Washing clothes is one of the largest contributors to your carbon footprint, as washing machines use huge amounts of water and energy. Because of this clothes should only be washed when necessary, using the appropriate settings.
But doing the laundry can sometimes feel like a minefield, with confusing washing symbols, the choice of settings and huge selection of detergents.
Here is our guide to how to sustainably wash your clothes.
Before you have even left the store with your new conscious purchase it's important to check the label to see how to wash it. The symbols can be a bit daunting, but here is a handy break down:
Some clothing brands will say that clothes should be washed at 60 degrees or more, but it’s usually not necessary. It takes a lot of energy to heat the water in your washing machine, and 30 degrees in a modern efficient washing machine is warm enough to effectively clean most fabrics.
Although the label on your new purchase may suggest tumble drying, it's better for the garment and the environment to dry naturally, either on a clothes horse near an open window outside in the fresh air if you can. If you are able to dry your washing outside the sun's UV rays also work as a fantastic stain remover, particularly on stubborn stains on white clothing.
Some items, like shirts and garments made of linen do need to be ironed, but drying clothes on hangers is a great way to remove creases without using the energy required to heat an iron. Once clothes are dry, folding them well can also reduce creases, particularly in t shirts and trousers.
A bucket symbol with a hand means a garment is hand wash only. We recommend that woollen garments are always hand washed, and here's a guide to handwashing your knitwear.
What products do your clothes love?
The number of options in the detergent aisle in a supermarket can be quite overwhelming, but there are a few rules to sustainable laundering:
Bio vs non-bio
Biological washing detergent contains harsh chemicals, particularly phosphates. If phosphates are leaked into water bodies they can cause algal blooms, a layer of algae on the surface of the water that kills everything beneath it.
When buying detergent it's best to stick to non-biological and minimally scented varieties.
If you want to be truly eco Plastic Free Hackney offer lessons (currently on Zoom) about how to make your own household cleaning products, including making washing detergent out of hazelnuts!
This stuff can make our towels fluffy and our clothes smell lovely, but like bio detergent it's full of chemicals that may be causing more harm than good to your clothing. The chemicals in fabric softeners break down the enzymes in your clothes, giving them that nice soft feeling but also ageing them more quickly!
Fabric conditioner should definitely never be used with polyester sportswear or swimwear as the finely woven polyester will break down faster and leach micro plastics into the water system.
Just like biological laundry detergent and fabric conditioner, stain remover is full of chemicals that don't break down in water even after your laundry is clean. A quick Google will give you a good guide to removing most stains with natural ingredients. And in some cases the old wives' tales are true - white wine does remove red wine stains, and saliva will remove blood (but only your own blood and saliva!) The true hero of stain removal is the sun, particularly on high UV days. Simply leave your stained item outside and let nature work its magic. But be careful not to leave them too long, as the sun is also very good at fading brightly coloured garments!
Why dry cleaning is a "no" from us
Although, many care labels recommend dry cleaning this should only be a worst case scenario. Dry cleaning chemicals are often highly toxic both for people and the planet as they contain chlorinated solvents. These can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation in humans and can destroy entire natural habitats, especially if leaked untreated into water bodies. Unfortunately this happens often, with dry cleaning chemicals being poured or leaking into storm drains that then drain untreated into rivers, lakes and canals.
Alternatives to dry cleaning and washing
It is possible to own a garment for a lifetime without having to wash it, particularly with items that are only worn infrequently for formal occasions, or that don’t touch the skin.
Here are some handy tips on how to not wash your clothes:
- If you get a stain or mark on an item of clothing (especially on a suit or wool item) wait until it has dried and get a stiff brush (a clean nail brush will do nicely,) and simply brush the mark away.
- If the stain is extra stubborn you can use a clean damp cloth with a tiny bit of detergent or stain remover on to gently dab the affected area, then leave to dry in the sun and the stain should disappear.
- Wool and heavy cotton items such as denim can also be cleaned by putting in the freezer overnight which will kill bad bacteria and leave your clothes fresh. This will also kill those pesky moth eggs that may have found their way into your woollens.
- If the item isn’t suitable for putting in the freezer you can also simply pop it on a hanger and leave it outside or next to an open window. This will freshen and brighten your clothes ready for their next wear.
Once you get used to the idea of washing clothes less and using more gentle washes, creating a sustainable wardrobe is easy!