Commons' Guide to Eco-Friendly Laundry
Our wardrobe choices are a form of daily self-expression. They reflect our personal identities and the cultures and communities we’re a part of. Since we get dressed every day (for the most part) our closets are also an important lever for climate action.
While we tend to focus on the environmental impact of manufacturing our clothes, it also matters how we wash them. That’s because every time we do laundry, we consume water and electricity to get our clothing nice and clean.
The average American family does 300 loads of laundry each year, consuming 12,000 gallons of water and emitting (750 kg of CO2e). This translates to an estimated 179 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually in the US alone, or the total energy footprint of 21 million homes.
In an era where we’re redefining our relationship to consumer goods, it’s important to recognize the role these habits play in our wardrobe’s lifecycle impact. Today, we’re highlighting a few of our favorite eco-friendly laundry tips. Getting started is easy, and has more benefits than you might think.
Benefits of Eco-Friendly Laundry Habits
Building eco-friendly laundry habits can help us protect our shared home. It also has valuable co-benefits for your carbon footprint, your wallet, your closet, and your health!
- Lower your footprint: Conserving water and energy can reduce your household’s carbon footprint and reduce the toll of laundry on our planet.
- Save money: Using less water and electricity on laundry day translates to a lower home energy bill, putting money back in your wallet.
- Keep your clothes longer: These laundry practices are kinder on your threads and will keep your clothes in great condition for longer.
6 Eco-Friendly Laundry Tips
Building a sustainable laundry habit isn’t hard to do. Here are 6 ways to do it and a look at why these choices matter for the planet.
1. Wash on cold
Up to 90% of the energy consumed by our washing machines goes to heating water. By using the cold cycle for four out of every five loads of laundry, you could save as much as 864 pounds of CO2e annually. That’s more than an entire year of dining out for the average Commons user!
The cold cycle gives your hot water heater a break, which helps to reduce your household energy use. Since that translates to a lower utility bill, it gives your wallet a break too. Plus, cold water is gentler on fabric, so you’ll reduce wear and tear on your favorite clothes.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Some cold cycles still heat water up to 80ºF. If your washing machine has a cold tap setting, that’s your best option.
- You don’t have to use cold water for every load. Even switching from hot to warm water can cut your energy use in half.
- You may have been taught hot water is best for disinfecting, but most modern detergents work just as well in cold water, even if they’re not specifically marketed for it.
- While most garments can be washed on cold, it’s important to soak stains the moment they occur. Use this helpful cheat sheet to determine whether to use hot or cold water.
- Hot water may still be best for heavily soiled or contaminated items like musty towels, grease and oil-stains, or sheets you slept in while you were sick.
2. Line Dry Your Clothes
Dryers use more energy than any other household appliance. Air drying your clothes is a simple, zero-carbon alternative.
According to Green America, you could reduce your family’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year just by air-drying your laundry. That’s around 2% of the average American household’s total annual emissions.
Air-drying also extends the lifecycle of your wardrobe. Getting toasted and tumbled is tough on fabric. Your lint screen is proof your clothes are literally wearing away each time you dry them.
You don’t need a big backyard to air-dry your laundry. Here are a few ideas for small and indoor spaces:
- Collapsible rack: If you’re short on space, pop up a portable drying rack on your balcony, in your bathroom, or in your hallway.
- Wall-mounted rack: If you have a laundry room, mount a wall rack above your washing machine to conserve floor space.
- Over-the-door rack: These provide extra vertical space for long items like dresses and jumpsuits. Another bonus, they don’t require drilling or mounting.
- Hidden drawer rack: If you’re up for a little DIY project, convert a pull-out drawer into a discreet and affordable drying rack. Pro tip: pick a drawer near a heating vent.
- Hanging rods: A regular clothing rod can moonlight as a drying station, just be sure to leave space between garments.
Finally, remember you don’t have to air dry everything. Even cutting your number of dryer loads in half matters. Every minute the dryer isn’t running is money and energy saved.
3. Use Efficient Machine Settings
A turn of the dial can go a long way when you need to use a dryer. Many machines have preset options designed specifically to conserve energy. If you’re at a laundromat or don’t have time to air dry, these eco-friendly laundry tips can help:
- High-spin speed: Use the high spin speed or extended spin option to reduce the moisture in your clothes after washing. This reduces the time and energy it takes to dry them.
- Sensor drying: Newer dryers often have a moisture sensor option. This preset saves energy by automatically ending the cycle once your clothes are dry.
- Low heat: Cooler, longer drying cycles use less energy than shorter, hotter ones, so set the dryer to low heat.
Lastly, you don’t need a fancy dryer to conserve energy. Clean your lint screen regularly, toss in a dryer ball, and dry like fabrics together (in a full load) to dry your clothes more efficiently.
4. Upgrade to High-Efficiency Appliances
Older washing machines use up to 40 gallons of water per cycle. That’s comparable to a 25 minute shower! You could save 15-22 gallons of water per load by upgrading to an energy-efficient model.
If you decide to upgrade, don’t let your old appliances wind up in the landfill. Visit Earth911 to find a recycling program near you.
5. Wash Full Loads
Washers use about the same amount of energy regardless of load size, so run full loads whenever possible. One caveat: jam-packing your machine can actually make it work harder, so don’t overdo it.
If you run small loads frequently, it might be helpful to reframe how you think about dirty laundry. Our clothes don’t necessarily need washing every time we wear them. By only adding soiled or smelly clothes to the laundry bin you’ll save energy and reduce wear-and-tear on your wardrobe. Plus, you’ll spend less time doing laundry!
6. Use Environmentally Friendly Detergents
Conventional detergents are often made with chemicals like phosphates, chlorine bleach, and formaldehyde. These harsh chemicals wind up in our waterways once they get flushed down the drain, contributing to water pollution and damaging aquatic ecosystems. Alarmingly, several common ingredients are also linked to adverse health outcomes in humans.
Natural and biodegradable detergents are safer for people and the planet. Some of our favorites are Dirty Labs Bio Enzyme liquid detergent, Grove Collaborative detergent sheets, and Charlie’s Soap natural laundry powder.
Be aware, not all products are as sustainable as they claim. Verified ecolabels like the EPA’s Safer Choice Standard and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified mark signal a company is putting in the work.
Learn More: How to Spot (and Avoid!) Greenwashing
Bonus: Keep Clothes Longer by Mending Them
The world tosses out a garbage truck worth of clothes every minute. But a snag or tear doesn’t mean you need to add another garment to the stream of waste. Anyone can learn basic mending skills, even if you’ve never touched a sewing kit.
Mending is a simple way to make our wardrobes more sustainable. This beginner-friendly guide will show you how. Mending 101: Repair and Rewear to Heal the Planet.
Upgrade your habits to upgrade your life
Beyond the environmental and financial benefits, building sustainable laundry habits is a way to cultivate a deeper relationship with your wardrobe. Our clothes are more than material possessions, they’re an extension of who we are and what we care about. When we slow down and intentionally create lifestyles that reflect our values, we unlock a fuller, more connected life.
Learning your carbon habits is the first step towards changing them for the better, and we’re here to support your journey for the long haul.