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Why cleaning clothes sustainably is essential for circular fashion

January 12, 2023
Maria Jelenska

Why cleaning clothes sustainably is essential for circular fashion

Fast fashion's harmful practices have been gaining more and more public attention over the past few years. It’s not only the fashion savvy that have been hooked on the notion of sustainable fashion and become increasingly curious about how to lessen their wardrobe’s environmental impact. We’ve seen a boom of new sustainable brands, upcycling projects and the rise of the pre-loved market. One thing that is not talked about enough is how we care for garments post-purchase. Yet, garment cleaning is essential for achieving sustainability and circularity in fashion. An industry research and activist group, Fashion Revolution conducted a study into the carbon footprint of a garment. They found that washing, drying, and ironing clothes produce around a quarter (!) of a garment's carbon footprint during its lifespan. So, why is nobody talking about it?!

Sustainable fashion sustainable dry cleaning alternative

Environmental and health impact of cleaning clothes

The less glamorous, alas main part of our interaction with clothing is aftercare! Yet, as an industry, we are not being given the facts. Traditional cleaning cycle processes produce enormous amounts of CO2 and water. An average load uses as much as 80 litres! Cleaning garments at 60°C, followed by tumble drying, produces the equivalent of 3.3 kg of CO2. Assuming that this is done every other day, it would create a shocking number of 603.9 kg of CO2 each year

As if this was not scary enough, according to Ellen McArthur Foundation an average wash cycle releases around 700 000 microplastic fibres. Plastic microfibres washed off from synthetic clothes contribute up to 35% of the microplastic found in the oceans. The plastic which is released into our waters is not only detrimental to the environment but later enters the food chain and ends up on our plates. As you can see on the graphic created by the scientists at GUPPYWe are eating and drinking plastic in products such as fish, chicken, honey and beer as well as (tap and bottled) water. Recent research shows that plastic fibres are even present in rainwater too.

Microplastic entering the foodchain

The environment isn't the only thing affected by aftercare, it impacts communities and individuals too. Detergents used in traditional garment cleaning are often toxic and contain chemicals including chlorine bleach, dyes, fragrances and optical brighteners which contaminate our waterways. 

Unfortunately, dry cleaning is not the solution to delicate garment care either. Frankly, it is neither dry nor clean. Traditional dry cleaning involves soaking clothes in Perchloroethylene ("Perc") solvent, which is a human carcinogen. It has been already banned in some countries, including France and parts of the US. Workers exposed to this chemical at dry cleaning facilities often suffer from chronic headaches, dizziness, and nausea, and evidence suggests that long-term exposure can cause miscarriages and leukaemia. No one should have to work with Perc or wear conventionally dry-cleaned garments on their skin.

Innovations in the textile cleaning industry

Luckily, there are innovations in the industry that are counteracting these issues. At Oxwash, our mission is to eliminate the impact of washing on our planet and people and some other like-minded companies want to do the same. We believe in communities coming together to create a greater impact.

Reducing CO2 emissions

At Oxwash, with the newest technology it is possible to save 2kg CO2 emissions per 12-kilogram wash. Biodegradable detergents, coupled with ozone integration, provide excellent cleanliness at a 20°C as opposed to the standard 40-60°C. Bacteria and microorganisms are removed by oxidation rather than heat with the integrated ozone process. Ozone gas quickly and safely converts to oxygen in the process, leaving no harmful residuals or by-products. 

Water saving

On average each cleaning cycle we run uses 32 litres less water than conventional machines. In our Oxford facility, we reclaim water from the rinse phases to use in the next wash cycle. This saves up to 60% of the water consumption versus a typical commercial washing machine and 70% compared to a domestic washing machine. This is something we'd like to roll out throughout all our lagoons, including our new facility opening in the Spring. 

Microplastic filtration

The filters we use in our washing machines are designed by PlanetCare and capture up to 98% of microplastic fibres released from garments. Once full the filters are returned to PlanetCare and the microfibres are stored for future use in insulation mats. In 2021 alone, Oxwash successfully diverted 22 billion microplastics from the ocean! 

Increasing garment lifespan with sustainable care

At Oxwash we use state-of-the-art cleaning technology that allows for keeping the garments in the loop for longer. How we care for garments is critical for increasing their lifespan. Cleaning garments at low temperatures has been found to prolong the garment's lifespan up to threefold. In most cases, washing at low temperatures is effective in both removing the stains as well as reducing energy consumption - (this is especially relevant with the current cost of living crisis!).  Commercial laundry manufacturer, Electrolux, launched a campaign called The Care Label Project, creating a new care symbol – ‘Don’t Overwash.’ They intended to inspire consumers and businesses to wash garments less. They want to avoid people and companies alike from the harsh and damaging dry cleaning process and to use lower washing temperatures. That’s exactly what we promote and do at Oxwash as well. 

There are other great innovations in the industry that help to rejuvenate the garments. Re_Fresh laundry tablets, created by enzyme scientist Harm Kuilderd, are made from natural enzymes derived from proteins and fungi. They have the power to break down the top level of fibres (the most worn down) and gently reveal the vibrant fibres underneath. This refreshes the appearance and colour of clothes, bringing them back to life.

A pair of trousers before and after using the Re_Fresh enzyme tablet

Supporting circular economy

Although fast fashion is still a large-scale issue, the circular market is booming. Thread Up predicts that resale will outstrip fast fashion by 2030. A shift within the industry presents an opportunity to significantly extend the life of garments and reduce the environmental impact of fashion.  It is estimated that continuing to wear a garment nine months longer could decrease its environmental impact by 20– 30%!  Circular fashion models such as rental and resale need quality, sustainable garment cleaning to operate to scale. Oxwash helps to power circular fashion by providing an expert cleaning platform for our fashion partners - keeping garments in circulation for longer. 

Leading sustainable fashion group, Ellen MacArthur Foundation published their New Textiles Economy Report that included a model outlining the main ambitions for a sustainable fashion economy. As you can see, the four main points of concern all circle back to how we clean our clothes. As an industry, we need to phase out substances of concern and reduce energy usage as well as plastic microfibre release. The key is to improve the efficiency of resources, move to renewable energy and increase the utilisation of clothing. When clothes are cleaned in a gentle, sustainable manner we increase their longevity allowing them to be resold, repurposed or upcycled.  At Oxwash, we emphasise the importance of each of these factors. We build our business on the fundamentals of carbon neutrality, setting next-zero targets and removing microplastics. Following this clear mission allows our operations to support sustainable fashion and circularity. 

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Garment cleaning truly is the backstage of the fashion industry. That being said, it is not discussed enough, especially when it comes to its environmental impact. Even so, it is and will increasingly continue to be the backbone of circular fashion. To decrease garment cleaning's impact on the environment, we need to use technology that utilises low temperatures, reduces CO2 emissions, saves water and filters out microplastics. The industry has to start leaning more towards circular fashion models such as pre-loved and rental, and sustainable cleaning is an inseparable part of this journey. Find out more about what we do to reduce cleaning impact on the planet in our Sustainability Report 2021.

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