Responsible fashionistas are already cutting back on dry cleaning and washing their everyday clothes at 30°C. Choosing the best available detergent, and reconsidering how you use it, can make a huge difference to the sustainability of your wash. We take a closer look at the options.
Powder or liquid?
The conventional wisdom is that laundry liquid is easier to handle, can be used direct on stains, dissolves more quickly, works better with hard water, and leaves no powder residue on your clothes. Broadly speaking, liquids generally use fewer chemicals per wash than powder and perform better across most environmental indicators. However, it’s a lot easier to package powder without using plastic.
Either way, dosing frugally is an easy way to cut the impact of each load. Some people use half the amount and boost that with washing soda. Capsules or pods require extra production and complex packaging, and because the manufacturers want to make sure they always work, contain the most you could need, preventing you from varying the dose in response to the level of soiling or local water hardness. If you live in a soft-water area (or pre-soften your water) and use pods, you’re probably using way too much. Concerns have also been raised about the soluble PVA typically used to encapsulate the dose.
How does laundry liquid work?
The main active ingredient of any detergent is surfactant, which keeps the dirt suspended in the water. Most use LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate), synthesised from crude oil. The law requires this key ingredient to biodegrade by 60% within 28 days in the presence of oxygen. However, LAS won’t biodegrade without oxygen and most biodegradation happens in the absence of oxygen, so the bar for legal approval is pretty low. Ethically-motivated companies like Bio-D say their plant-based surfactants biodegrade completely within a week. What’s more, this law only applies to the surfactant, typically 3-20% of a laundry liquid.
So what’s all this other stuff?
Excellent question. A look at the label on the average mainstream supermarket offering can be sobering. And the law doesn’t even require a brand to list all the ingredients!
With liquids, a lot of it is, of course, water. Many brands now come concentrated in smaller bottles, which significantly reduces not only the amount of plastic needed to contain it but also the weight to be transported. Avoid the tendency to assume you’re getting more if you leave the shop with a bigger bottle. A more useful indicator is the estimated number of washes usually shown on the package. Dry powders win here, of course, and some companies are offering more concentrated versions. On the other hand, all concentrates need to be stored and used more carefully. Work out what an appropriate dose looks like or you might be tempted to use too much.
Once a major ingredient in laundry cleansers, Phosphates (or Phosphonates) may be included to boost the effectiveness of the surfactant. Beside their health implications for humans, when released into waterways they don’t biodegrade and can feed toxic algal blooms which create oxygen-depleted dead zones, killing fish and other aquatic life. Ecover was initially created primarily to produce laundry detergents without them. Although they’re now restricted in the UK, they’re still not completely banned, and may be found in low concentrations in some laundry products. At least this should be disclosed on the label, but choose an explicitly phosphate-free brand to be sure.
Biological laundry liquid contains enzymes which break down protein, starch and fat, boosting stain removal. Naturally occurring and biodegradable, they can be a boon now we’re all washing at 30°C. Some people choose to avoid them because they find they aggravate skin conditions like eczema. Again, they should be clearly labelled on the package.
Optical brighteners use reflective chemicals called stilbenes to create an illusion of dazzling cleanliness. Non-biodegradable, and now common in rivers and seas, they’re suspected hormone disruptors, toxic to fish, and can cause allergic skin reactions. Since they don’t actually make your clothes cleaner, they’re best avoided.
The word Fragrance, Perfume or Parfum on a label indicates a proprietary mix of various ingredients, potentially including hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic musks and ethylene oxide, not to mention animal products, which the brand is not legally required to disclose. The presence of such a mystery cocktail has been associated with allergies, dermatitis and asthma attacks. The big brands use them freely, and heavily in fabric conditioners. Products from the most ethical companies tend to be unscented or to use only essential oils, listing them all separately on the label.
