The Decider: Laundry and Detergent

The Decider looks beyond greenwashing to help you make sustainable decisions.

T-shirts and bed linens hang on a line stretched between two old buildings, under a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds.
Photo by Erik Witsoe via Unsplash

The modern washing machine was a transformational invention. On one hand, it freed women from spending hours on a thankless chore. On the other, it’s a key element in a water- and energy-hungry system with a huge environmental footprint.

Washing a pair of Levi’s jeans, for example, accounts for 58% of the energy and 45% of the water used during the product’s lifetime, according to an analysis by the company. In fact, Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh recommends never machine-washing jeans, in part because of the negative environmental impact.

For frequently washed garments like cotton underwear and T-shirts, as much as 80% of the energy and 60% of the water used during the garment’s lifetime is consumed during the use phase, according to Dr. Kate Fletcher, professor of sustainability, design and fashion at University of the Arts London’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. It’s a “surprisingly high” number, she explains, when you consider the range of activities involved in the life cycle of a cotton T-shirt, including growing the fibre, spinning it into thread, knitting it into a textile, dyeing it, sewing a garment, getting it to customers, washing and wearing it, and throwing it away.

As much as 80% of the energy and 60% of the water used during a frequently washed garment’s lifetime is consumed during the use phase.

In addition, many laundry detergents contain chemicals that are harmful to human health and the environment. For example, 1,4-Dioxane — a chemical in some detergents that has been linked to cancer — contaminates the drinking water of millions of Americans, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Other ingredients found in detergents disrupt the hormones of fish and affect their ability to reproduce. Such chemicals — along with microplastics released when synthetic clothes are washed — flow into wastewater streams that ultimately drain into lakes, rivers and oceans.

A little alarmed? I certainly am. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to decrease the load your laundry places on the environment.

Launder less and launder smart

“Only wash things when they’re properly dirty,” advises Fletcher, who notes that people often throw clothes in the laundry basket out of habit, rather than because they’re smelly or visibly dirty. Instead, she suggests doing a “sniff test” to check if clothes really need a wash before you wear them again. She also recommends spot-cleaning clothes, and freshening them in other ways — like hanging them in a room filled with shower steam — so you can wash them less often.

You can further minimize energy use by turning down the water temperature on washing machines, washing full loads, and avoiding the tumble dryer in favor of hang drying, adds Fletcher. “Generally, it’s the same amount of water and energy that’s used for a half-full load as for a full load.”

Fletcher also recommends avoiding fabric softeners because “they coat the fibres” in clothing and prevent “the release of any stale smells.” As a result, when the scent of fabric softener fades, garments smell like they haven’t been washed at all — causing people to launder their clothes more often.

Look for a detergent that publishes its ingredients

Once you’ve got that properly dirty full load, it’s time to add detergent. There are a number of factors to consider — starting with ingredients.

But seeking out eco-friendly ones is trickier than it appears. In North America, many major detergent brands don’t bother providing a full list of ingredients on the packaging, nor do they disclose a full list of ingredients to the public on their websites. Unlike the European Union — where detergent companies must publish a list of ingredients — regulations in the US and Canada don’t require companies to do so. Instead, they’re required to print warnings about hazardous ingredients.

But that’s not enough information to know how the detergent could impact your health or the environment, according to Munu Hicken-Gaberria, CEO of Vancouver-based green cleaning-product manufacturer Live for Tomorrow. He recommends consumers begin by checking if the brand they’re using prints a full list of ingredients. If it doesn’t, he says, seek out one that does, and review that list.

Unlike the European Union — where detergent companies must publish a list of ingredients — regulations in the US and Canada don’t require companies to do so.

“In the same way that we want to know what’s in our food, we should want to know what’s in our products,” he explains. “Most people don’t understand that the biggest organ that we have is our skin. And most of these products… leave residue.”

You can look up the ingredients in specific products using resources like the Good Guide, and EWG’s Skin Deep database and Healthy Living app. The David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) has also published a guide on the health risks of chemicals commonly found in household products.

For example, the DSF’s guide outlines that synthetic fragrances found in laundry detergents often trigger allergies in humans and harm the environment once they’re in the wastewater stream. Scientists have found fish in the Great Lakes with high concentrations of synthetic musk chemicals that are toxic to aquatic life. Similarly, the guide explains that diethanolamine (DEA), an ingredient used in soaps and laundry detergent, has been linked to various health concerns, including liver cancer, and is toxic to marine organisms.

