The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly and Healthy Laundry

Did you know that 39% of a garment’s environmental impact comes from consumer care? Yup, you do have more power than you think to reduce your fashion’s impact.

And now that we’ve been living in our apartment for three years, I have our clean laundry routine down pat. (Well, I can’t speak for my husband. He does his own laundry!)

My goal is to use non-toxic products, reduce my energy and waste, and make my clothing last as long as possible: stain-free, unfaded or shrunk, odor-free, and in good shape.

When you’ve come from a life of Mountain-fresh-pine-scented Tide and fabric softener; fluffy hot laundry straight out of the dryer; and the latest scientific advances in stain-removal technology, I could understand why you might raise your eyebrows at the idea of “regressing” back to the old way of doing things.

But doing laundry the healthy and eco-friendly way feels just as nourishing as switching from Twinkies back to a homemade blackberry cobbler.

I should add that I’ve personally never minded doing laundry. Yes, sometimes it takes me a while to get around to it. But I find it meditative and satisfying to concentrate on something so hands-on.

And I’ve tested out several products and strategies, and hit upon effective steps that yields deliciously clean, non-toxic laundry:

1. Only wash dirty clothing.

Like Michael Pollan’s directive to, “Eat food,” this might at first seem obvious. But I know in the past I’ve gotten into the habit of throwing all my clothes in the hamper after even a half day of wearing them, in air conditioning, with no exertion. After all, we love to make fun of dudes who pick up a shirt and smell it to see if it’s clean. But, turns out they’re onto something.

Denim brands urge their customers to wait up to six months to wash their jeans. This might seem excessive, but especially for real indigo-dyed selvedge, this strategy helps it break in well and last a long time. If you’re like me, and try to buy naturally-dyed fashion, then washing your clothing less will keep it from losing color and quality.

Maybe we should channel less the Stepford Wives’ adherence to a perfect home, and more Marie Kondo’s respect for possessions. When you’re changing out of your clothes, instead of chucking them on the floor or hamper, check them carefully for stains and smells, and if they are free of both, hang or fold them back up.

2. Pre-treat with enzyme spray.

Let’s talk about whites. My favorite thing to wear is a white button down or cotton top, but the collar and armpits inevitably get grungy. (And don’t tell me to switch to an aluminum-free deodorant. I switched six years ago and sweat stains are still a thing.) I accosted the founder of the sustainable linen brand Coyuchi a couple years ago at a wellness conference and asked her how to deal with sweat-stained sheets (totally below her pay grade, but I figured she’s an expert on eco-friendly sheet care!) and she said to use an enzyme cleaner and oxygen brightener. Enzyme cleaner is a nontoxic product with live cultures that work on bio-based stains and substances: sweat, food, pet stains, etc. I also read some advice geared toward men to spritz their shirts with enzyme cleaner before they even go into the hamper. So that is what I do. I like Biokleen Bac-Out stain remover.

You can also turn your jeans inside out and spray them with enzyme spray if they are a little funky or stained, but you don’t want to wash them – enzyme cleaner has the added benefit of not requring a rinse after treatment.

3. Sort by color.

I sort my laundry by whites, midtones (nude, grey, pastels, stripes), and black. This is especially important if you buy naturally-dyed fashion, as plant-based dyes tend to bleed more. As I’m sorting, I treat any more stains I see with the enzyme cleaner.

4. Soak whites in oxygen cleaner.

I fill my tub with a few inches of room temperature water, and add a few scoops of oxygen brightener, then all my whites. You can also add colored apparel as well to brighten it. I let it soak while I run my first load of black or mid-tone clothing. This, along with the enzyme treatment, gets all the sweat stains out, and a lot of other stains, too.

5. Filter for synthetic microfibers.

The issue of plastic microfibers in our water has emerged in the past few years as one of the most alarming pollution issues we face. Every time you wash a synthetic garment, microfibers wash out into the water system, and water treatment plants are not equipped to filter them. In the U.S., a recent study found that 94% of tap water samples contained an average of almost five microfibers per 500 ml.

