The main issues around ethical clothing tend to focus on the sweatshop conditions in developing nations that allow us to have cheaper clothing these days and we have heard recently about the huge amount waste that occurs because of this ‘fast fashion’ trend through the War on Waste.
But perhaps the first thing we should think about is how often we wash our clothes. It turns out that if you look at the whole life cycle of a piece of clothing, everyday washing and drying damages our natural environment the more than anything else.
Analysis of product life cycle provide information on the overall environmental impacts of various products. It measures effects like greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, water use, and pollution. For clothing, they generally measure the impact of growing fibres, garment production, packaging and transporting to stores, customer use, and finally disposal.
Doing this allows us to compare environmental impacts of apples and oranges. Polyester, for example, requires a lot of energy to make, little to wash and dry, but takes a long time to biodegrade. Cotton, on the other hand, requires vast amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides to grow, needs more water to wash and more energy to dry but is relatively low-impact to dispose of.
When we look at clothing overall, we consistently find the greatest environmental impact of a garment over its entire life is not in its production, transport or disposal, but in its use by the consumer – washing, drying and ironing. In short it is the end user – the consumer – who has the greatest environmental impact.
So why do we wash so much?
Our standards of cleanliness have only developed over the last 200 years – essentially since our understanding of things like germs theory in controlling disease. Our preoccupation with cleanliness is due partly to technological developments – it’s ridiculously easy to launder clothes these days. But a bigger influence is a change in social conventions. Marketers peddling cleanliness products like laundry powder sell us elevated cleanliness ideals to increase their business opportunities.
What if we washed less?
Of course someone has done this experiment – in this case they wore the same pair of jeans for at least five days a week for three-months without washing them. What they found was the jeans did not become socially challenging: they weren’t visibly dirty and they didn’t get smelly.
Perhaps we need to have rethink about the social standards that we have imposed on ourselves pushed by marketing rather than common sense and need.