(Photo: a woman reaching into a washing machine) Woman Doing Laundry Reaching Inside Washing Machine | Photo © Monkey Business \ Fotolia.com

If you are the type of person who wants to be an ethical, sustainable dresser, you probably make efforts to buy clothes that are made in fair labour conditions from fibres that are farmed and manufactured sustainably. You are probably also conscious about how many clothes you purchase. While these are all important steps, most of your clothing’s environmental footprint comes from laundering them.

Over the last 200 years, our cleanliness expectations have increased exponentially. For the last two decades in particular, consumers have been subjected to a marketing push for an abundance of cleaning products to minimize stains, germs and odours. Washing clothes accounts for 14 percent of household water, and washing machines use the most water in your house, apart from your toilets.

According to Energy Star, the average household does about 400 loads of laundry a year, consuming about 51,103 litres of water. A single washing machine also emit approximately 73 kilograms of GHG emissions per year. And we haven’t even gotten to drying yet!

So how can you do more “green washing”?

  • Fast spin: Use a faster spin cycle to reduce the amount of water left in the clothes for a shorter drying time.
  • Cold is best: 90 percent of the energy consumed by the washing machine goes into heating the water. Wash in cold water to reduce your energy consumption and CO2 emissions – and save money on your energy bill. Look for detergents designed for cold water.
  • Fill up: Wait until you have a full load to limit the number of washes.
  • Less is more: Use less detergent to reduce the number of rinse cycles required – and keep more detergent out of the water supply.
  • Natural is better: Conventional detergents contain harmful ingredients that, when washed down the drain, can negatively effect marine life. Look for products that are phosphate-free and are made with plant or vegetable-based materials. You can even replace fabric softeners with a cup of white vinegar! Check out our “Sustainable Living” board on Pinterest for DIY eco-detergent recipes.

Don’t Clean your Jeans

One specific way to reduce your washing footprint is by limiting the number of times that you wash your jeans. The average pair of jeans consumes about 3,500 litres of water – that’s based in owning the jeans for just two years and washing them once a week. Fifty per cent of this water is from the consumer washing the jeans in a washing machine – the equivalent to 6,700 glasses of drinking water!

Levi’s has recently completed a full life cycle assessment of their jeans and even the CEO came out saying that he hadn’t washed his in over a year! We’re not saying that your jeans should never see some soap and water, but if they get physically dirty, you can always spot clean them, or turn them inside out and wash them by hand in cold water.

Dry it Right

Drying your clothes in a tumble-dryer also contributes significantly to your impact – the average household runs their dryer 200 times a year. By hanging your clothes on a line or rack, you can save almost half a tonne of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Take a look at our Pinterest page to see some cool, space-saving ways to hang your clothes inside during Canada’s long, cold winters.

How you wash and dry your clothes also extends the life of your garments. For example, a main cause of “pilling” on knit fabrics is all the rubbing that happens in your washing machine. Handwashing (or a gentle cycle) can help prevent pilling. Hang-drying is also easier on your clothes, and the best way to avoid any chance of shrinking is to wash clothes in cold water and keep them out of the dryer.

Jessie O’Driscoll is a recent graduate from the Environment and Business program at the University of Waterloo. 

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