Save the World: Do Less Laundry

less laundry environment

When people talk about sustainable fashion, they tend to focus on production and consumption. And that’s understandable: Fast fashion production and manufacturing methods are appalling in most cases, and the associated advertising machinery encourages us to buy more than we need and more than we can afford. There’s a lot there that needs changing.

Less airtime is dedicated to talking about fighting fast fashion by taking great care of what you already own, elongating the life of all of your garments. This practice represents another way to reduce consumption that is easier, in many ways, than committing to buy only clothes made from organic cottons and recycled fibers. It also is helpful if, like me, you want to buy sustainable items moving forward but still have a lot of mall leftovers hanging in your closet. Taking care of your wardrobe items means hanging them up instead of dumping them on the floor, mending them as needed, and carefully treating any unfortunate stains. Of course, it also means keeping them clean.

But, in my humble opinion, you probably don’t need to keep them THAT clean.

There are dozens of books on our modern society’s obsession with cleanliness, and how it may actually be hurting us more than helping us on many fronts. Katherine Ashenburg’s The Dirt on Clean (sent to me by a beloved reader!) focuses mainly on bathing and grooming practices, but also touches on clothes washing and laundry practices and Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies examines America’s cleanliness obsession over the centuries. Anti-perspirants with potentially harmful chemicals, antibiotic soaps and sanitizers that may help breed super germs, and untold gallons of water wasted all in the name of cleanliness.

And, you guessed it, plenty of that wasted water goes toward washing clothes that just don’t need washing. Now, before you get indignant, hear me out. If you’ve played an hour of tennis in a shirt, obviously that shirt should get washed before wearing it again. When you spill soup on your pants, those will need to be cleaned right away. Anything that stinks should probably take a trip through the washing machine before you pull it on to wear again. And anything that sits close to your skin and, ya know, soaks up your personal juicy goodness – think socks, panties, undershirts – those are single-wear items for sure.

But your jeans? They do NOT need to be washed after every wearing. A sweater worn over a tee can likely get aired out and worn again. Blazers and suiting are definitely in the multiple-wears-before-cleaning category, and many skirts will only really need washing if they’ve gotten visible dirt on them. Don’t take my word for it, check out the American Cleaning Institute’s guidelines for washing clothes.

I’m not advocating for letting your clothes get so dirty you feel like PigPen walking around in them – you need to feel good and happy and comfy in your garments. I’m just challenging you to consider washing not-terribly-stinky-or-visibly-dirty clothes less often. Here’s why:

  1. You wash your clothes less
  2. You save water – which helps both with your personal water bill, and with making that water available for other uses.
  3. You add less pollution to the water table, which means the unused water remains clean. You add less pollution to the oceans, which means essential marine life stays healthier.
  4. Since you’re washing them less, the fibers in your clothes remain stronger longer. They wear out slower, elongating the lives of your garments.
  5. And of course, you don’t have to do the wash/go to the laundromat as often! BONUS.

Sometimes, what you DON’T do can have a positive impact. Even if you can’t afford pretty Eileen Fisher sweaters made from organic silk or snazzy Everlane trousers created using transparent supply chains, you can do your best to get the most life and wear out of the clothes you already own. And washing them less often will help you do that, guaranteed.*

Image courtesy Amazon

*OK, not really guaranteed. If you are a forestry worker or a pre-school art teacher or a professional mud-wrestler or someone else who is super-duper hard on your clothes just because of how you spend your days? Your clothes are gonna wear our fairly quickly regardless of your washing habits. But everyone else? Well-nigh guaranteed!

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

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12 Responses to “Save the World: Do Less Laundry”

  1. cryptdang

    Nice topic — I already wash my clothes using those guidelines, and my jeans and sweaters definitely look nice longer than when I previously washed everything indiscriminately 1x/week. I also use a drying rack to air dry anything delicate, or that I want to last a long time (under things, jeans, sweaters, dress shirts, shirts with embroidery, etc). This further helps reduce threads fraying and fuzzing from high dryer heat, maintaining the color and integrity of clothing for longer. I suppose it also helps save some electricity!

