Laundry Tips: Dos, Don’ts and Maybes
I recently bought a new-to-me pair of Levis at one of my favorite consignment stores.
When checking out the instruction tag (one of several, it turned out), I noticed the phrase: “Care for our planet: wash less, wash cold, line dry, donate or recycle.” Be still my sustainability-loving heart! I was inspired to write a blog post about that tag. I planned to call it “Laundry Tips that are Good for Clothes and Great for the Planet.”
As I began research, I found things were more complicated than I thought. It turns out, the “best” tips change, depending on what kind of fabric you are washing, your washing method, and your definitions of “sustainable.” Is it better to use less energy? Is it better to make the fabric last as long as possible?
I am going to cover some tips for all of these, but you, Dear Reader, will have to set your own priorities.
First, an example of the complications. Some sources, like this Treehugger article, recommend washing clothes in cold water for the energy savings. Makes sense to me! But then I found Patric Richardson, a Minnesota laundry expert (he calls himself the Laundry Evangelist), points out that most cold water wash cycles take over an hour. He makes the argument that using a short cycle with warm water uses less energy. Of course, the specific savings will depend on the age and type of washing machine you have, as well as the age/type of water heater.
Four Laundry Tips that are (probably) Good for Clothes and Great for the Planet
1. Don’t wash your clothes as often
Using any appliance less is going to be good for the environment. If you wear clothes made of microfleece, please consider this a special plea. Microfleece sheds an astonishing amount of microfibers made of polyester, acrylic, and nylon, that do not biodegrade. Instead, after going down the laundry drain, they eventually find their way into our water cycle. It’s literally a stream of plastic pollution that most of us are not aware of.
2. When you do wash, wash efficiently and effectively.
Read the tag! And if the tag is as confusing as the one pictured above, here is a key.
Some other tips:
Wash by hand if appropriate
Full loads only
Use eco friendly soap – see recipe below to make your own!
Minimize wear and tear on your clothes by using shorter washing times.
3. Skip the dryer
Speaking of less wear and tear--skipping the dryer not only saves energy, it is easier on your clothes to air dry them. Putting clothes on a drying rack also humidifies your house.
Putting clothes on the outdoor clothesline makes them smell amazing. Did you know you can put laundry outdoors year round? Here is our blog post with details on that. If you don't like how "crunchy" things get when they are air dried, you can always finish them in the dryer. I dry towels on the line and once they are dry or nearly dry, I toss them in the dryer for fluffing.
4. If you are using a dryer, skip the dryer sheets (or don’t – see below).
Dryer balls (I prefer ones made of wool) are a great alternative. Besides softening stuff in the dryer, the overall drying time is reduced.
In another example of complications, Patric Richardson recommends skipping fabric softeners and dryer sheets because both products put a layer of silicon or saturated fat to make it feel soft. This is the resulting feeling, but it can interfere with a fabric’s natural breathability and ability to wick moisture. Also, the layer interferes with stain removal.
You may be familiar with the use of dryer sheets to deter mice (in your car or indoor storage areas). Patric raises the question: if dryer sheets are seen as a deterrent for mice, why would you want them next to your clothes and by extension next to your skin (see 48:00 of this video).
Dryer sheets are most often made of polyester, so if your sustainability goals include fewer petroleum products, please be aware of that. But do you love your dryer sheets? For another perspective, the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University, has a blog post on the safety of dryer sheet ingredients.
Dive Even Deeper (into Laundry Suds)
Besides Patric Richardson, Minnesota is home to another great laundry resource, Pure Soap Flake Company. Christine Jones, the company’s founder, has created a knowledge bank of information on how to clean just about everything using natural ingredients. The company specializes in fair trade, plant-based, additive-free cleaning products (or ingredients to make your own cleaning products).
In 2020 Christine Jones teamed up with Patric Richardson for a virtual Back to Basics presentation on Sustainable Laundry. You can access the hour-long video below and the handout here. Christine's recipe for laundry powder is on page 5 of the handout.
But please be aware that while the video provides some great information, again the definitive answer about any product will depend on your own goals.
Through this adventure in sustainability, I am again reminded how each little step I take has a ripple effect for the environment. Something as seemingly mundane as laundry choices, added up over time, have real consequences…or benefits.