelligence to up the efficiency of laundry machines, if for no other reason than to address the common ways we program a wash. “Laundry can be confusing [and] the majority of Canadians use the normal setting for everything,” says Andrew MacDonald, senior manager of home appliances at LG Canada. “Instead of changing habits and creating more cycles, we said, let’s work on the normal cycle that they use.”
LG’s WashTower, which integrates a stacked washer and dryer in one unit, operates with a sensor-based AI system that uses 11,000 data points to determine the unique needs of different types of loads, from cotton towels to dress shirts. It’s also Energy Star certified – a program set up by the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. – using 25-per-cent less energy and 33-per-cent less water in the wash and a 20-per-cent energy savings during drying. Looking at Energy Star stats is a straightforward way to understand how green a new machine will be compared to its competition. “[Energy Star] sets the standard for water [and] power consumption,” MacDonald says.
New products rethink ingredients, packaging and plastics
Over the past couple of years, microfibre trapping balls, filters and bags as well as eco-friendlier soaps and detergents have been introduced to improve what our laundry machines vent and drain – and typically come in packaging designed to reduce waste.
British Columbia’s Tru Earth offers a range of detergent strips that are paraben and phosphate-free, as well as biodegradable, vegan and hypoallergenic. The brand claims its minimal packaging has helped eliminate the use of more than six million plastic jugs.
New York-based Blueland has also taken a closer look at what we use to clean our clothing. “My journey to becoming a mom really helped me question everything,” says co-founder Sarah Paiji Yoo. She says she began to understand the dynamic of waste, environmentalism and human health when researching how to make formula for her first child.
Blueland’s subscription service allows customers to reduce the amount of packaging they go through. Laundry tablets – which are “made without parabens, phosphates, ammonia, VOCs, chlorine bleach, or phthalates” – aren’t wrapped in plastic, while reusable wool balls are meant to replace single-use dryer sheets. “We need to provide a product where people don’t feel like there’s a trade-off [in] doing the right thing by the planet,” she says.
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