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Did you know that the biggest eco-impact of clothing comes when you’re wearing it? In fact, research shows it chews up to 80 per cent of the overall energy consumption of your favourite pair of skinny jeans or best dress.
“Over the entire lifecycle of clothes, the biggest environmental impact is from the ‘use’ phase: washing, drying and ironing,” says sustainable fashion expert Tullia Jack from RMIT University. “The energy and water used in that phase is bigger than the environmental impacts of growing materials, production and transportation.”
And so, my challenge was this: wash less. Sounds simple, but shaking lasting habits and the perceived pull of cleanliness isn’t always easy.
On the green washing spectrum, I’d like to think my laundering habits are up the sustainable end. I have a 4-star rated front loader that I use only when full. I wash with the water temperature at 30 degrees using biodegradable detergent. Plus, I haven’t lived in a home with a dryer since my younger brother grew out of cloth nappies.
As I work from home, I’m the main washer in our household and my husband and I do a good job of washing only the essentials after one wear: underwear, socks, sports gear and his smelly work shirts. We leave
the rest until it’s really dirty – as in, stained or stinky.
According to Jack, this approach is environmentally sound. In one study, she asked participants to wear the same pair of jeans at least five days a week for three months without washing them. “My findings were that nothing really happened – the jeans didn’t smell or look bad and participants didn’t experience social pressure to clean them more,” she says.
And while basic sanitation is a must, it turns out that escalating cleanliness beyond the baseline offers no major benefits to our health. So why do we wash so much? Apart from the ease of using an automatic washer compared to the manual labour of generations past, it seems we’re driven by habit (I always wash on Thursday) and marketing-inspired social conventions (brighter whites, anyone?).
A quick poll of my friends and family reveals that most of us mimic our mums’ washing habits, especially when it comes to linen. In my case, that’s towels and PJs weekly and sheets fortnightly – because that’s what my nanna did. My mum would wash the bottom sheet each week and rotate the top sheet for ‘even wear’. In fact, she still does.
So I decided to take Jack’s advice to just stop washing and see what happens. I haven’t washed my sheets in four weeks and I’ve extended our towels and PJs to fortnightly laundering. The linen doesn’t smell or look dirty and we haven’t caught colds or developed allergies, despite initial fears of dust mites hijacking my slumber.
The results are in. My weekly wash is down from three loads to two, which translates to less time waiting for the machine to finish and fewer sheets draped over lounge room furniture. I’ve also dropped the temperature to a bona fide cold wash, switched to the eco setting and swapped stain remover for surprisingly effective white vinegar.
And in perhaps my greatest act of laundry anarchy, I use half the recommended dose of detergent, which tests show still yields clean clothes. Rebellious, much?