Ethical laundry: Detergent-free, in cold water or by hand?

Image result for eco laundry detergent ratings
Image from Consumer Reports

Ethical laundry: Washing without detergent – is it possible?


Because this blog deals with fashion, it is only natural to ask: “How do you wash your clothes?” Recently, I wrote about sustainable fabrics for fashion and one way of reducing the environmental impact of your wardrobe is by washing consciously.
So may I ask you: How do you take care of your clothes in the most eco friendly way?
One option is to wash your clothes less or not at all and occasionally rub off stains locally.
Another one is to use the most eco-friendly detergent.
A further possibility is to wash without any detergent. My colleague recently told an anecdotal story where she put in a load of washing but had run out of detergent. Her laundry still came out smelling nice and looking fresh, so it is possible.
However, if you want more cleanliness or have stained clothes (including from messy outdoor activities by your kids) you need something that is strong and effective.
But lets look at Japan, one of my favourite countries! Not only because it is a mix of ancient tradition and ultra-modern technology, or because it just launched a Hello-Kitty-themed Shinkansen bullet train, but simply because of its dedication to improving, inventing and augmenting the way we live. And this is true for laundry, too.
Japan has recently brought a new product to the market which promises to be 100% eco friendly when it comes to detergents.
It is called Terra Wash +Mg.

I quote this source: “‘Terra’ means ‘Earth’ in Latin, Magnesium is a key element necessary for the life on Earth. Terra Wash+Mg is the new laundry revolution from Japan that aims to change the world with power of this miracle element, magnesium!

Terra Wash+Mg is ideal for off-grid and sustainable living since you can use water from washing clothes with Terra Wash+Mg for irrigation of your garden. Magnesium contained in used water can help crops grow healthier.”

The eco-friendly product features are listed here:

  • Reusable for 365 washes/ 1 year > Save time and money!
  • Works for laundry load up to approx. 8kg(17lb)
  • Works for any type of washing machine.
  • Works for both soft and hard water/ cold and hot water > Using hot water may be stronger in cleaning property, but using cold water may be more economical and Eco-friendly.
  • Best in body odour removal [Fragrance Free] > About 10 times stronger than regular detergent.
  • Suds-FREE> no need for white vinegar, fabric conditioners or rinse cycles. Saves money!
  • Human friendly > 100% free of toxic and synthetic chemicals = Perfect for sensitive skin and  kids. Protects people’s health by keeping the washing machine hygienic.
  • Earth friendly > Leaves zero trace of chemicals and save tons of water and power.
  • Fabric friendly & Antibacterial > Maintains fibers and colour. Great for organic cotton.
  • SAFE for children and pets – no threat of spilling and poisoning
  • Best Quality > Made in Japan using patent-protected innovative technology with certified test result.
  • Cleans your pipes at the same time, preserving the life of the washing machine
How does Terra Wash work?

This seems like a real break-through product for the fashion life cycle and environment and I am tempted to try it. However, it does come at a hefty price to start with at over GBP40. It is intended to last 365 washes, but still is probably ten times as expensive as one large bottle or regular laundry detergent.

There are also several international competitors on the market: Washwow, the SmartKlean Laundry Ball, Lavmatic Washing Ball or Biocera Green Ball. Alternatively, there are soap nuts which are a type of dried fruit with cleaning properties.

Ethical laundry: Washing without microplastics – is it possible?

A further way to tackle the washing conundrum is by using the latest washing machines.

The ETHICAL consumer lists washing machine ratings here and informs about environmental impacts. One that has been at the center of attention lately is microplastic and microfiber which is found in clothing, cosmetics and other products.

I love the educational video:

The Ethical Consumer consults on microfibres and what to do about them:

“60% of clothing is now made from polyester, a fabric that sheds tiny strands of plastic every time it is washed. According to Greenpeace, one item of clothing can release 700,000 fibres in a single laundry load.

Once in dirty washing water these bits of plastic go to water treatment plants and then into our taps or into the sea. In fact, between 15% and 31% of marine plastic pollution could be from tiny particles released by households and businesses, rather than larger plastic items that degrade once they reach the sea.

Such plastics are putting marine ecosystems at risk, as they are consumed by fish and other animal populations. They clog up marine organisms’ intestinal tracts, suppress their hunger by making them feel full, and cause infertility. They also damage corals (one of the most effective protections from the effects of climate warming).

The Plastic Pollution Coalition has suggested a few ways to minimize the impact when you wash your clothes:

Wash cooler. High temperatures damage clothing, releasing more microfibres.

