Last updated on January 28, 2024.
Have you ever struggled to figure out how to do the laundry without hurting the environment? Do you want your clothes to last longer? It is a challenge, one I’ve been figuring out for years. Here are ways you can practice environmentally friendly laundry habits that will allow you to wear your wardrobe for a long time.
First, Wash Your Clothes Less
Many sustainable fashion experts tell us to launder as little as possible. “If a garment has had no contact with sweat and isn’t stained, you can wear it multiple times before you need to wash it. Repeated laundering breaks down the fibers and fades colors, making garments look old and worn more quickly.”1 You can wear some clothes several times before they need washing. There are ways to “freshen” clothes without washing them. Any time you can avoid washing clothing saves time, energy, money, and water. It also protects our water from pollutants and chemicals.
“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet2
In 2014, the CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, said that jeans should never be machine washed, admitting that he hadn’t machine washed his jeans in more than a year. When he does wash them, he handwashes and hangs them up to air dry. Bergh argued that not using the washing machine keeps jeans in mint condition and is better for the environment.3
Washing Our Clothes Sheds Microfibers
A 2016 Plymouth University study found that more than 700,000 fibers were released during a thirteen-pound load of laundry, with fleece releasing the most.4 In 2017, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from laundering synthetic fabrics.5
Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, noted that fleece, as in a fleece jacket or those cheap $4 blankets at big box stores, is one of the biggest villains. That fabric is made from used water bottles, the clear ones with the #1 RIC symbol. While recycling is important, washing fleece releases large numbers of microfibers into water, and eventually the ocean.6
Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microfibers. These fibers do not decompose or biodegrade. When the microfibers travel through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, “the vast majority of fibers (somewhere between 75 and 99 percent) settle into the sludge…sludge from wastewater treatment plants can be used as agricultural fertilizer, and it is slathered…onto fields.” From there it can get into the soil, groundwater, or grazing animals that are later consumed by people.7
“Tiny particles of plastic have been found everywhere — from the deepest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the top of Mount Everest. And now more and more studies are finding that microplastics, defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters across, are also in our bodies…In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood.”8
How to Stop Microfibers from Entering Water Systems
The most obvious solution is to stop washing so many synthetic fabrics by buying fewer synthetic clothing items. For those items you do own already, there are a few solutions:
- The Guppyfriend bag is designed to prevent microfiber pollution. It is a zippered bag that you place synthetic clothing into and then put into the washing machine with everything else. The microfibers that shed collect at the edges of the bag, which you can scoop out and throw in the garbage. This prevents the microfibers from getting into the water. Alexander Nolte, co-founder of Guppyfriend, said that “the bag is designed in a way which prevents fibers from breaking in the first place. So, it’s not about what you find in the bag, it’s what you do not find in the bag. Whatever you wash inside the bag has a longer lifetime.”9
- The Cora Ball is a ball that you toss into the washing machine with your clothes. It helps prevent shedding and collects microfibers that you can remove and throw into the garbage. I have not personally tried this yet.
- PlanetCare is a washing machine attachment with filters that the company claims to collect 90% of microfibers. Each filter comes with reusable cartridges that you replace once they’re full of microfibers. You can return the cartridges to the company so they can refurbish them for future use. I haven’t tried this yet either.
While these solutions are thoughtful and probably work well, they come at your own expense. Does it make sense to buy cheap clothing only to have to spend money trying not to pollute the water with them?
“In 2017, Greenpeace found microfibers in the waters of Antarctica.”10
Do Laundry Better
I am not a laundry expert, but I certainly do a lot of laundry for my family! Many of the tips in the following section came from sustainable clothing writers, including Zoe Edwards (Mend It, Wear It, Love It!), Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald (Modern Mending), Elizabeth L. Cline (The Conscious Closet), and Sophie Benson (Sustainable Wardrobe).
Except for undergarments or sweaty clothes, wash clothes less and not after every wear. Airing out will sometimes be enough to remove odors (like from a restaurant or campfire). If it’s only a spot that’s dirty, spot clean with a damp cloth and mild soap (like hand soap). This is better for the garment than a full wash. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that undergarments or “anything that sits next to your crotch, armpits, feet…and comes into close contact with sweat and skin is a good candidate for regular washing.” Clothing worn over undergarments and clothing that doesn’t cling to your body can be washed far less frequently.
Sometimes the cheapest clothing requires the most expensive care. “Polyester, nylon, and blended fibers with a heavy percentage of synthetics attract odors, meaning so-called easy-care synthetics have to be washed more often.” Wearing more natural materials can help you reduce washing.11
Wash items inside out to reduce wear and pilling; fasten zippers and undo buttons before washing to prevent damage. Turn delicate clothes inside out.