The testing of household products on animals was banned in the UK in 2015. In reality this made little actual difference, since it’s ingredients that are tested on animals, not the finished product. Lots of companies still use ingredients that have been tested on animals. Some also contain animal-derived ingredients, usually either hidden behind a chemical-sounding name or not disclosed at all. Look out for products from companies which make a point of stating their policy of respecting animals and have recognised cruelty-free and vegan accreditations.
The production of palm oil is a leading cause of global deforestation and biodiversity loss. It can turn up in laundry liquids as a surfactant. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be as a palm oil derivative, listed, if at all, under one of a whole raft of potential ingredient names. The only way to be sure is to buy from a company with a clear policy of either avoiding it or sourcing it sustainably. Reliable certification options include POFCAP, the international Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark, and RSPO, for responsible sourcing.
In 2014, Ecover’s plans to replace the palm oil in their products with an oil produced by genetically engineered algae provoked criticism from environmental NGOs led by Canadian anti-GM group ETC, and they dropped the idea. This same oil is, however, now used in Unilever’s soaps. Look out for companies with a clear policy of avoiding GMOs, (a.k.a. bioengineered or biotechnology-derived ingredients) in all their products.
Plastics and other synthetics
The law requiring surfactants to be biodegradable doesn’t apply to additives, which in laundry liquid can include liquid polymers and plastic microbeads, included to make the product look opaque or milky, or even just as a bulking agent. These petroleum-derived ingredients biodegrade poorly, remaining for years in our ecosystem. And no, neither were ever banned from cleaning products in the UK.
Even more alarming is PVA, or polyvinyl alcohol, a synthetic, soluble polymer now widely used to encapsulate liquid in pods and to create the latest format, laundry sheets. If you’ve been wondering about that plasticky-looking film holding in your Smol, that’s this. The usual line is that it’s biodegradable, a bold assumption to make of a synthetic polymer. It might be more accurate to say that no one’s yet proved conclusively that it isn’t. It may not even completely dissolve. A 2017 Newcastle University study found ingested fibre fragments in the bodies of 100% of crustaceans living in the Mariana trench, the very deepest place in the ocean. These included unidentified polyvinyls closely resembling PVA or PVC.
Unfortunately, laundry liquids tend to come in large, single-use plastic bottles, which also have a devastating impact on our environment. The many new ‘eco laundry’ vendors base their green claims mainly on the fact that they can be transported to you without involving a plastic bottle, but these rely on PVAs to get the detergent into your washing machine. The detergent itself may be fairly standard fare, containing many of the nasties listed above. While you can cut sheets or strips up, capsules also force you to use a pre-fixed dose. The greenest options currently available for liquid are either to take a pre-existing bottle to your local refilling station or to order a large quantity in a bag supported inside a cardboard box. Look out for 5-litre or even 20-litre refills. Many ethical companies have turned their attention back to improving powders, which can at least be sold in just cardboard.
Where your money goes
Finally, think about what you might be supporting when you hand over your cash. It’s comparatively simple to avoid a brand like Persil, which is owned by Unilever, best known for the sort of cleaning product you’ll be wanting to avoid and with a fairly unconvincing line on animal testing. The least damaging option in your supermarket may be Method or Ecover, companies at least committed to offering a more ethical mainstream alternative, but both these brands have been boycotted by supporters of Naturewatch Foundation after their purchase, in 2017, by S C Johnson, which tests on animals. We’d suggest investing instead in the work of Bio-D, a still independent company clearly working for genuine solutions rather than just sales, which at time of writing offers the best range of options in terms of both formulas and packaging.
What about fabric softeners and dryer sheets?
Liquid fabric conditioners work by leaving a positive charge on the fabric, making the fibres stand up so it feels soft. They can reduce static cling and make it easier to shake out wrinkles. They seem to be promoted these days more for adding freshness in the form of a lot of synthetic Fragrance, which may leave traces of irritants, allergens and neurotoxins on your nice clean clothes. They ruin the absorbency of your towels, the wicking properties of your gym wear and the fire resistance of baby clothes. The mainstream ones are petroleum-based and many contain animal fat. Dryer sheets – made from single-use polyester – do much the same job, but considering these also implies that you’re using a tumble-dryer, which consumes more than twice as much electricity as a washing machine.
