The fashion industry has an especially heavy impact on the environment, especially in its intensive use of water. But, despite that, here's an interesting thought: 80-90% of the environmental impact of clothing happens after you buy and when you do laundry. I, and hopefully you, am a little shocked by that, but also really buoyed by it because it means I can DO something about it and so can you! Here's a fact: There are approximately 88 million dryers in the U.S. alone, each emitting more than a ton of carbon dioxide per year. Think of what a difference it would make to not use one?
What follows is a list of things you can do on your next laundry day to immediately start reducing your impact, but first, a word on laundry detergent. I still remember, years ago before I was conscious of my habits and the products I used, I pulled a white dress out of its protective bag. It had been years since I had worn it, and as I removed it from the bag immediately the very strong smell of fabric softener washed over me. I realized that something just wasn't right, as you shouldn't be able to still smell your detergent and softener YEARS after it's been used. I immediately did some research and learned that most detergents are petroleum-based, which is a non-renewable resource, creates pollution to manufacture, doesn't break down in water (your grey water is then a pollutant) AND it's harsh on your skin. Yikes. Moving onto the smell: that sickly sweet, industrial-strength perfume is a cocktail of synthetic chemicals, like phthalates which are carcinogenic—it truly goes on and on. I buy all of my daughter's clothes and most of mine second-hand, and I've noticed that even after washing them, the detergent smell of the clothes from the previous owner still clings; it takes 3-4 washes for it to go away completely. My hunt for a good green detergent that worked meant that I've tried a lot of brands and products. One that I tried early on is actually not a detergent at all, but the shell of a berry that grows on a soap berry tree in the Himalayas. The berries contain a natural soap called saponin, and it turns out it works to do laundry. The berries are wild-harvested and grow in poor soil, so no valuable agricultural land or fertilizer is used. Insects don't like the berries, so no pesticide is used either.
To use the berries, simply place them whole in a cloth bag and toss it in with your laundry. I will admit, it takes a mindset shift to use them, even for an ecoholic like me, but the results are good. I do find that I must pre-treat stains, but I've yet to find a laundry detergent, chemical or otherwise, that doesn't require this step so this isn't a big deal. You can reuse the same soap berries for up to ten loads, but if you prefer using a liquid and not fussing with the berries or bag, Eco Nuts makes a liquid concentrated version using the same soap berries. I prefer this version for the washing machine as the soap nuts need room and water to agitate and create suds, and I'm worried this may lead to a tendency to wash partial loads and waste water and energy. You can create your own at-home concentrate using the berries and this simple method if you prefer.
The saponin from the berries is an incredibly gentle soap, so it's fantastic for sensitive skin and for baby clothes. In fact, it's my baby detergent of choice. I use the actual soap berries most to handwash delicates or wool, since the detergent is so gentle on your skin you don't need to rinse, thus saving water.
The average household does almost 400 loads of laundry each year, consuming about 13,500 gallons of water. Switching to an Energy Star-qualified front-loading machine can save as much as 7,000 gallons of water per year, which, over the life of a washer is enough to provide a lifetime of drinking water for six people! An Energy Star-qualified clothes washer can also save you $550 in operating costs over its lifetime meaning that it will pay for itself. I wish that were true for all things!
Did you know that you actually shouldn't wash your jeans very often? Levi Strauss recommends every two weeks! Well, that has more benefit that simply retaining that perfect denim shade, it's one of the biggest things you can do to reduce your laundry footprint. So unless you sweat through your t-shirt on a scorching hot day, hang it up and wear it another day (I'll excempt you from socks and undies!). You can also spot wash stains (which I frequently do by keeping a spray bottle of stain remover handy) to avoid having to wash the entire garment.
Some "smart washers" will weigh your load and adjust the amount of water needed, but you are using energy too, so as a rule wait to wash until you have a full load.
The energy required to heat the water is a big chunk of the energy expenditure.
The dryer is the number two energy glutton in your home, next to the fridge, and costs about a $100 per year to use, plus as mentioned earlier its carbon footprint is kind of massive. Why not skip it and put up a clothesline or use a drying rack? I have always found that clothes smell AMAZING after being hung to dry in the sun, and ironically fabric softener companies have been trying to synthesize that smell for years. Ha! Just go straight to the source, it's free, radically energy effiencient and nontoxic ;) As a bonus, your clothes won't be a wrinkled mess.
If using a dryer is still a must for you then there are still a few things you can do to maximize it. First up, look for a machine that has a moisture sensor if you are buying new (or see if yours has one already), which shuts the machine off when your clothes are dry. Also, clean the lint trap after every use, as a full trap can actually significantly reduce the efficacy of your dryer. Do all your loads consecutively as you'll be taking advantage of residual heat. And finally, don't use dryer sheets which are a chemical cocktail your skin could really do without. Use wool dryer balls instead (as shown in the photos; Eco Nuts makes some nice ones). The wool contains natural oils that soften the clothes and the balls create space between the clothes which increases airflow thus reducing dry time by up to 30%.