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Future of Washing Initiative Discusses Life Cycle Assessment of Clothes Washing

The Future of Washing Initiative (Initiative) hosted a seminar on sustainable washing and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on 5 December 2019, in Tokyo, Japan. The Initiative was launched in 2018 and was co-developed by Kao Corporation, The University of Tokyo Institute for Future Initiatives and Future Earth. About 40 participants from the private sector – including machine, detergent, cloth industries-, research communities and the general public participated in the seminar and discussed how people can reduce their environmental impact when washing clothes. In the small group discussions, participants with various backgrounds actively discussed daily solutions for sustainably washing clothes.

Fumiko Kasuga, Future Earth Global Hub Director Japan, opened the seminar by introducing an overview of the Initiative and its activities, including the basic environmental impacts caused by the use of water, energy, and the packaging waste related to current washing. Further, she highlighted that the Initiative had also noted various environmental impacts of clothes washing in the world based on differences in infrastructure, climate and cultural attitudes governing how often people wash clothes. Data gathered by Kao Corporation from the Japanese general public in 2018 was introduced, which shows more than 70% of the public washed their clothes seven times or more on a weekly basis.

A presentation that followed discussed the notion of social LCA and dynamic LCA. Professor Yoko Yamaguchi from the Kyoritsu Women’s Junior College explained that CO2 emissions from homes have increased since 1990 necessitating the need for changes to consumer behavior. She introduced the idea of social LCA, a method that assess the social and sociological aspects of products covering relations with consumers, and dynamic LCA, a method that incorporates changes in usage patterns over time and technology developments. She highlighted the importance of implementing LCA that addresses people’s changing values over time.

Mr. Manabu Shibata, Manager of ESG Promotion at Kao Corporation, also gave a presentation about LCA and laundry detergents focusing on CO2 emissions. Further, he discussed how Kao Corporation was able to lessen its environmental impact by reducing the package size of laundry detergents, and providing consumers with refillable packages. Because of these efforts, Kao Corporation was able to reduce its CO2 emissions from the production of laundry detergents by two-thirds over the past 30 years. In addition, he explained that, according to data, CO2 emissions generated by water and electricity during clothes washing have decreased by two-thirds. In addition, he shared his calculations regarding the differing levels of environmental impacts based on the level of detergent usage and clothes rinsing. The calculation showed that if people use twice the standard amount of detergents and rinse clothes twice each cycle, they would emit three and a half times more CO2. Mr. Shibata highlighted that consumers influence the environmental impacts based on how they use a product.

Participants also presented their innovative solutions for sustainably washing clothes in small groups. One group came up with an idea of developing technologies that can wash clothes without using any water. They also shared an idea of developing washing machines that can clean wastewater and recycle it for future wash cycles. In order to decrease the amount of detergents in use, participants came up with an idea of selling detergents by weight. Some participants mentioned people often use too much detergent because they are not sure if clothes are clean enough. Therefore, participants thought that a technology should be developed that allows people to determine whether clothes are clean by changing the color of water and smart washing machines with artificial intelligence that indicate whether clothes are clean. Others mentioned that some environmentally friendly washing machines are too expensive to buy, and it would be useful to have a system where you can lease those washing machines.

There were many voices throughout the various groups that a consumer behavior needs to change. Participants agreed that perceptions towards laundry and cleanliness need to change. They also pointed out the importance of educating people further about eco-friendly laundry methods, including the economic benefits of energy saving and reducing the resource impacts on the earth.

In conclusion, Professor Masahiko Hirao from the University of Tokyo highlighted the effect of consumer actions and that technological development alone will not reduce negative impacts of washing on the environment. In addition, he stressed that manufacturers and consumers need to connect better and think about the life cycle of clothes washing to achieve sustainability.

The discussions at the seminar found that the biggest barrier for reducing negative environmental impacts is related to individual perceptions toward cleanliness. In addition to educating consumers about sustainable ways of washing, society needs to take actions to change existing perceptions in order to promote a sustainable environment for future generations.