Washing with a Clean Conscience

Washing with a Clean Conscience


Who doesn’t love the smell of a recently washed jumper, the crispness of recently laundered sheets, or the warmth of a towel fresh out the tumble drier?

We all know hygiene matters, and as the coronavirus has shown, it matters more so now than ever.  However, keeping the textiles in our lives fresh and clean can mean a whole lot of laundry....and when you then add kids to the mix, this wash-pile somehow grows exponentially.  Not only does this mean we have to invest a lot of time doing the laundry, it’s also bad for the environment.

The facts

Research by Mike Berners-Lee has found that an 8kg load of laundry machine washed at 40oC produces 0.54 of CO2e (Crumbie, 2021).  Meanwhile, if you decide to use the tumble drier afterwards, it will increase the amount of CO2e produced for that wash by about four times!  So if we tumble dry our 8kg wash, it has now produced about 2kg of CO2e(Crumbie, 2021).  2kg of CO2e is about the same amount as is produced by traveling 20km by bus – the equivalent of travelling from Central London to Dagenham, Essex (based on the average UK bus journey producing 0.1kgCO2e per km per person [West, 2021]).

To fully appreciate this fact, it’s worth understanding what CO2e is. 

Standing for Carbon Dioxide Equivalents, CO2e measures not just carbon dioxide (CO2), but the whole collection of gases in the atmosphere, which interact with the amount of energy on Earth.  When the level of these gases (known as ‘greenhouse gases’ or GHGs) increases in the atmosphere, it increases energy levels trapped on Earth and so acts to increase global temperature (Tanner and Horn-Phathanothai, 2014).  Put simply, CO2e is a measure of all GHGs produced, with non-CO2e GHGs weighted to the amount of CO2 that would need to be produced to create that same level of warming (Brander, 2021).

Of course, washing machines also use a lot of water!

The average machine in the UK uses 50 litres of water per wash. However, water usage can vary significantly from 33 litres to as much as 75 litres (In the Wash, 2018). 

Producing textiles in the first place also uses water.  But using re-claimed fabrics can save water.  For example, lining our first collection of Happy Blankets with upcycled deadstock fabric from the Bangladeshi garments industry – rather than with freshly produced cotton – saved about 111,750 litres of water (equivalent of 1,118 average baths*).  Meanwhile, creating our re-usable cotton gift bags from vintage saris saved a further 67,050 litres (equivalent to 671 average baths**).  This shows that what textiles you buy in the first place influences environmental impact…..yet we still need to think about washing. 

What gets released?

Synthetic fabrics release microplastics when washed (Hann et al, 2018).  This means that every time we wash clothes, sheets or blankets made from man-made fibres, tiny pieces of plastic end up in the water system (Hann et al, 2018).  Microplastics are so small that when they enter the food chain, which can cause physical harm to marine wildlife, as well as releasing chemicals into the food chain (Hann et al, 2018).  Estimates suggest that from the UK alone, a volume of microplastics equivalent to 12 blue whales is produced every year from washing clothes (Zerr, 2021).  On the other hand, natural fibres (such as the cotton we use to create all our products) are biodegradable, so washing them doesn’t harm the environment in the same way as synthetic fibres do (Hass, 2021).

Then there is the problem of chemicals released into the environment through the use of washing detergents. There are numerous chemicals which cause problems (The Better Home Team, 2020).  One study highlighted that when released into the water system, detergents can causes excessive amount of plant growth  (Paloviita and Järvi, 2008).  Known as eutrophication, this causes significant environmental problems.  Rapid plant growth on the surface of the water prevents light from reaching plants below the surface, meaning they start to die off, increasing levels of bacteria in the water and reducing levels of oxygen, making it inhabitable for fish (Alistair, nd).  Chemicals in detergents can also act to change the delicate natural balance of the water such as temperature, salinity and pH (Mousavi and Khodadoost, 2019).



What can we do to minimise environmental impact?

So what can we do to keep our textiles clean, but tread more lightly on the planet? 
Well, luckily with a bit of research and a few behavioural changes, we can keep things smelling sweet while minimising our ecological footprint.  Here are some of my favourite tips:
  • Turn the temperature down – you could save 100g of CO2e by washing at 40OC rather than 30OC (Berners-Lee and Clark, 2010).  Washing synthetic fabrics at a lower temperature can also help reduce the amount of microfibres shed (Zerr, 2021)

