Blog: Leonie BarrieCooler washes, greener results

Leonie Barrie | 24 April 2007

You might not think that reducing the temperature at which you wash your clothes is going to save the planet – after all, it’s not exactly rocket science – but research seems to suggest otherwise.

Announcing plans yesterday to change the care labels on almost three-quarters of its clothing ranges in a bid to encourage customers to lower washing temperatures to 30°C, UK high street retailer Marks & Spencer pointed to data from the Energy Saving Trust that found if we all moved to washing at 30°C we could save enough electricity to light every street lamp in the UK for 10 months.

It might seem like a small step to take now, but as businesses and consumers come under more and more pressure to reduce their carbon emissions it’s a fair bet we’re going to be hearing similar ideas from other sources in the not too distant future. And turning the dial on a washing machine is a lot easier and less disrupting to our daily lives than some of the energy-saving suggestions we might have to face.

But what about hanging garments on a washing line instead of tumble drying them, or not ironing them? These suggestions were put forward last year by the University of Cambridge as the most energy-saving steps at all. Washing a T-shirt at 40ºC rather than 60ºC reduced total energy use by 8% researchers found, but drying it on a hanger and not ironing it reduced energy use by half.

Fascinatingly, the survey discovered that transport accounted for 15% of the energy used in shipping cotton to China from America, making it up into a T-shirt then moving it to Europe. But buying and wearing the T-shirt (going to the shop, washing and ironing it) used nearly ten times as much as transport.

But one finding that should get the apparel industry to really sit up and take note – although it’s unlikely any action will be taken – is that making the clothes in the first place is causing most damage to the planet. Making clothes uses too many of the planet's resources says Cambridge, and things get even worse when the clothes stop being worn. Far too many are thrown into rubbish tips – producing methane that's even worse for the planet than the carbon dumped by washing too hot or ironing too often.

Are we likely to hear retailers advising their customers to buy fewer clothes if they want to prevent global warming and save the earth's resources? I think not.  

ANALYSIS: Do clothes miles matter?


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