Sustainable Laundry Guide: The Planet Forward Way To Care For Your Clothes

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Even the most dedicated eco-warriors amongst us may not realize that how you wash, dry and care for your clothes has a significant impact on the climate. Our guide to sustainable laundry covers what you need to know.

By the time you reach the end of this sentence, roughly three more garbage trucks worth of clothes will have been dumped in the world’s landfills. That’s because, on average, 56 million tons of new clothes are bought every year, and while some will be cherished in wardrobes forever, many will end up in the trash. There, most leach microplastics into the earth and contribute to landfill emissions. 

The rate people purchase new garments simply isn’t sustainable. But it’s not entirely the consumer’s fault. Fast-fashion giants, which produce millions of garments every year, are constantly trying to get customers to buy new things all the time. Quite simply, this overproduction leads to overconsumption which leads to a heck of a lot of waste. But, as consumers, we have a choice. We can break out of this cycle and choose to buy less, and instead, take good care of the clothes we already have so that they stay out of landfill for longer. 

One key way to look after garments is to wash them carefully, which reduces fabric damage. But washing clothes can also hurt the planet, so it’s important to employ responsible laundry practices too. Here, we’ve put together some tips to keep in mind next time you head to load up the washing machine.

1. Wash less

We’re going to start with the easiest trick in the book. Simply wash your clothes less. While it’s nice to have clean clothes all the time, over-laundering them can cause more harm than good. This is because every time you wash a garment, the fibers are damaged a little bit more, which deteriorates the quality.  Washing less also cuts down on energy use and microplastic pollution.

Even top designers are advocates for less laundry time. In 2019, Stella McCartney told the Observer: “The rule on a bespoke suit is you do not clean it. You do not touch it. You let the dirt dry and you brush it off. Basically, in life, the rule of thumb: if you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t clean it. I wouldn’t change my bra every day and I don’t just chuck stuff into a washing machine because it’s been worn.”

A washing machine under the counter
Adding a microplastic filter to your washing machine can reduce pollution. | Courtesy of Rachel Claire via Pexels

2. Use a filter to reduce plastic pollution

Most clothing on the market is made with synthetic, plastic-based fibers, like polyester. And because of this, research suggests that just one wash cycle releases hundreds of thousands of microplastics into the waterways. There, they have a serious impact on wildlife and underwater ecosystems. 

But there are things that can be done to minimize the damage. Slovenian startup PlanetCare, for example, makes reusable filters that can be attached to washing machines to catch fibers as they are shed. The brand’s chief science officer told CNN: “Our approach is based on the fact that it is better to stop pollution at the source, which is the washing machine. Once you get fibers in the environment, I can’t imagine any way to get them back.” 

PlanetCare isn’t alone. Companies like AEG and Electrolux also offer filters, and even some washing machines, like this one from Arçelik, are now designed to capture microfibers. And in the UK, a proposed bill aims to make new washing machines with microplastic filters the norm.

But if a new appliance or filter is a little steep, other, more affordable options include Cora Ball’s laundry ball and Guppyfriend’s washing bag. Both are easy to use and effectively capture microplastics from synthetic fibers in the washing machine.

3. Choose the right detergent

Unfortunately, clothes aren’t the only part of the laundry process that shed microplastics. Last year, one study found that 75 percent of the plastic used in detergent pods enters the environment. And another study by Global2000 in 2019 found microplastics in 119 popular detergents. But there are options on the market that don’t contribute to plastic pollution. Products by Planet Pure, Ecover, Sodasan, Sonett, and Splendid were all tested as microplastic-free in Global2000’s research. 

And, while fast fashion is by far one of the biggest microplastic culprits, one major brand in the industry is taking baby steps to fix the problem with detergent. Zara recently announced the release of a new washing liquid, which will be available to buy from its Zara Home stores. It reportedly reduces the release of microfibers by up to 80 percent. Nonprofit Plastic Soup Foundation has praised the move but states more needs to be done by fast-fashion brands to reduce plastic pollution.

Founder Maria Westerbos said in a statement: “We are intrigued to learn more about what further steps will be taken, particularly concerning the issue of microfibre shredding in the whole product life cycle, and we are open to working together with them on this.”

detergent pods
Detergent pods are another source of plastic pollution. | Courtesy of Erik Binggeser via Unsplash

4. Wash by hand

As aforementioned, washing machines can damage the quality of clothes. But if you really need to get something clean, washing by hand is a much gentler option. And, not only is it easier on your garments, but it’s also better for the planet too. It uses considerably less energy, and, of course, less water too. (The average washing cycle uses between 33 liters and 72 liters of water!)

5. Wash with cold water

Another key way to make your clothes last longer is to pay attention to temperature. Cold water will help to make colors and darks last longer, as it prevents fading and discoloring. It’s also gentler on delicate materials, like satin or lace, for example, as hot water can shrink fibers. And, as another environmental bonus, cold water also uses far less energy. According to the Cleaning Institute, 90 percent of a washing machine’s energy is used to heat water.

clothes on the washing line
When the weather is right, skip the dryer and dry your clothes outside | Courtesy of Erik Witsoe via Unsplash

6. Skip the dryer

Tumble-drying clothes too often can also cause damage. In fact, research suggests this can shrink clothes twice as much as air-drying. So, while a dryer is great for those really cold days, if the weather is suitable, line-drying outside is a far gentler option.

It’s also better for the planet. According to research, the average tumble-drying cycle emits just under 2 kilograms of carbon dioxide. And they are yet another source of plastic pollution. According to one study from the City University of Hong Kong, just one tumble dryer can release around 120 million microfibers into the air every year.

7. Ditch the dry cleaner

And finally, while it can be tempting to take your clothes to the dry cleaner instead of washing them at home (particularly special items like formal dresses and suits), try to avoid the urge. This is because dry cleaners use harsh chemicals, like perchloroethylene, which is highly toxic to underwater ecosystems. And they’re also bad for humans. Perchloroethylene is even classified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as “likely to be carcinogenic.”

Instead, consider gently handwashing and line-drying, or use a steamer to minimize crinkles. Or, alternatively, simply buy fewer clothes that require dry cleaning.

Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Charlotte Pointing

    Charlotte Pointing is passionate about sustainability and specializes in beauty, fashion, and food content. She has spent 5 years writing and editing for leading sustainable media and has a degree in history and a postgraduate in cultural heritage.

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