When Frans Timmermans, a Dutch politician and executive chairman of the European Green Deal, told EU citizens to ‘air their clothes instead of washing them’ in support of energy sanctions against Russia, it raised eyebrows. .
But washing clothes nationwide has a huge energy footprint, consuming an estimated 100 trillion watts of electricity worldwide a year, along with an additional 20 trillion liters of water. And while the environmental impact of fast fashion and clothing waste often grabs the headlines, 25% of a garment’s carbon footprint comes from how we wash and care for it. Washing also releases microplastics and other fibers into ecosystems and reduces the lifespan of a garment, causing us to buy more clothes.
The need to wash clothes less
Consumers need to wash their clothes less, says Richard Blackburn, professor of sustainable materials at the University of Leeds. “I’m not suggesting that people should actively have poor hygiene – but there’s a lot of exaggeration out there,” he says. “We no longer work in the coal mines. How dirty and smelly do we get? »
He points out that we don’t wash our sheets every time we sleep on them, and the level of bacteria, skin and dirt is much higher in your bed than any piece of clothing we wear. “We have to think about what items we can wear multiple times before we have to wash them,” he says.
Rachel McQueen is an Associate Professor of Textile Science at the University of Alberta. She says people make conscious decisions about what to wash and when – depending on the type of garment and the activity they did while wearing it. “Studies show that people wash jeans and woolen clothes less than cotton or polyester,” she says.
When it comes to sportswear, his research shows that there are two types of people. Those who are happy to train wearing the same clothes over and over, because they will just sweat again, and those who find it very gross.
“It depends on how much you think you’re sweating and smelling, which doesn’t always add up to reality,” she says, though it seems some people are wearing excessive sweaters. “People really don’t like it if they’ve spent a lot of money on a top performance and their clothes stink. And it comes down to business.
Research to develop anti-odor fabrics
Not surprisingly, the sportswear industry has closely followed the development of odor control fabrics for many years. Hoi Kwan Lam, executive vice president of textile innovation company HeiQ, says, “Polyester is an amazing fiber for sportswear because it’s lightweight, it doesn’t absorb moisture, and it can be improved to wick away moisture, so the wearer is not saturated with sweat. But he can smell body odor after wearing it,” she says.
And in some cases, even after washing it, says Blackburn. “It’s a huge problem that the industry has been trying to solve for years,” he says. “But it’s very hard.”
HeiQ has been at the forefront of this innovation, partnering with brands such as Patagonia, Hugo Boss and Mammut. Lam says HeiQ consumer research shows that odor-repellent garments can be worn for up to seven days without washing, significantly reducing their environmental footprint.
HeiQ Pure used silver as an antimicrobial and was the company’s leading technology. But NGOs have raised concerns that silver particles can escape during washing and enter river and marine ecosystems. The research is inconclusive, but the company holds Bluesign certification for sustainability. He then developed a sustainable, money-free alternative, HeiQ Fresh. This uses an amino sugar polymer derived from food processing waste. It targets volatile organic compounds produced by sweat, not just microorganisms (on which silver particles act). The smell of sweaty clothes isn’t bacteria but the byproduct of bacterial respiration, so even if you could get rid of all the bacteria, you wouldn’t eliminate the smell, Blackburn says.
HeiQ Life uses peppermint oil for odor control. As a raw material, peppermint is effective in controlling odors, but it is generally expensive. “If you can’t find a solution that’s financially viable, it’s not sustainable,” she says.
Will anti-odor fabrics change consumer behavior?
McQueen is skeptical that how much odor-busting fabrics will change how often we wash our clothes. “Unless it’s bulletproof in terms of not producing odors, I’m not convinced,” she says. She cites a Norwegian study in the journal design, creative process and fashion industry fashion practice, which showed that while nanosilver odor-blocking fabrics performed better than untreated materials in consumer tests, woolen and cotton items fared better. However, the weight of cotton when wet generally makes it unsuitable for sportswear, and the material itself has a significant carbon footprint.
Blackburn thinks we should see wool as part of the solution to getting consumers to wash their clothes less. “Merino wool is an amazing fiber in terms of how it doesn’t cling to these types of odors. We don’t use enough,” he says. “It’s also incredibly biodegradable and environmentally friendly. But it comes from animals and it’s a problem for the vegan movement.
It is also difficult to scale, especially merino wool. “Merino wool has a nice, high quality cotton feel to the skin, but we should focus on innovating to use coarse wool. British wool is a by-product of the meat industry and some is used in insulation but not in clothing, and it should be.
Should laundry brands be worried about the effects on their business if consumers start wearing clothes that require less washing? “They have a sustainable philosophy of trying to get people to wash on shorter cycles and at lower temperatures,” he says. “But you’re not going to bankrupt these businesses by washing them less frequently. Innovation will be needed to maintain the level of cleanliness we want between washes. And they’re probably already working on it.