  • Fill up the machine – waiting until you have a full load helps reduce the amount of water used from machine-washing textiles (In the Wash, 2018). Plus, having a fuller washing machine reduces the amount the clothes inside rub against each other, and so reduces the amount of microfibres shed from synthetic fabrics (Zerr, 2021).
  • Change the wash setting you select – Using a cotton wash cycle setting rather than a synthetic wash setting can reduce water used in the wash, as can avoiding extra rinse settings (In the Wash, 2018).  Or of course, you could try ditching the washing machine every now and again and washing by hand, to reduce the amount of water used even further, as washing by hand can uses less water than a machine wash (Norfolk natural living, nd; Jeannette, 2016).  Khushi Kantha’s Head of Production, Rowsa, takes full advantage of this when preparing the hand-woven, hand-dyed cotton fabric we use to make our rigorously safety-tested Happy Blankets – she washes each piece of fabric we use in our blankets by hand!
  • Use a washing line rather than a tumble dryer – It has been suggested that if a home which runs the tumble dryer 200 times in a year switched to use a washing line it would save nearly half a tonne of CO2e (Berners-Lee and Clark, 2010).
  • Select your laundry detergent wisely – Certain chemicals in laundry detergents are significantly more environmentally damaging than others (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2010).  However, not all detergents contain these highly damaging ingredients, and there are a number of tried and tested products (Denham and Mccue, 2022; Cooks-Campbell, 2017). Simply swapping your washing products could help reduce the amount of toxins your wash releases into the ocean.  Some recommended and more environmental-friendly laundry products include Ecover, Splosh and Seventh Generation (Denham and Mccue, 2022), while parenting website Motherly recommends Dapple detergent and fabric softener by laundry company Attitude (Cooks-Campbell, 2017)
  • Use a microfibre catcher in your washing machine – There are a number of products which exist that are designed to catch microfibres in your washing machine, to prevent them entering the water system. If you do need to wash textiles made from synthetic fibres, using a product such as the Guppyfriend washing bag or Cora Ball can limit the amount of microfibres which makes it into the waterways from your washing machine (Zerr, 2021; Okamoto, 2021)
  • Buy textiles made from natural fibres – most natural fibres are more environmentally friendly than synthetic options, as they do not release microplastics into the water cycle during washing (Krijan, 2022) .  Plus, completely natural fibres are 100% biodegradable (Krijan, 2022).   Natural fibres also have the advantage of typically being more durable than synthetic counter-parts (Krijan, 2022)  – and if your textiles last longer, you won’t have to throw them away so often, reducing what is sent to landfill.  Our Happy Blankets are made to last: instilled with the strength of the mothers who create them, we design them to withstand the daily wear-and-tear of life with little ones, and be treasured from child to child .


Hopefully these ideas have got you thinking about how you can give your laundry load a smaller ecological footprint. 
What are your favourite tips for more environmentally conscious laundry?

* The average capacity of a bath, filled to its maximum is 180 litres (Bath Barn, 2019; Harwood & Associates, 2020).  However, we don’t all fill the bath right up to its maximum capacity and if running a bath to wash usually uses between 50l and 150l depending on how deep it is (GWM Water, 2018). We have used the mid-point of 100l for our calculations i.e. we divided the 111,750l of water that would have been used to produce fresh cotton, rather than upcycled deadstock fabric from the Bangladeshi garments industry, by 100, to calculate that we have saved the equivalent of 1,118 baths through this aspect of our production process.

** Similarly, 67,050l ÷ 100l = 670.5


Alistair (nd) ‘5.4.4 Fertilisers: The Use of Natural and Artificial Fertilisers’ Save my exams [Online] Available at https://www.savemyexams.co.uk/a-level/biology/aqa/17/revision-notes/5-energy-transfers-in–between-organisms-a-level-only/5-4-nutrient-cycles-a-level-only/5-4-4-fertilisers/ (Accessed 21 July 2022)

Bagai, E. (2018) ‘Chemical Water Pollution Caused by Every Day Detergents’, Sciencing, 13 March 2018 [Online]. Available at https://sciencing.com/define-chemical-pollution-6027793.html (Accessed 14 December 2021)

Bath Barn (2019) ‘Bathtub Capacity: How Much Water Does a Bath Hold’, Bath Barn, 2 July 2019 [Online]. Available at https://bathbarn.co.uk/bathtub-capacity-how-much-water-does-a-bath-hold/ (Accessed 17 January 2022)

Berners-Lee, M. and Clark,D. (2010) ‘What’s the carbon footprint of… a load of laundry?’, The Guardian, 25 November 2010 [Online] Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/nov/25/carbon-footprint-load-laundry (Accessed 14 December 2021)

Cooks-Campbell, A. (2017) ‘Eco-Friendly Baby Laundry’, Motherly, 25 May 2017 [Online] Available at https://www.mother.ly/parenting/6-eco-friendly-laundry-essentials/ (Accessed 04 May 2022)

Crumbie, A. (2021) ‘Washing Machines’, ethical consumer, 10 June 2021 [Online] Available at https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/home-garden/shopping-guide/washing-machines (Accessed 14 December 2021)