  2. Dianne Carter

    Some call it doing laundry, but I like to call it Textile Management because it makes me feel waaaaay more important, as I wash/dry/fold/put away load after load after load :). Some of my tips:- I air out my work clothes under a ceiling fan before putting them away, which definitely extends the time between washings. I add the laundry detergent (I have only ever used Tide) to an inch or so of water in my (30 year old, top load) washer as it fills and stir it with an old slotted spoon to distribute the detergent before adding the clothes. This takes an extra 30 seconds, and I think our clothes are much cleaner for it. When my teenage son throws clean, unworn clothes in the hamper, I set them aside and simply throw them in the dryer with the next load to refresh them. I am not afraid of “dry clean only” labels: I machine or hand wash silk blouses and sweaters and wools, even a blazer, and hang them to dry with 100% success. One of my best laundry tools is a sleeve board for ironing blouses and jackets – it makes them looked professionally pressed. Thanks for your great blog, Sally!

  3. mmelaprof

    The other piece of this is, as cryptdang points out, not putting things in the dryer either. I stopped using the dryer for most everything except sheets and towels years ago, and it definitely helps maintain textiles while saving energy. A good drying rack with long wires accommodates 1 or 2 laundry loads at a time, including wide items.

  4. Mary Wyatt

    Glad you like the book! I once had a washer repairman say that it was only necessary to add detergent to every other load because people almost always use way too much. I have switched to the tiny pods which can’t have more than a tablespoon of detergent in them. I also hang up almost everything but towels and sheets.

  5. Anna Bartels

    HI Sally- Great topic – as a custom seamstress, I would recommend, when washing your clothes, use a good biodegradable soap, wash them in cold only, and don’t use the dryer. Dryers actually create a lot of havoc on clothing fibers causing them to break down faster. I like your hints about hanging things up after wearing, instead of throwing them on the floor. Great tips. so glad you wrote this and brought it to the surface.

  6. stephanieJ

    I moved to the USA from Scotland a few years ago and one of the first things I wanted to do was put a clothes line or rotary umbrella line up in the garden for drying clothes and towels. I soon discovered that this is forbidden by the housing association here as it makes the subdivision look unattractive. I was floored. Nothing beats hanging out your washing on a warm, windy day, its so much better for your garments, towels and sheets, and obviously completely free and environmentally friendly. But nope, apparently having peoples knickers flapping about on a clothes line just isnt acceptable and we are expected to burn money and resources using a tumble dryer instead, Absolutely ridiculous.

  7. Brenda Marks

    Thanks for bringing this topic up. Another terrific clothing care resource I How to Get Dressed by Alison Freer. I was a fiber arts major and have sewn for most of my life, so I thought I knew a lot. Freer had great tips on clothing & shoe care.

    Additionally, freezing clothes can often eliminate smells. If something smells, but it looks clean, you might try freezing it overnight. There was news a couple of years ago about a guy who wore the same pair of jeans for a year and didn’t wash them! He froze them for getting rid of odor,

  8. Aileen Bartels

    Have you ever tried soap nuts? They don’t save water, but they are an environmentally-friendly and cheaper alternative to laundry detergent. I have been using them for several weeks now with good results.

  9. Anamarie

    I’m sure some people will be skeeved out by this topic, but modern life is pretty clean if you think about it. I shower every morning before putting on a dress for work and until recently, only walked a few steps to a car to take me to my air conditioned office. I stand all day at my workstation but don’t get sweaty unless I take a long skyway walk to Target. I hang my dresses as soon as I get home. I also believe steaming them before wear freshens them a bit, but maybe that’s just a perception. I spot clean dresses and rotate through them methodically so I probably wear each once or twice maximum per month. I would be shocked if anyone thought I looked/smelled dirty! 🙂