Cold Water Greenwashing?

Washing clothes in cold water needs some special help that doesn't help the environment. (Photo: Sean Freese [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

The LA Times reported yesterday that a major lawsuit is under way against Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and two other major manufacturers of household cleaning products. The suit — being filed in New York on behalf of six state and national environmental and health groups including the Sierra Club — will force the companies to fully disclose the chemical ingredients in their cleaning products and publish the effects that the products can have on the environment and human health.

The lawsuit invokes past laws and acts regarding toxic chemicals in cleaning products; things may get a bit tricky as proceedings move ahead considering the powerful parties involved and the ubiquity of the products in question. This got me thinking about a slightly tangential issue: The old cold water versus hot water laundry debate.

For a while now, washing with cold water has been considered the most environmentally sound method of laundering. According to one of the groups filing suit, the Sierra Club, 86 percent of the energy needed to wash a load of laundry comes from heating the water; if a household laundered with cold water exclusively for a year they’d stamp out 1,600 pounds of CO2 emissions.

The interest in eco- and budget-friendly cold water laundering led to the development of Tide Coldwater in 2005. This specially formulated detergent (available in powder or liquid) claims to work just as powerfully in cold water as Tide’s other products work in warm and hot water. Although the product is marketed as “green” due to its super-strength cold washing abilities, it also contains petrochemicals and non-biodegradable ingredients. This prompted accusations of greenwashing.

So what, I ask, is the worse of two evils: Washing cold with a special detergent containing polluting chemical ingredients or washing warm/hot with a “natural” detergent?

Whatever the case, I do think it’s a step in the right direction for Tide, a Procter & Gamble company. I use Arm & Hammer Essentials liquid detergent — the price is right and baking soda has never let me down — and wash colors in cold water and whites in warm water (so sue me, I spill a lot). Arm and Hammer, by the way, is owned by Church & Dwight, another company involved in the described lawsuit.

I’ve never used Tide Coldwater or other special cold-water detergents (I don’t think there are many out there, unlike HE detergents) so I can’t draw a comparison. In the end, I wonder if it even really matters what kind of detergent you use in what kind of water.

On a related note, should laundromats (I use one myself) charge more for hot and warm water washes? Makes sense to me!

Via [The LA Times]