Always separate lights and darks.
Empty and check pockets – especially children’s clothing!
Use cold water – it is gentler on clothes, prevents shrinkage, saves energy, and is better for the environment. According to Energy Star, heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy used when running a washer, so the less hot water used, the more energy saved.12 Also, be sure to not overload the machine, because clothes need to be able to move around.
You can neutralize odors by hanging something outside or in the sunlight for a few hours. Hanging items in the shower allows the steam to remove odors and can release wrinkles too.
“For garments that need a little deodorizing, lightly spritz the fabric with vodka to kill off odor-causing bacteria; just don’t use it on delicate fabrics like silk. Direct sunshine is also nature’s disinfectant, keeping clothing free from dust mites and odors. Expose each side of the garment for thirty minutes.” –13
The heat and friction from dryer heat weaken and break down fibers, eventually ruining your clothes. It also causes shrinking and fading. Air drying, especially outdoors, is the best method. You can use dryer racks if you don’t have a clothesline. The sun acts as a disinfectant, whitener, and odor remover. But even indoor air drying on a drying rack is better for your clothes. You can add half a cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle as a fabric softener, but avoid conventional products. Read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets.
When you handwash, hang lightweight items up to drip dry, but lay heavier articles on a towel so that they retain their shape and don’t stretch.
“Hanging clothes outside on a line or drying rack, whenever possible, will do wonders for the longevity of your clothing, and significantly lessen their environmental impact.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!14
The energy use of dryers is enormous! “Clothes dryers consume more energy than any other household appliance. In the United States, dryers consume 60 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.” In many other countries, clothes dryers are not a common household appliance. Only one-third of the British own one.15
“Air-drying clothes reduces the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year.” -National Geographic16
Clothing Care Labels:
Read clothing labels but use your best judgment. Cline wrote, “The problem with care labels is that they describe the washing conditions a garment can withstand, rather than the ideal care methods. A care label’s instructions, from advertisements on heat settings to the use of bleach, are a garment’s maximum tolerance, not a recommendation.” For example, “a recommendation to ‘machine wash warm’ doesn’t indicate that a warm wash is required, only that your garment can withstand warm water without shrinking.”17 Below is a handy chart that explains the symbols on clothing labels:
Anything marked ‘dry clean only’ needs to be handled with care, and special items, such as mattress covers, and outdoor or technical gear usually have very specific care guidelines that you should follow.18 Avoid buying ‘dry clean only’ clothing as much as possible. The cleaning process uses a lot of chemicals, some toxic, that end up in our water and environment. Also, plastic-film dry-cleaning bags add 300 million pounds of waste to US landfills each year.19
Ironing can damage clothing over time, so taking clothing out of the washer as soon as possible is the best way to prevent wrinkling. If you do have to iron, check the clothing label and match your iron setting to the correct setting for that fabric, so that you don’t damage it. Also, iron inside out or use a pressing cloth when possible to further protect your clothing. Sophie Benson wrote that if you iron in batches, “it’s best to order your ironing pile from coolest to hottest, that way you’re not switching between temperatures and there’s no risk of accidentally putting a hot iron on a delicate fabric.”20
Read my article on using an ironing mat if you don’t have an ironing board.
Treat stains as soon as possible, as the longer they sit the better they set. Use a small amount of laundry detergent and cold water to remove the stain. Avoid over-rubbing because that can discolor clothing permanently. I personally use a stain stick that is quite effective, and I’ve had the same one for years!
For oily stains, blot up liquid by sprinkling baking soda or cornstarch, brush off, then apply liquid detergent to the stain and let it sit for a few hours.
Never tumble dry clothing that is potentially stained, since it will permanently set the stain. Hang dry first so you can see if the stain is visible.
If you cannot remove a stain, consider dyeing the garment. This is a great way to extend the life of an article of clothing. Natural dyes have a lower environmental impact. Even tie-dying is a good way to revive old clothing! If there is a small mark or stain, consider covering it with some simple, discreet embroidery. Use online tutorials to find simple flower or shape motifs.21
Commercial detergents can be laden with chemicals and toxins that you should avoid. Plus companies package detergents in large plastic bottles. However, DIY laundry detergents can be tricky to make and use, and are not always recommended. Since this is a huge topic on its own, please read my article on Non-Toxic and Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents.
Your Clothes Will Last Longer
Our clothing and other textiles will last a lot longer if we take better care of them, especially when it comes to laundry care. And we can be better stewards of the environment. I hope this article helps you! What tips do you have? Feel free to leave me a comment. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Guppyfriend bags website.*
Cora Ball website.*
Video, “Your Laundry Habits Affect the World,” Elizabeth L. Cline, Penguin Random House, November 13, 2019.
*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention these.