Change to liquid detergent. Laundry powder scrubs at clothes releasing more fibres.  (Although the irony of this is that liquid detergent is more likely to come in plastic packaging …)

Fill the machine. A full load causes less friction.

Buy a lint filter – around £10-20.

Purchase a Guppy Friend wash bag. Some tests found that these caught around 99% of fibres, when clothes are placed inside the bag before washing. They also minimise the number of fibres released in the first place. The bags cost £20-25, and can be purchased through Langbrett or Patagonia for shipment to the UK.”


Ethical laundry: Washing cold – is it possible?


Did you know there is one country in the world which has default eco-friendly washing machines? Of course, it is Japan (did you guess?)

When I lived in Japan, I got to have a first-hand experience with washing in Japanese machines. What is different about them? They wash exclusively on cold cycles with cold water. There is an entire history to this industrial decision and the outcome could be judged as a default eco-friendly approach to washing. According to the New York Times (2011)”about three-quarters of energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions from washing a load of laundry come from heating the water – a practice that, say scientists, is often wasteful and unnecessary.”

Selection of laundry appliances in a Japanese store. Image source here.

However, as this blogger My Japan Slice anecdotally describes her washing plight in Japan, sometimes the clothes do not come out smelling fresh or stain-free and generally the washing detergents need to be reformulated if we were to use with cold water in other parts of the world.

Procter and Gamble estimate that 38% of laundry washed globally is currently using cold water cycles. This is a great business proposition and many manufacturers of washing detergents are trying to break into this new market to make profit. For me, it would need more research to establish the pros and cons of using these detergents vs. eco-friendly ones with hot water. How much damage do the new cold water detergents cause to the environment? Is this really more sustainable (paired with the cold water) or just a marketing gimmick?


Ethical laundry: Is it a first-world problem?

Image Source from Greener Cleaner

It must be said, that this a first-world issue where we have access to mountains of cheaply made fashion, where nearly every household or building has a washing machine and our shelves are full of myriads of detergents. If you owned the very basics of clothes, lets say one shirt, one sweater, one coat, a few pairs of socks and underwear and one pretty dress (or suit), you would have much less to wash and you would automatically wear each item longer and with more care not to get it soiled as washing it would leave you out of clothes or with only one substitute. You might have to wash your one tshirt by hand with a bar of naturally-made soap in naturally cold water in the most eco-friendly “washing machine”: a tub. In fact, I would recommend to everyone to try and hand-wash their clothes for a week. It can change your perspective and make you re-evaluate the modern commodities we use, the labour that they reduce but also the frequency and ignorance that is automatically implied when using modern appliances.

If you really want to give it a try, I recommend reading this article “How To Hand Wash Clothes Without Detergent – The Ultimate Guide with instructions” by

How to hand wash in the most eco-friendly way.


Or perhaps you might want to find ancient historical recipes that were used in ancient Rome, Egypt and Asia such as sulfur, charcoal, soda or even urine. Yes, as unappetizing as it sounds, in ancient Rome urine was frequently used due to the natural ammonia to wash clothes.

On this note, I would like to re-post a few images from The Spruce where manual laundry habits from around the world have been poetically captured.

Laundry Around the World

The chore of doing laundry is universal. Every country and culture has its own routines; some are primitive and others have evolved as the country’s infrastructure has modernized with electricity, natural gas, and running water.

As you travel around the world, observing how laundry is done offers an insight into the area’s economy and culture. When we complain about having to do laundry in the United States in our automated laundromats or inconvenient basement laundry rooms, take a momentMOR


Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai, India

Bethany Clarke/ Getty Images

Nearly every early morning in central Mumbai, India, more than 8,000 people can be found hard at work at Dhobi Ghat. Known as the world’s largest laundry, Dhobi Ghat has 800 wash stations with flogging stones where local workers report at 4 a.m. to begin handwashing clothes and linens for schools, hospitals, hotels, and individuals.

The washing done by the Dhobis, as the workers are called, is very different from our idea of handwashing a few delicate items in a sink. The clothes and linens are literally beaten on a rock surface to loosen soil and then rinsed and hung to air dry.


Mozambique, Africa

Camilla Watson/ Getty Images

This Mozambique woman headed to the river to wash the clothes and linen for her family, spreading them out on the fresh, clean grass to dry.

-> See all the beautiful images here.


How do you do your laundry? Which detergents do you use and what kind of washing machine do you have, if any? Is there a way to reduce the environmental impact?


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