Airing your dirty laundry is best for everyone.
FOR over 150 years after British colonisation, Mondays in Australian households were reserved for one particular chore. The day after the Christian Sabbath was, according to historian Graeme Davison, “almost universally observed as washing day”.
Professor Davison researched our laundering rituals (among other things) for his chapter in the 2008 book, Troubled Waters: Confronting the water crisis in Australian cities.
“In the mid-nineteenth century, the wash for a large family could occupy the washerwoman from early morning till well into the evening,” he wrote. “The laundry for an average family could require, in washing, boiling and rinsing, as much as 50 gallons [227 litres] of water.
“Most people, however, owned many fewer changes of clothes than we do, and changed them less frequently… Men wore business shirts several times, changing the detachable collars each day, before washing the shirt itself at the end of the week.”
By the end of World War II only two out of every hundred Melbourne households owned a washing machine. But that changed fast, Professor Davison said: by the late ’70s, it was nine out of ten.
These days, clothes washing accounts for about 15 per cent of household water use – about the same proportion as a century ago, even though water consumption, per capita, has more than doubled since then.
What we do in the laundry is usually hidden from public view. For her Masters thesis at University of Melbourne, sustainable fashion researcher Tullia Jack set about getting people talking.
She got thirty people (including herself) to wear a pair of jeans at least five days a week for three months, without washing them. The results, she says, were unremarkable: stains disappeared, there were no nasty odours, and no one noticed.
Earlier this year, in an exhibition called Nobody Was Dirty, the worn jeans were pinned to the walls at the National Gallery of Victoria for all to see, and smell.
One of Ms Jack’s motivations was evidence about the impacts of clothing, from production all the way to disposal. “When you look at all the different stages in the life cycle of a garment, the use phase – washing and drying – has the biggest environmental impact,” she says. “And the way we wash our clothes isn’t based on a scientific imperative – it’s more of a social construct.”
Early in her research, she came across an experiment conducted by Canadian student Josh Le, who wore the same pair of jeans for 15 months without washing them. The bacteria count two weeks after laundering was the same as at the end of the 15-month stretch.
The people who took part in Ms Jack’s study reported that they’d wash their clothes less often than they had beforehand – they felt freer to make up their own mind about whether or not the clothes needed it.
As a guide to reducing laundry, Ms Jack has devised a clothes-cleaning hierarchy. Once you take a garment off, hang it in a well-ventilated place. You can try freshening clothes by leaving them in the steamy bathroom while you shower, or hanging them outside in the sunshine.
Next, she suggests spot cleaning with moist cloth to remove visible dirt; then hand washing in cold water using biodegradable detergent. Last, and least, once you’ve got a full load ready, wash in cold water and dry on the line.