Learning from Laundry

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Laundry practices, clothing design and resource consumption has been the focus of my research over the past eight years. While laundry is a pretty mundane chore that most of us don’t like to spend too much time doing, let alone thinking about, it’s also an extremely resource intensive and polluting practice. Our laundry loads have reached record high volumes. A quick glance back at history helps show us some of the reasons why laundry practices have evolved in environmentally significant ways.

In the nineteenth century, the norm was to do one large laundry wash every six weeks. As the washing and drying of linens occurred partly outside and was easily observed by neighbours and the local community, it was also an opportunity to show how many linens a household was in possession of. The fewer washes a household did during the year, the more linens it meant they must have – reflecting wealth, prosperity and good social standing. So in total contrast to today, it was in the interests of the household to save up their linens for as long as possible, getting maximum use out of them before surrendering to a wash day. Cleaning for cleanliness’s sake was less of a concern than the social signals which laundry sent out.

Fast-forward to today and the picture is very different. Our laundry practices have changed more radically in the past couple of centuries than they ever had done. Over the last 200 years, laundry has transformed from being a low-technology hand practice done in the home or by local laundresses with the use of a few basic implements; to a fully mechanised steam industry based on models of mass production and profit maximisation, and finally back to a domesticated home practice. By the mid twentieth century, in the post war years, changes in consumer culture led to the wider availability of consumer credit and electric washing machines rapidly gained in popularity. Far from the eight or nine washes a year that was the norm in the nineteenth century, today the average household in the UK carries out 284 wash loads a year, equivalent to 5 or 6 cycles a week. In terms of carbon footprint, it’s estimated that this accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in a garments lifecycle.

These large-scale changes in how, when and where laundry is done happened alongside new meanings, values and utilities for laundry. For example, as laundry became more connected to the home it took on meanings of proper homemaking and acted as a validation of care for the family. Some of my own research into contemporary laundry practices has also shown that laundry carries many other functions and meanings asides from removing dirt and odour from clothing. For example, throwing clothes into the laundry basket is also a convenient way to tidy clothes away even when they are not really dirty. However, initiatives that look to reduce impacts from laundry tend to focus on greater technological efficiency and often fail to recognise laundry as a socially constructed practice and therefore miss opportunities to innovate.

So what can we learn from this for fashion design and sustainability? One thing is certain – by developing better understandings of the social practices that underpin our behaviours, designers can access a much richer and more potent space from which to design new products, services and systems in support of less resource dependent futures.

Sources 

Valuing Our Clothes: the evidence base, WRAP Technical Report, July 2012

Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality by Elizabeth Shove

Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys by Kate Fletcher

English Laundresses: A Social History 1850-1930 by Patricia Malcolmson