Ideally, there should be legislation mandating that washing machines come equipped with filters. In the meantime, you can hook up a filter up to your washing machine. We can’t, because of the way our machine is housed underneath our quartz kitchen counter, so I bought us a Guppy Friend, a bag that you can put your nylon and polyester clothing into for washing.

Interestingly enough, when I was forced to look at the fiber content of three weeks of laundry, I found that about a fifth of my clothing was synthetic – mostly yoga pants and sports bras made from recycled plastic bottles, and lacy thongs I bought a few years ago when the options for cute, sustainable lingerie were scant. (There are a lot more now.) If you are new to the sustainable fashion scene, you might find a much higher proportion of your clothing is synthetic.

Side note: I have yet to see a washing machine brand that markets itself as ethically manufactured using sustainable components. The main thing is the Energy Star rating, which indicates it runs efficiently. For our apartment, we bought a combo washer/dryer, simply because we don’t have much space. But I like knowing I halved the manufacturing and shipping footprint compared to buying a washer and dryer separately. However, the dryer function is not great, since it does not have a output for the dryer steam. So I would only recommend this option if you can line dry most of your clothes. Like to buy secondhand? Don’t get a vintage washer or dryer, because it will be energy inefficient. But getting a new-ish one off of Craigslist? Sure!

6. Choose a non-toxic liquid detergent.

I’ve been using powder detergent, but given the fact that liquid detergents prevent microfiber shedding and work better with cold water, my next trip to the grocery store will be for non-toxic, unscented liquid detergent. You can also consider signing up for the online membership-based market, Thrive Market, to buy your non-toxic cleaning supplies. Earth Friendly Products makes an unscented, cold-water, non-toxic detergent.

7. Wash in cold water.

This is probably the easiest, cheapest, and laziest way to up your sustainability cred. Just select “tap cold” on your washer. And the benefits are threefold: 1. It reduces your energy footprint, since about 75% of the energy used to wash a typical load of laundry comes from heating the water. 2. You can save more than $60 a year on your energy bill by choosing cold water. 3. It lengthens the life of your garments, by preventing fading and shrinkage (and microfiber shedding!) Plus, washers and detergents these days are formulated to work best with cold water.

My laundry hanging outside my building. This faces the street, so I hang my underthings inside on rack.

8. Line dry.

Nine percent of a typical garment’s impact comes from the consumer drying it in a clothing dryer.

We’re fortunate to live in an unpretentious building full of Puerto Rican and Dominican families, so our apartment came with a laundry line outside the window that I make full use of. Line drying extends the life of your garments, and the breeze and sunlight makes them smell even more fresh and clean. I only use our dryer for towels, to make them fluffy. They only need two hours to dry, unless it’s super humid outside. (Word to the wise: if you’re line drying sheets outside of a tall building, check the weather for wind. My poor husband is losing his patience with the number of times we’ve had to disentangle sheets.)

I know not all fancy buildings or neighborhoods are down for this. You could advocate for your own at the next housing association or board meeting. But in the meantime, I’ve seen friends with indoor retractable laundry lines that stretch across their apartment. I actually don’t recommend the pictured clothespins, which leave stretch marks on my clothing. My favorite kind – vintage spring-loaded ones – were all outside doing their job when I took this picture. You can buy a lot of 50 or 100 vintage clothespins for something like $0.35 a piece on Etsy or eBay.

I also have a nice laundry rack that I use for my delicates. (A.K.A. things I don’t want hanging outside – occasionally something falls down to the courtyard below and I have to ask our super to retrieve it!) The one I found is made in China of solid poplar wood. So, I can’t vouch for it’s fabrication, but I get a ton of compliments. If you have a handy person in your life, ask them to make you one for your birthday!

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