You’re creating most of the carbon footprint of your clothes (without even realising it)

Jan 22, 2017 · 6 min read

t seems as though 80% of the carbon footprint of the clothes we buy happens once we’ve already bought them. That means we have an enormous power in our hands to make big changes with small gestures, but it also means that we’re not well informed about the environmental impact of clothes’ care.

Some important data:

If we consider the carbon footprint to be “the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product”, it wouldn’t be enough to analyze the data of washing machine consumption only. We’d need to go further and think of the environmental impact of the way we dry our clothes — although it’s not that common in Spain, in general 81% of washes are followed by a drying cycle. As well as the energy used for ironing, and all the resources related to producing and treating the detergents and softeners which we so frequently use.

A great number of detergents are petroleum-based products plus other substances such as phosphates or percarboroxylates. The process by which these are produced and the wastewater that comes from it seriously affect the aquatic flora and fauna through a harmful process known as eutrophication. Clothes softeners, on the other hand, are usually made with animal or plant fat which are considered, at face value, biodegradable (when the saturation of water is not too high). However, they all contain fragrances which are volatile organic chemicals (VOC), well known for their harmful effects on human health, and also for the gases they emit to the environment. We shouldn’t forget that clothes softeners are products that emerge dew to the use of detergent, as the main role of these is to eliminate and mask the chemicals of soap and return to textile its natural softness and flexibility.

We’d like to say that the harmful effects of laundry end here, but there’s still one more important source of pollution: the microfibers that come from clothes and which sewage treatment plants cannot effectively filter out. As we’ve mentioned in a previous post, an enormous amount of the textiles produced are petroleum-based. The microfibers that come off from these textiles with each wash (with acrylic being the one which loses the biggest amount), end up in the oceans and become part of what we know as microplastic. Once in the water, these fibers decompose and grow in surface, favouring the caption of harmful and polluting bacterias, but also feeding some of the fish served on our plates day after day.

According to a research team from the University of California at Santa Barbara a city of 100,000 inhabitants releases a wash-related volume of microfibers equivalent to 15,000 plastic bags. A city the size of Berlin may be responsible for 540,000 plastic bags — every single day. [Source:]

As a positive element to balance, there are initiatives such as the recent “Guppy Friend Wash Bag” which is a machine or hand wash bag capable of catching yet letting water and soap in perfectly.

Many awareness campaigns, such as the “turn to 30” one that took place in UK, have helped to minimize at least a slight bit the carbon footprint related to clothes care; nevertheless, it seems as if focusing our attention only on technological efficiency won’t be enough to save us from the enormous use of related resources. It has become essential to follow through a more extensive range of daily activities. Several bad habits related to clothes care are very common in family routines and we feel we the need to mention the most frequent ones in order to make a change:

  • An excessive frequency in washing: the majority of people are used to wearing clothes once or, at the most, twice before putting them to wash. Excluding underwear, this frequency of laundry is in general excessive for any kind of textile. By airing clothes appropriately or exercising that spot cleaner, we can significantly reduce the amount of washes we do a year.
  • Washing water temperature: very often we have a tendency to use hot water laundry programmes, which are around 60º C. As we’ve mentioned above, this requires a considerable amount of energy just to warm up the volume of water required. Nowadays, detergents are prepared to clean our clothes at cold water temperature (30º C), which means we can save a lot of energy. We’d also contribute to stretching the life-length of our clothes, as most fibres lose some of their qualities when reaching 60º C regularly.
  • Not separating clothes: it’s usual to wash all the dirty clothes in the laundry bag in a go without separating them by their characteristics or particular needs. This tends to damage clothes unnecessarily, since clothes with metal elements (such as zippers) can easily damage other textiles.
  • Incomplete wash loads: another common practice is to do incomplete machine loads. This is related to the fact that frequently we tend to wash our clothes the moment the laundry bag is full without considering the size of our washing machine or because when separating our clothes, there’s not enough to fill a load. The first case is linked to the lack of design involved in this daily activity, given that there are so many households without an adequate space for used clothes. Although it’s true that some current washing machines weigh clothes to calculate the amount of water and energy used in each wash, most of us will still have to wait a few years to renew our own machines and sign up for this novel trend.
  • Redundant use of detergent or clothes softener: let’s be honest, we’ve all at some point made the mistake of using a bit more detergent because our clothes were dirtier than usual, or to use more clothes softener expecting a stronger scent on our clean clothes. This is a very common mistake and, because of it, it’s advisable to remind us all that none of these habits are correct. Neither is more detergent going to clean our clothes better nor ir excessive clothes softener going to make it even softer. Moreover, too much clothes softener can not only clog our washing machines, but also leave some stains on our clothes. A very high percentage of people relate clean clothes with the smell of the detergent/softener they use and this is another reason for which we tend to do more laundry a week than necessary. Given the negative effects we’ve already mentioned regarding VOC, an easy and immediate solution is to use white vinegar rather than clothes softener in our wash cycles. Vinegar balances water pH helping to eliminate the remaining detergent and giving its natural softness back to clothes. On the other hand, by using concentrated detergents we contribute to reducing the environmental impact because of lessening the amount of containers and transport involved in our yearly washes.
  • Drying methods: as we have mentioned previously, although in Spain this is not a very common practice, in many other places each washing load is followed by a drying cycle. Not only is the energy required by the dryer really high, the temperature reached in it is also very harmful for most textiles, cutting their life-length substantially. We are aware, though, of the difficulties that may come with hanging your clothes to dry due to the contemporary tendency of living in every time smaller places. Once again, this problem is related to the lack of design involved. However, some initiatives do exist, for example in Sweden, which promote collective hanging areas. We shouldn’t forget, anyhow, that this is a very common and ancient tradition in Andalusian dwellings which, in addition, favours socialising within the community.

In conclusion, numerous tools exist to make a considerable change on the environmental impact of our clothes, starting with small variations in our daily routine. Although it’s very important to take into consideration the emissions and waste produced by our laundry, it’s just as important to be aware that good washing habits can extend the life-length of our garments considerably. Thus paying off a little bit more for the resources that have been invested in our clothes. Soon we will bring you some more specific tricks related to taking care of each kind of textile, keep tuned!


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