Garment laundry is an unspoken part of day-to-day life. Yet, the washing and drying of our clothes is for many garments the dominant stage of resource consumption and pollution in their life-cycle.
In a time where society needs to learn how to consume differently, understanding ways in which we, as designers, can reduce the use of energy and water is a pressing challenge. In the fashion sector, perhaps the best place to start is by looking at where the greatest consumption of these resources occurs. For the majority of clothes, the dominant stage of resource consumption and pollution in a garment life-cycle occurs during the everyday practice of laundry: the continual use of washing machines and tumble dryers. Take a pair of jeans for example: in all the stages they pass through in their lifecycle, over sixty per cent of energy consumption occurs directly from laundering.
Figure 1: Howies Hollie Jeans
Garment laundry has been the focal point of my design research over the past few years. At first, this seems like an awkward area for designers to work in: most people wash their clothes behind closed doors and in the privacy of their homes, and for the most part, laundry goes as an unspoken part of day-to-day life. It is routine and automatic behaviour. So how can designers be involved with, and influence, the inconspicuous, ordinary, collective and individual ways in which consumers choose to wash their clothes?
In this post and those following, I will be discussing some of the possible opportunities for designers to reduce the energy and water consumption incurred through garment laundry. This includes looking at current efforts, which are largely focused on improving the efficiency of laundry appliances, products and processes. In parallel, I’ll also be considering design solutions that stem from understanding laundry to be as much a socially constructed activity as it is a physical practice. After all, the reason we wash our clothes is not simply to remove dirt and odours: laundry behaviour is deeply influenced by cultural norms and social attitudes towards cleanliness. A recent survey showed that three quarters of adults put items in the wash to freshen them, even when they are not visibly dirty.
An obvious starting point for any designer to influence washing habits is through the recommendations on a garment care label. Whether consumers choose to follow this advice or not, care labels provide an expert guide for how a particular garment should be cleaned. For machine washable items, this is usually the highest temperature a garment can withstand in a washing machine before risk of damage. Yet as most of us are aware, higher temperature cycles use more energy to heat water than lower temperatures cycles. A simple way for designers to promote lower impact laundry is by using care labels to encourage cooler washes, air-drying over tumble-drying, and spot cleaning over washing the entire garment. This is a tactic that some designers are beginning to adopt. Swedish designer and brand Gudrun Sjödén encourage customers, through their care labels, to wash on lower temperatures and avoid tumble-drying. On their website they further suggest alternatives over washing such as airing and treating stains individually, and even, to wash clothes less often. Encouraging consumers to get a few more wear out of garments before putting them in the washing machine seems like a logical solution.
Figure 2: Advising lower temperature washing and no tumble-drying
For some garments, like denim jeans, it is certainly more socially acceptable to wash them less frequently than other items. Jeans are often designed with a pre-worn aesthetic, or designed to mould around us, and accumulate evidence and history of wear. Swedish brand Nudie Jeans are one of many brands that offer untreated, or ‘dry’ denim. They advise six months of wear before washing them to achieve a personal fit, and as Nudie Jeans explain on their swing tag, “…the longer you wear your jeans, the more attitude and character they acquire. You shape them with your lifestyle, and they become like a second skin.”
Figure 3: Nudie jeans advises six months of wear before washing
Social attitudes towards cleanliness have been little explored by those seeking to reduce the impact of laundry. Yet, if it is possible to let a pair of jeans forgo the washing basket for so long and embrace a worn and unwashed aesthetic to be normal, can designers apply this notion to other garments as well?
Daniel Larsson, Swedish designer and graduate from the University of Borås, thinks you can. In his recent work he explored ideas for sustainable clothing, which included the design of a white cotton shirt. Larsson set out to challenge aesthetics of cleanliness, and his shirt only became complete in design after 107 days of consecutive wear. Larsson explained, “the idea of the shirt was to examine when a garment becomes non-wearable because of dirt, smell or social codes.” At the beginning of the design phase the shirt was white and crisp, and appeared clean. At the end of the design phase the appearance of the shirt had of course changed to show evidence of wear. The original lustre of the material had dulled, the colour changed from white to grey and there was irregularity in tone. The drape of the material softened and the shape of the shirt became less defined. The shirt developed a mild odour, on which Larsson commented to me, “though the garment smelled, but in a quite gentle way, a smell that could be considered as my own smell. If this is to be seen as wearable or not depends on our perceptions of smells, if garments should smell of chemicals and perfume or body odours.”
Figure 4: Shirt made from discarded bed sheet and then worn for 107 days without washing (left image before four months wear, right image after four months wear)
The intentionally ‘used’ appearance that Daniel Larsson designed into the shirt added an aesthetic, which for most clothes, quite literally gets washed away. Larsson’s design highlighted a distinction between what is dirty and what simply appears as worn, and challenged the notion that for something to be clean, it should be without signs of wear. While Larsson’s shirt is not a commercially viable option, finding ways to reduce how and how often we launder our clothes through changing attitudes and beliefs of what is socially acceptable holds massive potential for integrating more sustainable and resource conserving behaviour into our everyday laundry routines. Larsson told me, “in the end it’s a conception of beauty, to find aesthetic values that are sustainable. Are we able to perceive this shirt as beautiful? I do…”
 Defra. (2009).Reducing the environmental impacts of clothes cleaning. London: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
 Caines, R. (2011).Laundry Habits – UK – November 2011. Mintel. [online]. http://academic.mintel.com/sinatra/oxygen_academic/search_results/show&/display/id=575171 [Accessed 4.5.2012]