When the world feels out of control, as it does at the moment, I find myself doing basic household chores to help me relax, like putting on a load of laundry.
The gentle hum of the washing machine and the promise of fresh T-shirts, underwear and towels feels like a small but tangible victory.
Unfortunately, this is not a particularly environmentally friendly way to relax. Washing machines and dryers use large amounts of energy and water, which is compounded by how frequently most of us wash our clothes (too often).
Fortunately, there are alternatives to machine washing that will still keep clothes looking (and smelling) good. And since some of these techniques save on time and energy bills, the small sense of victory remains.
Prevention is better than cure
“Thinking in terms of prevention is a good strategy,” says Kate Fletcher, professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion.
A few small, thoughtful changes can help reduce your washing load. Fletcher advises always wearing an apron while cooking; tucking trouser legs into socks to keep hems free from mud when you’re out walking; and wearing a singlet or undershirt beneath shirts and blouses so you only need to wash the bottom layer, not the outer garment.
Being thoughtful about which fibres you buy and wear can also help, Fletcher says. “Wool is the preferred fibre for handling stains and smells,” for instance, because “it has a complex scaly structure which affords the fibre a natural stain repellency”.
By contrast, synthetic fibres are known for holding on to smells, including body odour, especially if fabric softeners are used. Fletcher says you should avoid using fabric softener and wearing synthetic fibre garments “if you are interested in washing less”.
Stop stains on the spot
Pretreating and preventing stains from setting can help reduce laundry, says Fletcher. “For areas with a lot of staining, it is advisable to soak or spot-clean the specific stain. This helps prevent rewashing if a garment doesn’t come clean.”
Orsola de Castro, founder of activist group Fashion Revolution, has an essential tip for preventing stains, even on the go. “I don’t go anywhere without a sponge,” she says. “Because you can get rid of a stain instantaneously almost in every case – even if it’s oil – if you’ve got a good sponge with you.
“If you act fast you can spot-clean using only your sponge and a bit of warm water, without detergent.” She also recommends pressing a dry sponge hard on to a wet stain because it “will absorb most of the stain’s moisture, thereby containing it.”
Brushing can help too. Fletcher recommends using “a clothes brush to shift dirt like mud”. You don’t need a specialty item either: “This can just be an old toothbrush.”
De Castro says brushing “works wonders on wool and tweeds. Because of the way the material is so tightly woven, the stains sit on the surface.”
Create an air space
Fletcher recommends examining each item before you put it in the laundry basket. “Ask yourself: is it actually in need of cleaning, or can it be worn again?”
Sometimes pieces can be rested between wears, since certain reasons for washing garments (like faint odours) fade with time. Fletcher suggests “airing them, hanging them on a balcony or in a steamy shower room”.
While shower steam works well, an electric steamer is even more efficient. De Castro says steaming will “immediately refresh a piece and release most of the creases, making it look more polished”. This is particularly good for outwear such as coats and jackets, suits and knitwear.
If you don’t want to put already-worn things away with your clean clothes, Fletcher suggests creating a new place to keep them, like a hook on the back of your wardrobe or bedroom door.
When it does come time to wash, Fletcher suggests you “put off” doing it “until you have enough for a full load”.
Know what you’re washing
De Castro says we need more information about our clothes to ensure we are not washing them too much, at the wrong temperature or too often.
She says when “we don’t know the properties of the materials that we’re washing” we often wash clothes unnecessarily, using too much water and detergent. Since different materials require different methods of care, detailed and accurate care labels are important, and so is understanding the properties of each fibre.
But don’t blame yourself; the problem is structural, says De Castro. Globally, there is a lack of regulation around labelling clothes. “We need the regulations that are present in food, beauty and pharmaceuticals when it comes to declaring and disclosing the ingredients that are in our clothes” so we can care for them correctly, she says.