In my last post I discussed clothes washing. I described a move towards less resource intensity via changes in laundry practices: through lower temperature washing, and more radically, through reducing the frequency of washing by challenging our conceptions of cleanliness. There are, of course, a myriad of other creative ways that designers can respond to and engage with laundry as a resource heavy practice. However, this is still a little explored area by garment and textile designers, in comparison to developments in clothes cleaning technologies. For successful design strategies to take hold they must be rooted in an understanding of laundry behaviour, particularly, what motivates us to decide when and how we clean our clothes.
In this post I will be digging a little bit deeper into laundry behaviour. I’ll be touching on habits and conventions, and how they relate to products and appliances to form part of our laundry routines. This will help to unpack where opportunities lie for designers to steer laundry in more sustainable directions. To bring these ideas to life, I have spoken to Unilever scientist Gareth Thomas. Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, and provides some of our most familiar laundry products, such as Persil, Comfort and Surf. They have wide and extensive experience in matters relating to laundry behaviour.
Image 1: Line drying
As part of Unilever’s approach to reducing environmental impacts associated with the products they provide, they have developed a sustainable living plan. Part of the foundation for this is taking responsibility for how consumers actually use the company’s products.  Gareth Thomas outlined three key areas that Unilever has focused on. He explained to me that they are promoting cold machine washing to “…save energy used per wash cycle, reduce energy costs to the consumer and possibly increase the lifetime of their washing machine”. To reduce water usage when hand washing Gareth explained that Unilever has been focusing on reducing rinsing where a lot of fresh water is used, “we already have One Rinse fabric conditioner product in several markets which provides the same fabric conditioner benefits in the first rinse/wash load.” And finally to reduce the environmental impact of cleaning products themselves, Unilever have developed more concentrated products to reduce detergent dosage and “…minimise packaging waste and reduce the energy consumed shipping the product to the retail stores.”
It’s not just Unilever that is making efforts to save water and energy. Across the white goods market, technology has been invested into creating more resource efficient washing machines with shorter and lower temperature wash cycles. Some models even have specific ‘eco cycles’. While this technology allows for comparatively lower impact cleaning, we need to bear in mind that their benefits largely depend on consumers changing their washing behaviour. And of course, encouraging different patterns of behaviour is a lot more complex.
So let’s take a slightly closer look at behaviour. Beyond simply ‘doing the laundry’, our behaviour is deeply engrained with habits and conventions. Behaviour is learnt, developed and refined through experience and convenience. This is further influenced and reinforced by our values and the meanings we attach to having clean clothes. We develop very personal preferences for how frequently we expect particular garments to be washed. Over time we accumulate knowledge of the best way to clean certain garments and textiles: hand wash, dry clean or machine wash, and what temperature and which cycle to choose. We share collective understandings that some garments, such as underwear, need to be washed after every use. For other garments different rules and notions apply that may delay washing, such as in the case of a pair of jeans. All of these elements, and many more, come together to shape our clothes cleaning behaviour.
As such, laundry behaviour is intricate and not easy to change. Gareth Thomas is part of Unilever’s behaviour and cognition team. He confirmed that behaviour is indeed one of the key challenges in encouraging more sustainable laundry practices. For Unilever, in the case of detergents with low temperature cleaning power, Gareth explained, “the challenges are to get consumers to change their behaviour and convince them the products can deliver the same performance at lower temperatures.”
To change behaviour, as designers we need to tap into some of the elements that influence it. Recent studies give some insight into how we can ‘unstick’ behaviour. A group of researchers based in Norway have been looking for opportunities in environmental improvements in laundry. They believe that the benefits of technological improvements in laundry products and appliances are outweighed by the continual increase of the amount of washing loads carried out.
They suggest that one of the most feasible and efficient ways to change behaviour lies in the selection of fibres used for clothing. Further Norwegian research shows that consumers use woollen garments for longer between washes than similar garments in cotton. This is due to the inherent dirt repellence of wool, its high absorbency levels (reducing odours) and antibacterial properties. In some cases, washing can be replaced by airing, and further, wool is washed on low temperatures and short cycles. As such, energy and water use in cleaning wool is much less than other for fibres.
