My wardrobe has inadvertently ‘shrunk’ over the past months. Focussed training to get healthy and race-fit has changed my body shape. So much so that I now only have a handful of clothes that fit me properly. When my body stabilises, I shall take in dresses and skirts and invest in some new basics but in the meantime I am working with a modest capsule wardrobe. This unexpected turn has focussed my attention on a more tedious but surprisingly significant aspect of a sustainable wardrobe: laundry.
Research by some retailers (and detergent producers) suggests that as much as 80% of a garment’s embedded energy is attributable to laundry, which conveniently allows them to shift the burden onto us. Even allowing for the limitations and assumptions involved in such analyses (including about our habits), laundry undeniably impacts on my wardrobe’s environmental credentials. And as it within my control, it deserves closer attention.
Tackling the washing
A M&S commissioned study* into the life cycle of cotton (under)pants revealed that washing and drying account for over 68% of all the embedded energy in the garments, with drying accounting for over 38%. For a pair of polyester trousers the figure is 53%, split almost equally between washing and drying, and with another 12% attributed to ironing. This is only one of many LCA studies but it illustrates why many clothing and detergent retailers now encourage customers to wash at lower temperatures.
My standard range is 30o-40oC with some sensible exceptions. Dish clothes get laundered separately at 50o C (after a good soaking in borax) as do any items worn when we have colds or stomach upsets. For years I have favoured lower temperatures, mostly due to the fibres I wear and risk of colour runs, but also because they save up to 40% energy**.
Hand washing is another way to cut water and energy usage, a suggestion which probably makes many shudder. I have always done a fair bit of hand-washing and perversely it is actually the part of laundry I detest the least. This habit dates back to mum making me wash my bras and stockings in the sink as a teenager because they were delicate and in limited supply. Not only did this habit stick; my love of quality woollen knitwear means I wash more by hand than ever.
Frequency of washing also impacts on a wardrobe’s energy footprint. Now I know there are cultural, geographical and seasonal variations here and I am by no means advocating walking around in dirty clothes or smelly socks but there is such a thing as over-laundering clothes. It is often easier to drop a top in the basket rather than work out whether it just needs airing, a quick hand wash to refresh it or a proper deep clean.
In the context of a wartime-inspired challenge I have wondered how my wartime peers managed to keep their clothes fresh. In those days, most women did the laundry by hand and with only a limited number of clothes, keeping themselves in clean knickers and tops must have been a challenge! Thanks to my shrunken wardrobe I have had some insight into the cleanliness/frequency of laundering dilemma. Changing out of good clothes as soon as I get home certainly helps manage the problem as does the time-honoured practice of airing clothes. I am also occasionally adding teeshirts to my hand washing to bridge the gap between regular machine loads.
And a geeky extra
Finally there is another, admittedly very geeky way of saving energy on the laundry. As most of the UK’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, I only run the washing machine in the evening and at the weekend when many big industrial and commercial electricity users are offline. Having worked on power projects, I know only too well that power plants that provide base load electricity (as opposed to those supplying variable peak load) are more energy efficient. So by timing my laundry carefully, I can trim a little more embedded energy off my wardrobe.
This approach to saving energy is less obvious as it is rarely filters down to domestic electricity bills (unless your tariff is structured to reflect those efficiencies, like Economy 7 in the UK). Also the most energy efficient approach will vary from region to region and even depending on personal circumstances. If I had solar PV panels on the roof, I would launder during the day as electricity from my roof would be more energy efficient than that produced in and transported from a distant base load power plant.
The really bad boy
The real energy culprit in domestic laundry is the tumble-dryer. These machines eat electricity and should really be the first thing to be tackled. I was actually surprised at M&S’ findings as I had always been under the impression that you could not put polyester, viscose or other man-made fibres in the tumble-dryer. Probably another habit I picked up from my mum!
Living in an old house in a damp country I completely understand the appeal of the tumble-dryer. And I have to admit, in 2012, during the endless months of rain, I occasionally resorted to the drying cycle on our washing machine as it took weeks to dry towels and bedlinen. Mostly though I rely on a low-tech clothes horse and accept that the bathroom will never look stylishly empty like those in interior magazines.
The “wobbly thing in the corner” has also been an absolute godsend for air drying clothes in a damp climate. A couple of years ago I hunted online for a centrifugal gravity spinner (like the one my mother had) and discovered to my delight that a couple of companies still make them. They are not exactly stylish or sophisticated appliances but they are worth their weight in gold! Feed a handful of clothes into the drum, close the lid, pop a bowl under the spout, lean down on the machine to stop it wandering across the room and in a couple of minutes it flings out more water than three spin cycles in the washing machine could. Best of all, it reduces air drying time from four days to one.
And then there’s the ironing…
Whilst ironing apparently accounts for some of the embedded energy in our clothes, it is not one I have contemplated at any length for the simple reason that I generally do not bother much with ironing. The only exception, apart from occasionally pressing smart trousers, are Mr M’s work shirts. Even without a detailed analysis, I can work out that 30 minutes of ironing per week is probably less environmentally damaging than taking the shirts to the laundry and getting them back swathed in plastic!
Having reflected on my laundry habits and the progressive tweaks I have made, I have realised that laundry – like most things – is actually quite an interesting topic. It is only the relentless nature of the piles of ‘dirty’ clothes that makes it feel tedious…
* Taken from Streamlined Life Cycle Assessment of Two Marks & Spencer plc Apparel Products by Environmental Resource Management for M&S Plc (2002).
** According to the Energy Savings Trust.
As my body shape is changing, I have avoided using valuable coupons on anything but essentials. Five went on a pair of black leather lace-ups as my old pair of brogues were beyond repair. And I spent another six coupons on two pairs of knickers. Like most women I buy my undies in multi-packs so they wear out in batches. I therefore invested in a couple of organic cotton knickers in Luva Huva‘s sale and also made a pair myself out of left-over organic cotton jersey to save on coupons. Stitching your own undies is surprisingly easy but it does take a while to get used to wearing Lycra-free ones!
Total coupons used to date: 42.5.