Few people realise that the largest consumption of energy in the life-cycle of a garment is actually after we purchase clothing and start wearing it. Simply put, washing something repeatedly eventually adds to the total energy expended. In fact it is estimated that up to 75% of energy expenditure of a garments life is from washing our clothes.
While some of the energy expended from washing clothing is justified, truthfully we all wash our clothes too much. An Australian Report on garments and carbon mapping emphatically states we wash our clothes more than necessary. The result of over washing clothing impacts the environment, through increased water consumption, introducing chemicals in washing detergent into the environment and increasing demand on energy sources.
Some of the attitudes regarding washing clothing has largely come from the old adage “cleanliness is next to godliness.” While you may scoff at this idea, the belief before the 1950's was that those whose clothing was dirty were more likely to contract sickness due to poor hygiene habits. Once the washing machine was invented people washed their clothes more frequently, and now we mostly wash our garments out of habit.
So how often should we be actually washing our garments? This entirely depends on the type of clothing you’re wearing and the activities you partake in while wearing them. A study by Tullia Jack, an RMIT PhD student, asked thirty people to wear a pair of jeans for thirty days straight without washing them. What was interesting is that by the end of the experiment that jeans weren’t noticeably unwashed or dirty. Another experiment by a Canadian university student discovered the levels of bacteria were unchanged in a washed pair of jeans and a pair which have been worn and unwashed for several months. Even earlier this year Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh has expressed that his jeans only need to be washed yearly, if that. These stories really emphasise that unless we are active or the clothing is visibly dirty, it doesn’t need to be washed.
Fabric innovations are moving towards self-cleaning properties and while this is still being developed it is likely to be used in garment construction within our lifetime. Until then, we can all help reduce our energy consumption. The biggest change people can make to reduce energy use is to wash with cold water. All garments can be washed in cold water, however not all garments can be washed in warm or hot water as it can cause dyes to run or fade and fibres to shrink or change. Not only will changing the settings on the washing machine prolong the life of your clothing and save the environment it will also save you money. Yup, using cold water reduces the electricity used and saves you money on your power bill. Other important changes is to use a line to dry clothing and to switch to a biodegradable washing powder. Combining these simple changes with wearing our clothing for longer in between washes can make a positive difference.