Eco-Friendly Laundry Tips for Earth Day (and Beyond)

Real Style on 04.20.11
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Photo: gemteck1, Flickr

Earth Day is coming, so of course we're thinking about creating an eco-friendly wardrobe. Typically, the first strategy that comes to mind when we talk about green fashion is buying organic and fair-trade pieces. I love the idea of opting for fair trade, and there are some beautiful organic fibers out there, but when it comes to the day-to-day, there are easier ways to go green. Case in point: the laundry.

It takes just as much energy to launder an organic cotton t-shirt as it does to wash one that’s non-organic; dry cleaning a fair-trade dress uses the same chemicals as any other dry cleaning effort. The simplest way to make your closet a little greener, then, is to buy fewer things and care for them lovingly. In other words, rethink the way you do laundry.

Stick with cold water. Skip the warm or hot cycles for everyday laundry; thanks to improvements in detergent and washing machines, you don’t need to boil your clothes to get them clean. In fact, hot water wears out the dyes faster, which leads to fading and shortens the life of your clothes. Wash your everyday laundry in an all-cold cycle, to preserve the fabric and conserve energy. Exception: When someone in my house gets sick, I will launder their sheets and towels in hot water, to kill all the germs. I’m not entirely sure this works, but it makes me feel better, so I do it. But we don’t get sick much, so it’s not a frequent thing.

Cut back on the soap. A little goes a long long way; I recommend using half of what the detergent manufacturer suggests. Seriously. Soap buildup is bad for your clothes and bad for the environment. More bubbles doesn’t mean more clean, it just means more chemicals in your laundry.

Skip the machine, part one: Hand wash. Hand washing uses less water -- and much less energy -- than machine washing; it’s also gentler on your clothes. I hand wash virtually everything I own -- t-shirts, pants, dresses, sweaters. I use Johnson's Baby Shampoo with natural lavender to launder cashmere, and Woolite for everything else.

Hand washing seems like a huge undertaking, but it’s incredibly simple. Clean out the largest sink in your house (make sure there are no food or cleanser remains that might stain the clothes) and fill with cold water. Add 2-4 tablespoons of gentle detergent or baby shampoo -- I don’t measure, I just eyeball, but less is more (see above, re: cut back on the soap).  Wash similarly-colored pieces together, but don’t overload the sink; you want to be able to swish everything around in the water and have it move freely.

Once everything is in the sink, gently squeeze the soapy water through every garment; do NOT wring, just squeeze. Let it all soak for 3-5 minutes and then rinse until the water runs clear. For stains or other trouble spots, pre-treat with an enzyme cleaner or just a little bit of detergent. Rub the pre-treater in with your fingers, not with the fabric -- rubbing fabric against itself wears the fibers, and our goal here is to make everything last as long as possible.

After you’ve rinsed everything, gently squeeze each piece out (again, do not wring or twist); lay the garment flat on a clean towel and roll it up. Gently squeeze (I’ll say it again: DO NOT WRING) the towel to soak up the excess water. Hang to dry.

Skip the machine, part two: Line dry. Anything that you’re going to take the time to hand wash should of course be line-dried. The dryer is super convenient but it is incredibly hard on your clothes (where do you think all that lint comes from?); it also uses a lot of energy. Instead of tossing everything in the dryer, hang pieces up. I use simple plastic clip hangars for pants and jeans, and padded hangars for dresses and tops; I hang everything from the shower curtain bar in our guest bathroom. Knit pieces, like tees and sweaters, and delicate things like my bras, get laid out on the floor in the bedroom, on a clean dry towel.

The downside of line drying, of course, is that things need to be ironed; I love to iron (I find it soothing) so this isn't a deal breaker for me, but if you're not a fan of the ironing, consider tossing things in the dryer for 5 minutes on the "fluff" cycle (or just on the lowest heat setting possible). You can do this either with a piece that is wet (to shake out the wrinkles before you hang it) or with a piece that is dry (to take of the slightly crispy edge). I would strongly argue that you learn to iron, though; a beautifully ironed piece looks fantastic, and your iron uses less energy than your dryer, always.

Skipping the dryer is a good way to minimize wear and tear, even for pieces that can easily go in the washing machine. I machine wash my jeans (inside out, to preserve the color) and my husband’s cycling attire, but all of those pieces get air-dried. I use lingerie bags to segregate the things that do not go in the dryer, so that I don’t forget when I’m moving the clothes from one place to another. My husband’s cycling jerseys and shorts, for example, are always laundered in a bag -- that way, I never accidentally toss them in the dryer.

There are pieces, however, that should not be air-dried; your underwear, for example, should always go in the dryer. The heat helps kill bacteria. For the same reason, my workout clothes always go in the dryer. And any clothes with a short life span -- kids’ play clothes, for example -- can be machine dried.

Choose the best possible machines. I realize there’s no way to hand-wash everything in your closet (never mind all the other household laundry -- who hand washes sheets, for example? or towels? No way). Because your washer and dryer see heavy use, opt for the most energy-friendly options available. Front-loading washers have long been touted as water and energy savers, but they tend to mildew; they also tend to be pricey, and require a fairly large space to install. My laundry room is teeny tiny (and also doubles as a pantry and coat closet, which is not idea) so we were not able to do the front loading washer. Instead, we opted for a top-loading Whirlpool HE washing machine, and we love it. It uses less detergent (which is good for our clothes) and less water (good for the environment). It also gets the clothes super dry, which means that the dryer cycle is incredibly short. My water and electricity bills have gone down since I switched to this set.

Best part? The washer/dryer combo cost less than a front loading washer alone would have.

Pro tip: Make sure you follow the directions for your HE top loading machine (soap goes in FIRST, always) and make sure you’re using a detergent formulated for an HE appliance. It truly does make all the difference. In addition, have your dryer duct cleaned every 2-3 years. Our dryer vents through the ceiling, which is not optimal, so our vent needs to be cleaned every 18 months. It’s kind of a hassle, but it makes a huge difference in how long the dryer cycle takes -- which means less wear and tear on the clothes, and less wasted energy. Totally worth it.


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