How to do less laundry

laundry on a line
Public Domain Unsplash

Take a moment to assess the 'dirty' garment before tossing it in the basket. You could save yourself some work.

A friend with stepchildren recently commented on the amount of laundry I must do on a weekly basis. "You're probably doing a load a day!" she exclaimed, describing how overwhelming her step-kids' laundry is when they visit on weekends.

It got me thinking about my own laundry habits and the amount of dirty clothing generated by my three young children. As strange as this may sound, I don't feel all that overwhelmed, nor do I put on a load a day. In fact, now that the youngest is out of cloth diapers, it's more like three loads per week, including one of bedsheets.

I strive to minimize my family's laundry for a number of reasons. It's an energy-intensive process that uses a lot of water. (I hang dry whenever possible.) It creates wear and tear on garments that shortens their lifespan and, in the case of synthetic fabrics, releases plastic microfibres into the environment (although I do toss a Cora Ball into the washing machine). I am also aware of Fashion Revolution's estimate that one-quarter of an item's carbon footprint comes from washing.

I have a few key strategies for keeping that laundry from piling up:

1) Buy more natural fabrics.

These do not hold onto odor nearly as much as synthetics. A pair of wool socks, for example, can be worn 3-4 days in a row, without smelling, as can a wool, hemp, or cotton shirt. I try to avoid polyester blends whenever possible because these smell faster and have to laundered more frequently.

2) Air them out.

This is an amazingly effective step that too often gets overlooked. Hanging clothes on an indoor laundry rack and leaving them overnight can make them smell much fresher the next day. Obviously this doesn't work if the item stinks like B.O. and needs laundering, but if a shirt just has that 'worn' smell but doesn't have a bad odor or visible dirt, it can work wonders.

3) Spot-wash.

So many of the spots my kids get on their clothing can be quickly wiped away with a wet cloth. Because they're still too young to perspire, this extends the use of the garment by an extra day or two. I do the same to my own clothes, wiping marks on my jeans and t-shirts, rather than throwing the whole thing in the laundry basket.

4) Rethink your standards.

To be clear, I expect my children (and myself) to look presentable and to smell good. I would never allow them to go to school in clothing that smelled or looked visibly dirty, and I expect them to change their underwear and socks every day without exception. However, I do think that our society's standards of laundry hygiene are a bit over the top. There's nothing wrong with wearing a shirt that's still clean, but not just cleaned.

It's also time we brought back the notion of play clothes, of dressing kids in rattier clothes that allow them to engage in messy outdoor play without the parent worrying about the inevitable laundry.

5) Own fewer clothes.

This may sound counterintuitive, but when you have only a handful of items in the closet that you really like wearing, you're more inclined to stretch the time between washes. I've realized this while living in a rental house with a single suitcase-worth of clothing, whereas when I've got more clothes kicking around, I tend to toss them in the laundry immediately.

These strategies won't work for everyone, nor are they a replacement for laundering when it's actually needed, but they're meant to be a reminder that laundering is not always the first solution. Stop, sniff, scan – and then scrub if you need to.

How to do less laundry
Take a moment to assess the 'dirty' garment before tossing it in the basket. You could save yourself some work.

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