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Sustainable Suds: Taking a Closer Look at Laundry and Clothing

Have you ever thought about how your laundry impacts the environment? Not only do you need a lot of water to run the washing machine, you need the electricity to run it, and the resources – often fossil fuel-based or from palm oil – that go into creating the laundry detergent, fabric softener, and bleach. Then, there are the outputs of the laundry itself, such as the dirty wastewater released, and the waste created from the washing liquid containers. Our consumption patterns also influence the environment. These and other environmental issues related to our laundry – and more generally clothing – are examined in a blog by our Future of Washing Initiative: a joint project of Future Earth and the Kao Corporation (a major consumer care products and chemicals company in Japan) as well as the University of Tokyo Institute for Future Initiatives.

One major environmental impact surrounding clothes washing that is being discussed widely is microfibers. These are the tiny pieces of plastic that are released from washing synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon. According to research done by researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, a synthetic fleece jacket releases 1.7 grams of microfibers per wash. These tiny particles also known as microplastics, are too small to be caught in our wastewater treatment systems, and end up in our rivers and oceans. Fish and other aquatic organisms ingest these microplastics, and they move up the food chain, accumulating toxins adhered to the fragments in larger organisms. A study done by Professor Sherri Mason in the Great Five Lakes of the United States found that of the plastic fragments collected in these lakes, 71% were microfibers.

Microplastics are not only found in our aquatic environments, but also in our air and tap water. These tiny plastic particles are so light that they are easily swept into our air and carried far away. For example, researchers discovered that the air of The Pyrenees Mountains in France contained the same concentration of microplastics as in Paris. In addition, in a study of tap water around the world, 83% of the samples contained microplastics. American tap water was the most polluted, with 94% containing miniscule plastic fragments. 

Connected to the issue of our impacts of laundry, are our current clothing consumption habits. Fast fashion is ubiquitous in our world today, and many consumers have transitioned to wearing clothing for short fashion cycles. It is estimated that these clothing items are only worn an average of seven times before being discarded, which means that about 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed at the global level every year. This rate of consumption will increase in the next decade, as the population grows, and more consumers will be able to purchase clothing. A single cotton T-shirt requires about 2650 liters of water to produce, and a pair of jeans nearly 7600 liters. This kind of resource intense clothing production and consumption makes the fashion industry one of the most polluting sectors in the world, creating about 20% of the world’s wastewater, and 10% of carbon emissions. Logically, the more clothes produced, the more that are washed and discarded.

Needless to say, the environmental impact from our laundry and clothing is a serious and complicated issue. Not only is it important to consider what kind of fabric is the clothing created from, but also what kind of detergent we use, and how we do our laundry. We need to take a life-cycle approach to this issue. Levi’s looked at a pair of jeans, and found that during its lifecycle (from production to disposal), we consume about 3,800 liters of water, and create 33.4 kg of CO2. Of the water consumed, 68% is used to produce the cotton, and 23% during laundry. Thirty seven percent of the CO2 emitted comes from consumers, and 27% from the producer. Levi’s examined different countries’ laundry practices, and found that in China, they use cold water for washing, and then hang dry their clothing, leading to lower environmental impacts. They also found that washing jeans after wearing them 10 times instead of twice, could lead to an 80% reduction in the use of water and energy.

By taking into consideration the life-cycle of our clothing and laundry, such as what fabric it is made of, avoiding purchases and throwing away your clothes frequently, decreasing the laundry frequency, using cold water to wash, and hang-drying our clothing, we can minimize the impacts of our clothing and laundry, and make these more sustainable.

The Future of Washing Initiative aims to “create a world where people can live sustainably, hygienically, and comfortably.” It provides a platform for stakeholders to discuss and suggest solutions on the future of washing, spanning across industries and academic disciplines, and sharing knowledge and new findings among private, academic, and public sectors. It was established in December 2018 collaboratively by Future Earth, The University of Tokyo Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (merged into the Institute for Future Initiatives in April 2019), and Kao Corporation.

Currently, the Initiative has decided to break down the large theme of “washing”, and focus on “laundry” as the main theme to start a discussion. The Initiative has been organizing seminars and created a blog with the aim to think and discuss how much natural resources are used in our daily washing activities, how washing is impacting the natural environment, and what each of us can do to create a sustainable society. The blog has been issued twice a month in Japanese on the Initiative website from January 2020, and this English blog post features and summarizes some of the Japanese blog posts discussing various aspects of laundry and clothing.