doing laundry in the future could mean almost never washing clothes
Just about every sci-fi show about the future has humans wearing uniforms or clothes made of high-tech materials, which can bring up a curious question. How often do you think someone in the year 2572 thinks about doing laundry? Are all clothes dry cleaned? Do machines take care of it? Or if those clothes are so high tech, couldn’t they just stay fresh and clean on their own? Well, it turns out that the last option may be the most likely if a new development in fashion is anything to go by. A few startups have been experimenting with clothes that can go for months without a wash, saving thousands of liters of water and the trouble of doing the dreaded smell test over the laundry basket when you think you have nothing to wear.
Before we go further, we should probably note that we tend to wash our clothes too much already, frequently wasting resources to clean something barely even soiled. In today’s world, where fast fashion is the go-to choice for hundreds of millions, this also tends to wear out the garments in question, meaning that we’re paying for excess water, extra detergent, and more clothes by assuming that something we wore once or twice needs some scrubbing. Clothes that seldom need to be washed could fundamentally redefine how we treat our wardrobes on top of drastically lowering both our water usage and carbon footprints. But before they can work their magic, there are two major hurdles they need to overcome.
more washes don’t mean better hygiene
According to numerous detergent ads, clothes pick up dust, sweat, pollution, and your body’s dirty, dirty germs every time you wear them, and if you don’t wash them enough, you’ll not only smell but you might even get sick. And scaring us with these scenarios has been really effective, so much so that most of the stuff going in the wash doesn’t even need to be there, which, as mentioned earlier, destroys it. Some 9 in 10 discarded garments end up in the trash too soon, with 7 in 10 too faded, shrunk, or damaged by overzealous and improper washing in which sorting is a waste of time, quantities of detergent are out or proportion, and overuse of fabric softener ruins fibers and the ability to withstand moisture.
But the reason why we keep doing this is simple. We want to be clean. No one wants to wear dirty, smelly clothes because that’s not good for our hygiene, and we don’t want to err on the side of washing them too rarely, so we don’t come across as slobs and ruin first impressions. And since it doesn’t cost us that much per wash, hey, what could it hurt? Deliberately avoiding putting a shirt or a pair of socks in the laundry basket for months at a time could make a lot of people fear that they may be used to whatever smells, oils, or dirt is on it, and look slovenly to others. That fear could well force them to wash it more frequently that they should, negating the whole point of this clothing in the first place.
a question of cost
Another hurdle for sustainable, ultra-durable clothing is the cost. A shirt meant to be washed after months of constant wear by incorporating moisture and dirt-wicking wool and seaweed fibers to prevent odors and staining can set you back $140, a t-shirt is $65, underwear has a $40 price tag, and hoodies cost $165. A decent starter pack will go for over $650 after taxes, more than enough for a brand-new wardrobe from a fast fashion retailer. It really doesn’t seem like a whole lot of bang for your buck, which would be a deal breaker for many potential customers. It would be cheaper for them to get five typical hoodies for the price of one built to stay out of the laundry basket, then wash them on a regular schedule.
In other words, these clothes may be better for the environment, but they cost a lot more, creating a barrier to entry for those who want to do the right thing but might lack the funds to do it. And as for fast fashion retailers, it’s unlikely they’ll embrace precision-engineered wool a third of the width of human hair, specially treated organic cotton, or specialty seaweed fibers, and be able to sell a $20 shirt at a profit margin to which they’re accustomed and generate the returns their shareholders now expect. There is a reason why they outsource their production to nations where monitors look the other way on sweatshops and labor laws and considered polite but naïve suggestions to well-meaning politicians.
But that’s a persistent problem with our current model of perpetual short-term consumption and laser focus on perpetual growth. Doing the right thing — be it cleaning up our pollution or saving fresh water by designing clothes we seldom need to wash — is an expensive proposition. They’re long term investments in our future. Shareholders, on the other hand, want quick gains, high profit margins, and low labor costs. They have no patience for any long term investments that don’t result in steady dividends along the way, and the workers they’ve been squeezing to toil as cheaply as possible for decades don’t have the cash to triple their clothing budgets, even if it’s good for their wallets, closets, and environment in the long run.