The race to design clothes that don’t need washing

Scientists are developing odour-control fabrics that would help to reduce the substantial environmental footprint caused by laundry. But will this convince consumers to wash clothes less frequently?

When Frans Timmermans, a Dutch politician and executive president for the European Green Deal, told EU citizens to “air out their clothes instead of washing them” to support energy sanctions against Russia it caused many a raised eyebrow.

But washing clothes domestically has a huge energy footprint, consuming an estimated 100 trillion watts of electricity globally per year, with an additional 20 trillion litres of water. And while the environmental impact of fast fashion and clothing waste frequently makes the headlines, 25 per cent of a garment’s carbon footprint comes from the way we wash and care for it. Washing also releases microplastics and other fibres into ecosystems and reduces a garment’s life – with the result that we need to buy more clothes.

The need to wash clothes less

Consumers need to wash their clothes less, says Richard Blackburn, professor of sustainable materials at the University of Leeds. “I’m not suggesting people should actively have poor hygiene – but there is a lot of overkill,” he says. “We don’t work down coalmines anymore. How dirty and smelly do we get?”

He points out we don’t wash our sheets every time we sleep in them, and the level of bacteria, skin and dirt is much higher in your bed than any item of clothing that we wear. “We need to think about what items we can wear several times before they need to be washed,” he says.

Rachel McQueen is an associate professor in textile science at the University of Alberta. She says people do make conscious decisions about what they launder and when – according to the type of clothing and activity they’ve done while wearing it. “Studies show people wash jeans and woollen garments less than cotton or polyester,” she says.

When it comes to exercise clothing, her research shows there are two types of people. Those who are happy to work out wearing the same clothing repeatedly, because they’re just going to sweat in it again, and those who find that very thought disgusting.

“It comes down to how much you think you sweat and smell, which doesn’t always match up with reality,” she says, although it does appear that some people are excessive sweaters. “People really don’t like it if they’ve spent a lot of money on a performance top and their clothing stinks. And that gets back to the company.”

The search to develop odour-controlling fabrics

Unsurprisingly, the sports apparel industry has been closely monitoring the development of odour-controlling fabrics for many years. Hoi Kwan Lam, executive vice-president at textile innovation company HeiQ, says: “Polyester is an amazing fibre for athletic wear as it’s lightweight, it doesn’t take in moisture and it can be enhanced to wick away moisture, so the wearer isn’t saturated with sweat. But it can smell badly of body odour after you’ve worn it,” she says.

And in some cases, even after you’ve washed it, Blackburn says. “It’s been a huge issue the industry has been trying to solve for years,” he says. “But it’s very hard.”

HeiQ has been at the forefront of that innovation, partnering with brands including Patagonia, Hugo Boss and Mammut. Lam says HeiQ consumer research shows odour-control garments can be worn for up to seven days without washing, significantly reducing their environmental footprint.

HeiQ Pure used silver as an antimicrobial and was the company’s leading technology. But NGOs raised concerns that silver particles can leach out during washing and enter river and marine ecosystems. The research is inconclusive but the company holds a Bluesign certification for sustainability. It went on to develop a sustainable, silver-free alternative, HeiQ Fresh. This uses an amino sugar polymer that is derived from a food processing waste product. It targets the volatile organic compounds produced from sweat, not just microorganisms (which silver particles work on). The odour on sweaty clothing is not bacteria but the byproduct of bacterial respiration, so even if you could get rid of all the bacteria you wouldn’t eliminate the smell, Blackburn says. 

HeiQ Life uses peppermint oil to control odour. As a raw material, peppermint works well to combat odour but is usually costly. “If you can’t find a solution that is financially viable, it isn’t sustainable,” she says.

Will odour-control fabrics change consumer behaviour?

McQueen is sceptical as to how much odour-controlling fabrics will shift how frequently we wash our clothes. “Unless it’s bullet-proof in terms of not producing odour, I’m not convinced,” she says. She cites a Norwegian study in the design, creative process and fashion industry journal Fashion Practice, which showed that while the nanosilver odour-controlling fabrics did work better than untreated materials in consumer testing, woollen and cotton items still fared better. The weight of cotton when it is wet makes it generally unsuitable for activewear, however, and the material itself has a large carbon footprint. 

Blackburn thinks we should consider wool as part of the solution to encourage consumers to wash clothes less. “Merino wool is an amazing fibre in terms of how it doesn’t cling onto those types of odours. We don’t use enough of it,” he says. “It’s also incredibly biodegradable and compatible with the environment. But it comes from animals and that is a problem for the vegan movement.”

It’s also difficult to scale up, particularly merino wool. “Merino wool has a high-quality, nice cotton feel next to the skin, but we should focus innovation to use coarse wool. British wool is a by-product of the meat industry and some of it is used in insulation but not in clothing, and it should be.”

Should the laundry brands be concerned about the effects on their business if consumers start wearing clothes that require less washing? “They have a sustainable ethos of trying to get people to wash on shorter cycles and at lower temperatures,” he says. “But you’re not going to put those companies out of business by washing less frequently. Innovation will be necessary to maintain the level of cleaning we want between washes. And they’re probably already working on that.”