Recently, I listened to Malcom Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries Podcast on the most sustainable way to wash our clothes. It had me wondering, what is sustainable laundry detergent? Does washing with cold water really get my clothes clean?

With so many products in packaged in beautiful shades of green and nature patterns these days, it’s hard to know what products to trust with our dirty laundry.

Malcom’s podcast reflected on the early days of laundry with washing boards, clothes lines and homemade soaps. Ideally, we would all bring our loads to the river to wash with natural soaps and hang them to dry, then bask in the glow of a carbon-neutral wash. But this labor and time-intensive practice isn’t realistic for most of us. Truth be told, I’m quite grateful for the magic of our machines. My trusty front loader can soak, remove stains and rinse my garments all with the push of a button.

Things sure have gotten easier, but the water and energy usage add up.

According to The Laundry Project, The average American family does 8-10 loads of laundry every week. That translates to around 660 million loads every year, or 1,000 loads started every second in America.

What is the most carbon-intensive part of washing clothes?

In the podcast, Gladwell interviewed P&G’s North American section head for Fabric Care research and development, Tod Klien, or “the guru of American laundry”. When researching the carbon footprint of each laundry product, Klien found that the “product use phase”, or consumer laundry rituals, makes up two-thirds of environmental impact. The majority of this footprint comes from the energy used to heat the water.

Because the raw materials, manufacturing and shipment of laundry detergent is relatively insignificant in comparison with energy used to heat water, Gladwell concluded that “the environmental impact of a load of laundry turns out to be what we, the people at home, do.” That’s right folks, when it comes to laundry, we can make choices that make a difference.

Why Keep it Cold?

Using cold water saves 90% of energy in the use phase (Energy Star). It also helps your clothes last longer and reduces colors bleeding and fading. So not only will you be saving energy, you’ll look more stylish doing it!

Does Detergent Determine Climate Decency?

According to Klien, detergents use surfactants and polymers that help to capture the stain and draw it into the water, then use enzymes to break down the different types of stains. These enzymes must be be formulated specifically for cold water in order to be effective at cleaning clothes. The chemical reactions between detergent and stains slow down significantly as the temperature drops, so engineers have developed detergents specifically for washing with cold water.

Therefore, the “natural” formulas of many green-washed washing products might actually be worse at cleaning your loads in cold water than conventional ones.

But What About the Suds?

You may have seen detergents boasting about low suds, or others that show extra bubbles on the packaging. The suds debate largely comes down to the type of washing machine you have. Regular detergents are designed for more water, generating more soap bubbles than the high efficiency (HE) formulas. Most high-efficiency washing machines have sensors that sense for suds at the end of the rinse cycle. If there are any, it will do another rinse, using extra water for more suds. While all those bubbles make seem cleaner, less suds are usually better because too many can reposit soils back onto your clothing after drying (The Laundry Project).

So, what do we know?

The only way for detergents to truly be sustainable is if they function in cold water.

Washing in cold water is the best practice you can do after updating your appliances to energy efficient ones! By just switching from one button push to another, you can save 90% of your energy, reduce your carbon footprint, save money on utility bills and extend the life of your clothing! It really is that easy.

Other sustainable laundry tips from Treehugger:

  • Run full loads whenever possible

Machines use about the same amount of energy regardless of load size, so fill ‘em up. This could save your house 99 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year!

  • If your machine has one, use the high-spin option.

If you use a dryer, this reduces the amount of moisture in your clothes when loading them, cutting the time and energy needed to dry them.

  • Hang your clothes to dry, if possible.

This could save your house up to 700 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year, plus $75 bucks on your utility bill.

  • Update your appliances to more energy efficient models.

Check with your energy utility company what rebates are available for updating your appliances.