Choosing wool over other fibres is a fairly straightforward solution and one that designers can have much influence over. As with all fibres, the production of wool impacts on the environment in different ways, and wool production is hugely diverse across countries and regions. As a global industry, the environmental impact of wool is mainly assessed in partial life cycle stages, usually the on-farm stage, which makes it difficult to account for all lifecycle stages including use. While the scouring or cleaning of wool for textile production is a highly polluting process, the environmental benefits wool can offer during clothes cleaning may create a worthwhile trade off. Best practices for designers when choosing wool is to select local if possible, organically grown, and wool that has been scoured in factories with modern and proficient effluent treatment plants.
Image 2: Designing with organic Faroese wool
Over in the Faroe Islands, fashion label Gudrun & Gudrun has been creating something of a buzz recently. They use organic, untreated and undyed wool for making traditional and also cutting edge knitted garments. The wool they use is an unwanted by-product, and comes from the free roaming Faroese sheep. Most of their pieces are hand knit by Faroese and Jordanian women. They embed ideas of slow fashion into their label, which follows through into how the garments are cleaned. I asked Gudrun Rógvadottir, co-founder of Gudrun & Gudrun how she advises on washing pieces. She told me, “I am only washing my Faroese sweaters a couple of times a year. The reason is that there is a lot of natural oils in the Faroese wool - because the sheep are in the mountains all year round, they develop the lanolin for protection. I hang them outside in the wind - good if it's a bit wet - and then I just shake the water out of it. When I wash them, it's hand wash with wool-soap. Flat dry - I do it on a warm floor...”
Image 3: Jumper by Gudrun & Gudrun. Traditional hand knit sweater made from 100% untreated and undyed Faroese wool.
Image 4: Jumper by Gudrun & Gudrun. Winter 2012 collection.
Meanwhile in Sweden, MASKA is a knitwear company that also resonates with ideas of slow fashion. They work independently of traditional fashion seasons to increase the longevity of their products. Their pieces are unique, and made in collaboration with artisan spinners and dyers. The majority of their products are made from wool with hand knitting machines, and they advise seldom washing. Maria Svensson, co-founder of MASKA told me, “we love wool because it is a material that holds shape and colour, keeps both warm and cool and has an incredible lustre. For us it is the best textile material in the world. And it requires washing very rarely as you know. And when you wash it is with low temperature. Myself I wash my wool sweaters about once a year.”
Image 5: Jumper by MASKA. Mille, hand dyed by Swedish textile artist Jeanette Schäring, 100% extrafine wool super 120’s. Dyed with tea, woad and madder.
Of course neither of these designers set out with the explicit intention to reduce the usage of energy and water when clothes are washed. Yet through their material choices and models of production, the garments they design and produce encourage a move towards slower laundry routines. Undeniably, the challenge that we face is in creating a large-scale transition towards the reduction of resources used during laundry. Encouraging a shift towards the greater use of wool in the fashion and textiles industry as a whole has great potential to change laundry behaviour. Wool is a widely available material, and it’s potential for environmental gains during garment laundry are underexploited. Simply using more wool could be part of the solution in aiding a fall in the use of resources. Designers like Gudrun & Gudrun and MASKA, and many more like them, offer us alternative models of fashion production and consumption. They can provide design approaches towards a more ultimate goal, which is to bring design strategies into the mass market, to encourage a broader movement of lower impact laundry behaviour.
 Unilever,Sustainable living plan (undated), http://www.unilever.co.uk/sustainable-living/uslp/ (Accessed 15.1.2013).
 Boks, C., Klepp I.G., & Laitala, K., 2011. Potential for environmental improvements in laundering. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 35 (2), pp.254-264.
 Eilertsen, K., Kjeldsberg, M., Klepp I.G., & Laitala, K., 2011. Consumers’ wool washing habits – and opportunities to improve them. National Institute for Consumer Research. Project note 8-2011. Available at: http://www.sifo.no/files/file77731_prosjektnotat_nr_8-2011.pdf (Accessed 5.12.2012).