Denham, J. and Mccue, H. (2022) ‘8 best eco-friendly laundry detergents that actually work’, Good Housekeeping, 18 February 2022 [Online] Available at https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/product-reviews/house-garden/g36815448/best-eco-friendly-laundry-detergents/ (Accessed 04 May 2022)

GWM Water (2018) ‘How much water you use’, GWM Water, 11 February 2018 [Online] Available at https://www.gwmwater.org.au/conserving-water/saving-water/how-much-water-you-use (Accessed 19 January 2022)

Hann, S., Darrah, C., Sherrington, C., Blacklaws, K., Horton, I. and Thompson, A. (2018) Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution, [Online], Bristol, United Kingdom, Eunomia Research and Consulting Ltd. Available at https://cdn.friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/reducing-household-plastics_0.pdf  (Accessed 07 December 2021)

Harwood & Associates (2020) ‘How Much Water Does A Bath Use?’, Harwood & Associates [Online]. Available at https://www.harwoodandassociates.co.uk/faqs/how-much-water-does-a-bath-use/ (Accessed 17 January 2022)

Hass (2021) ‘How Sustainable Fabrics Reduce Microplastics’, Hass,  18 October 2021 [Online]. Available at https://shophass.com/blogs/news/microplastics-sustainable-clothing-brands (Accessed 12 July 2022)

In the Wash (2018) How much water Does a Washing Machine Use (UK), In the Wash, 18 February 2018 [Online] Available at https://inthewash.co.uk/washing-machines/how-much-water-does-a-washing-machine-use/ (Accessed 14 December 2021)

Jeannette (2016) ‘Hand Wash Clothes Effortlessly – All While Saving the Earth’ The Eco Guide, 17 September 2016 [Online] Available at https://theecoguide.org/hand-wash-clothes-effortlessly-all-while-saving-earth

Krijan, L. (2022) ‘The power of earth – Advantages of natural fibers’, Sanvt, 20 February 2022, [Online] Available at https://sanvt.com/journal/advantages-of-natural-fibers-over-synthetic-fibres/ (Accessed 06 May 2022)

(Mousavi S.A. and Khodadoost, F. (2019) ‘Effects of detergens on natural ecosystems and wastewater treatment processes: a review’ Environmental Science and Pollution Research vol. 26 26439 – 26448 pp Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334725722_Effects_of_detergents_on_natural_ecosystems_and_wastewater_treatment_processes_a_review (Accessed 21 July 2022)

Norfolk natural living (nd) ‘Is it better to wash your clothes by hand?’ Norfolk natural living, [Online] Available at https://www.norfolknaturalliving.com/blogs/journal/is-hand-washing-your-clothes-better-than-using-the-washing-machine (Accessed 14 July 2022)

Okamoto, K. (2021) ‘Your Laundry Sheds Harmeful Microfibers. Here’s What You Can Do About It.’, The New York Times: Wirecutter, 5 August 2021, [Online]. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/reduce-laundry-microfiber-pollution/ (Accessed 04 May 2022)

Paloviita, A. and Järvi, P. (2008) ‘Environmental value chain management of laundry detergents in the use phase’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol. 32, 607-612 pp [Online] Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1470-6431.2008.00692.x?saml_referrer (Accessed 21 July 2022)

The Better Home Team (2020) ‘8 Harmful Chemicals in Your Laundry Detergent That You Should Avoid’, The Better India, 4 August 2020 [Online] Available at https://www.thebetterindia.com/234603/harmful-chemicals-laundry-detergent-you-should-avoid-the-better-home/ (Accessed 14 December 2021)

US Environmental Protection Agency (2010) ‘Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) Action Plan’, US Environmental Protection Agency, 18 August 2010 [Online] Available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-09/documents/rin2070-za09_np-npes_action_plan_final_2010-08-09.pdf (Accessed 03 May 2022)

West, E. (2021) ‘How to Calculate Carbon Emissions from your Local Bus Trip’, Thrust Carbon, 14 January 2021 [Online]. Available at https://www.thrustcarbon.com/insights/how-to-calculate-carbon-emissions-from-your-local-bus-trip  (Accessed 31 January 2022)

Zerr, C. (2021) ‘The plastic pollution threat from clothing’, ethical consumer, 11 June 2021 [Online] Available at https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/fashion-clothing/plastic-pollution-threat-clothing (Accessed 04 May 2022)


About the Author


Clare started volunteering for Khushi Kantha in June 2021, initially working on calculating the carbon footprint for our first collection of Happy Blankets.  Before this, she was studying for an MSc in Climate Change and Development with SOAS University of London, while working in the education sector, which she still does.  In her spare time, she enjoys reading, walks with friends and keeping active.

Back to journal