Choose a concentrated, eco-friendly detergent

When it comes to the environment, it’s best to seek out biodegradable detergents and stay away from petroleum-based ones, adds Hicken-Gaberria. That’s because any product you use will go down the drain, polluting water sources and damaging the health of marine life. Sourcing petroleum-based ingredients may results in lower emissions than plant-based ones, but petroleum derivatives accumulate in the environment and have long-term consequences for aquatic ecosystems, where they take years to biodegrade.

Even so, picking an eco-friendly detergent can be tricky, and it’s important to be on guard for greenwashing. Many companies make environmentally friendly claims, Hicken-Gaberria warns, but if they don’t print their ingredients or are vague about them, it’s hard to hold them to account. For example, some companies advertise plant-based products, but they could contain petrochemicals too.

Some companies advertise plant-based products, but they could contain petrochemicals too.

A better bet is to take a look at the standards a company uses to assess its eco-friendliness. Live for Tomorrow, Hicken-Gaberria’s company, uses ingredients that are biodegradable according to standards set by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Their products are also certified by Ecologo, a third-party certification for products that meet relatively strict environmental standards. Other standards you can look for include Green Seal certification, and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label.

You can also choose to steer clear of detergents containing palm oil, which has been linked to extensive tropical deforestation. This helpful article by Rainforest Action Network provides a list of names under which palm oil can be found in ingredient lists.

Finally, Hicken-Gaberria recommends seeking out concentrated detergents, as the extra volume in conventional products is usually water. “In a given year, if you use 20 products, you may be using 20 litres of water that you don’t really need,” he explains. “When you multiply that amongst a million people or 10 million people, that starts adding up.”

Think about packaging and format

When it comes to sustainability, it’s also important to think about packaging, says Linh Truong, co-founder of Vancouver’s Soap Dispensary, which sells refillable toiletries and household cleaners to customers who bring their own containers. She recommends cutting down on waste by refilling detergent containers at bulk stores.

“If you can’t refill, then buy the most sustainable packaging,” she continues. Truong recommends aluminum and glass over plastic; failing that, she suggests splitting one large plastic container among friends rather than buying many little ones. “If you go to Costco and buy a gigantic 10L container and then you split it amongst yourselves, you are saving on packaging, you’re saving on gas, you’re saving on money.”

Truong also recommends consumers consider lightweight powder detergents — which produce a lower carbon footprint when transported than heavy liquids — or consider making their own.

Watch what you wear

Even after following the advice above, washing your clothes can harm the environment in other ways. Synthetic materials like polyester, rayon, and nylon release tiny microplastic fibres into wastewater streams that ultimately end up in the environment.

A single fleece, for example, can release upwards of 1,900 microplastic fibres per wash. Such microplastics can take centuries to biodegrade, and during that time they accumulate toxins that make their way into the food web.

You can filter for microplastics using products like the Cora Ball, which attracts microfibres, and Guppy Friend, a bag that filters them out of laundry water. However, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion’s Fletcher says the best solution may be to minimize washing synthetics, and avoid purchasing the soft, distressed fabrics that are the worst offenders.

A single fleece can release upwards of 1,900 microplastic fibres per wash.

When it comes to laundering, some types of clothes are likely to have smaller environmental impact than others, adds Fletcher. For example, a business suit that’s only cleaned a handful of times, but used for several years, is likely to have a smaller negative environmental impact than a frequently worn cotton T-shirt.

For this reason, avoiding fabrics that require more washing has the potential to help reduce your environmental footprint. “One of the ways to reduce the environmental impact of laundering is to wear darker shades,” explains Fletcher, who notes that pale and white clothes are more likely to look dirty and, therefore, be washed more often.

In addition, avoiding jeans and other clothes with elastane that need washing to recover their shape can also help, says Fletcher. “No one wants them to be saggy on the bum. We like a svelte silhouette.”

As with most aspects of modern life, there’s an environmental price to maintaining an elegant silhouette and looking fresh. At least with planning and consideration, we can reduce the size of that price tag.

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.