The thing about fabric conditioner is that you shouldn’t really need it. The best way to care for your clothes is to wash them gently but well without coating them in all sorts of junk which was only there to sell you the product. Problems like scratchiness tend to arise from detergent or mineral residues, so it makes more sense to try to get rid of those. Static cling is only a problem if you tumble-dry. If your laundry needs to be perfumed in order to smell clean you might need to reconsider your detergent or deep-clean your machine. Of course a nice aroma can brighten your washday mood, but to achieve that all you need to do is choose a simple laundry cleanser that contains fragrant essential oils. There are more environmentally-friendly, vegan and cruelty-free fabric conditioners available, but we say ditch them altogether.
What to do
A number of detergent manufacturers are working hard to solve this knotty problem, although you will have to venture beyond the supermarket to find them. Avoiding detergent altogether is still the greenest option, and laundering less often also helps. Air clothes between wears to keep them smelling fresh, and don’t wash until you have a full load.
One thing to do first is to consider your local water supply. If you have hard water, pre-treating to make it softer will help whatever washing solution you choose to work that bit better. It doesn’t have to be some complicated setup in your basement – even adding a magnet between the water outlet and your machine’s inlet hose can help. Then there’s your machine. All that chemical goop can build up, especially if it includes animal fat from a conditioner, and without a strong fragrance to cover it up, may leave a strange smell on your wash. White vinegar or soda crystals are both great at getting your machine ready for the job.
Machine washing in water alone can freshen a lightly-soiled load, but for stain removal, you’re probably going to have to add something. One interesting solution is re-usable eco balls or eco eggs. These contain pellets which typically loosen the dirt by de-ionising and altering the pH balance of the water, sometimes supplemented by a very simple detergent. The concept, which is still evolving, has been around for more than a decade now, and some people swear by them. They certainly cut out the plastic bottles, and can be very economical. They may be more reliable on cottons than synthetics, and with softer water.
Natural, compostable and renewable, soapnuts, from the Asian soapnut tree, contain a natural detergent called saponin. These work best at 60°C, but pre-soaking them, or boiling them and using the resulting stock may help for a cooler wash. Or it’s actually cheap and easy to make your own washing cleanser from soap. Avoid soaps containing moisturizer or other skin treats as these interfere with cleaning effectiveness. Vegetable-based Castile soap is a good choice. Buy it as a paper-wrapped bar and grate it, or dissolve it in water and store it in a bottle. Adding bicarb, soda crystals or white vinegar to your wash or pre-treating stubborn stains with an eco-friendly stain remover can help these gentler solutions along. (Unfortunately, soda crystals are widely sold in plastic bags, but you can buy them in a box.)
Try adding a little white vinegar via the conditioner dispenser to remove any scratchy residues. It’s natural, hypoallergenic, helps with static cling and to loosen any creases, and actually cleans your machine rather than clogging it up.
Line-dry whenever possible – it’s great for removing smells. The UV in sunlight has a biocidal, bleaching effect, and can sometimes see off those last few stains. Even a clothes horse on the balcony (or in a well-ventilated room) is considerably better than tumble-drying. If you have to tumble-dry, an interesting development is the dryer ball. These claim to soften clothes and remove cling, but most promisingly, they’ve been proven to cut drying time, which alone would reduce both your carbon footprint and your bills. Because they work by separating the clothes to allow air to circulate better, any ball would actually do (even a ball of scrunched-up foil!) but the absorbent ones speed up drying even more.
The trick, really, is to change the way you think about laundry. Most of us have been sold on an ideal of clean that isn’t even actually clean. Why not experiment with different solutions for different kinds of loads, and see if you can’t cut the impact of that washday even a bit? Your clothes will benefit and your purse might, too!