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Emma Rigby
University of the Arts London

7 May 2013

Most of us like our clothes to be clean and smell fresh, and for many of us, it would be unthinkable to wear clothes that weren’t. Indeed, wearing unclean clothes is often seen as a social faux pas, which breaks the rules of our cultural etiquette. Though this hasn’t always been the case: wearing freshly laundered clothes everyday is a relatively new phenomenon. Yet our creeping laundry standards come at a high environmental cost.

Emma Rigby

Posted on 7 May 2013 by Emma Rigby in:
Design to Reduce Energy & Water Use

One of the many joys about fashion is that it’s an outlet for expression and a process for different kinds of creativity. In my previous posts, I have discussed some of the many ways that designers and industry alike are applying creativity to encourage lighter, slower and more sustainable laundry routines. These approaches have mainly been developed independently by designer or industry and seek to influence specific parts or stages of laundry. Yet, laundry is an intrinsically interconnected system, influenced and defined by many elements. Not least, the type and quantity of clothes that we wash, the textiles that they are made from, the appliances that we use (and their range of settings and cycles), and the cultural systems that influence our preferences for how often clothes should be cleaned.

In this final post, I will be discussing some more revolutionary design approaches that emerge at the intersection of collaboration between different stakeholders in the laundry system. One such example of collaboration is the ‘Shower Clean Suit’, which was developed by leading Japanese suit retailer Konaka, in conjunction with designer Kansai Yamamoto and London Savile Row tailor John Pearse. As its name suggests, the suit has been designed so that it can be rinse cleaned in the shower, negating the need for detergents, dry cleaning and the related use of polluting chemicals. It is made from a lightweight wool material with many tiny cavities – allowing water to easily pass through the material and removing dirt in the process. After the suit has been rinsed in the shower, it dries quickly overnight without any wrinkles and is ready to be worn again the next day. The suit primarily responds to cultural needs for time and convenience.

The value in this idea for environmental gains is that it addresses the needs of a large group of people that frequently wear professional work attire. It applies technology creatively to develop a different system of cleaning (without dry cleaning or washing machines) that can be easily incorporated into day-to-day living and working routines. The Shower Clean Suit has been such a success with customers, Konaka has expanded the Shower Clean Series to include suits for women, as well as shirts, ties and even shower clean shoes.[1]

Catalytic Clothing is another example of a project that is developing innovative concepts for laundry through its collaborative and multidisciplinary approach. Led by artist and designer Helen Storey, and chemist Tony Ryan, Catalytic Clothing brings together fashion, art and science. The project explores how clothing and textiles can be used as a ‘catalytic surface to purify air’, and taps into the potential of using titanium dioxide as a photocatalyst which, when exposed to light and air, reacts to break down some air borne pollutants. 

Image 1: Field of Catalytic Jeans, credit: DED Design

While the project is still in progress, one of the outcomes was the textile installation ‘Field of Jeans’. The jeans were treated with titanium dioxide, and as air passed by the jeans it became purified as some pollutants were broken down.

The team have also designed the ‘Red Planet’ dress and ‘Herself’ dress, pre-treated to purify the air around them.

Image 2: Air purifying Red Planet dress, by Prof Helen Storey and Prof Tony Ryan, credit: Shaun Blood

Image 3: Helen Storey and Tony Ryan with dress ‘Herself’, credit: Gavin Duthie

For laundry, some exciting implications emerge from Catalytic Clothing. I spoke to Helen Storey to get a better understanding of what these are. Aside from cleaning and freshening our clothes, laundering could also be a process of treating clothes to become ‘carriers’ of this air purifying technology. When clothes are worn they would then have the added benefit of purifying the air they move through. Helen explained, ‘Catalytic Clothing could radicalise clothes people already own’. She said, ‘it’s the movement of many people walking together that benefits and activates Catalytic Clothing. It’s an altruistic act for the benefit of everyone, it’s about working in a collective manner’. There is certainly something beautiful about the notion of shared action to benefit the common good.    

Admittedly, to make a significant improvement to air quality, many people would need to be wearing treated clothes. Estimates suggest for every meter of pavement width, 30 people wearing treated clothes would need to walk past each minute.[2] In overcrowded and polluted cities, this idea could make a significant improvement to air quality. But in parallel, would it also encourage more washing to maximise the purifying effect? Helen explained, ‘laundering the clothes more often would have no added effect to the efficacy of the product – early estimates suggest people might wash their clothes every few months to keep them active at most.’

The idea of Catalytic Clothing has much potential. In a future scenario, the added purifying benefits gained though laundering may need to be weighed up along side the impacts of actual laundering processes. Though, perhaps another question to keep in mind is: in bolstering the idea of clothes as purifying agents, could this interfere with how people gauge clothing hygiene and exaggerate expectations for ‘appropriately’ clean clothing, encouraging an overall increase in laundering?

In any area of design, collaborations stretch the boundaries of possibility, and bring about novel results that cannot be reached by one party alone.  With designing to reduce the impact from laundry in mind, collaborations between designers and other industry stakeholders can result in projects that help to join the gaps between design, technology and behaviour. And in doing so, solutions become more potent because they address more of the elements that define laundry, and laundry related routines. Many of these solutions are already in development, and some are already in use. Approaching laundry challenges collaboratively, and bringing together expertise from wider disciplines, is often where the most imaginative and innovative solutions lie.

[1] http://www.konaka.co.jp/item/01a/details.html

[2] http://catalytic-clothing.org/faq.html