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Disgust is driving us to overwash our clothes at the expense of the environment, study finds

Being seen as unclean outweighs our desire to adopt environmentally friendly habits.
Being seen as unclean outweighs our desire to adopt environmentally friendly habits. Copyright Getty via Canva
Copyright Getty via Canva
By Rosie Frost
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The research suggests that campaigns to reduce the environmental impact of washing clothes should focus on the psychological drivers behind people’s habits.

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We now wash our clothes more than ever before thanks to technological advances making it easier and cheaper to do laundry.

The average household in Europe does up to five loads of laundry a week and bigger machines mean more energy and water are being consumed. Access to washing machines has also increased, rising from 30 per cent of the world’s households in 2010 to 80 per cent in 2024.

The ease of throwing something in the laundry bin and concern about being seen as clean have us washing our clothes even when they aren’t really dirty.

But, from the microplastics shed by our garments to the energy or water consumed by washing machines, the environmental impact of our laundry has also grown.

Of all global releases of microplastics, between 16 and 35 per cent come from washing synthetic fibres. One wash load of polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibres, according to the European Parliament’s research service.

Now new research has found that, although most people lean towards environmentally friendly life choices, we won’t do it at the expense of being seen as dirty.

Why do we wash our clothes more than ever before?

A survey of 2,000 people by scientists in Sweden has found that our fear of being seen as unclean outweighs our desire to make environmentally friendly life choices.

"Even though the machines have become more energy-efficient, it is how often we choose to wash that has the greatest impact on the climate - and we have never done as much washing as we do today,” says Erik Klint, doctoral student at the Division of Environmental Systems Analysis at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

“At the same time, most of us seem to be uninterested in changing our laundering behaviours to reduce climate impact."

Klint is the lead on this recently published study that took a new look at our washing habits. It examines two main factors that may influence us: our environmental identity and how inclined we are to feelings of disgust.

We throw our clothes in the laundry basket even when they aren't necessarily dirty.
We throw our clothes in the laundry basket even when they aren't necessarily dirty. charliepix via Canva

“The study shows that the higher our sensitivity to disgust, the more we wash, regardless of whether we value our environmental identity highly. The feeling of disgust simply wins out over environmental awareness," he says.

We want to avoid being seen as dirty or unclean to other people and these feelings of disgust and shame encourage us to wash our clothes more - even if we are concerned about our carbon emissions.

Researchers already knew from previous research that many people don’t link their laundry habits to the environment. And after seeing that campaigns to alter people’s behaviour had mostly failed, they wanted to find out why.

How can we encourage people to do fewer loads of laundry?

Klint believes campaigns intended to make us think about the environmental impact of our laundry have the wrong approach.

“It doesn’t matter how sensible and research-based an argument you have, if they run counter to people’s different driving forces, such as the desire to feel a sense of belonging to a group, they won’t work.”

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Disgust drives our behaviour so strongly because it is an evolutionarily conditioned emotion that functions as a protection against infection or dangerous substances. Combined with shame or exclusion from a fear of people not wanting to associate with someone who doesn’t take care of their hygiene, its a strong influence on our behaviour.

Instead of trying to get people to wash their clothes less, Klint says, this research suggests that campaigns should focus on the psychological drivers behind people’s habits. That includes finding ways of encouraging people not to create lots of laundry in the first place like using clothes more times before they end up in your washing basket.

“It can be about targeting excessive washing, with messages such as 'most people use their T-shirt more than once.'” he explains.

“But also replacing washing machine use with other actions, such as airing the garments, brushing off dirt, or removing individual stains by hand. One way could be to highlight the economic arguments here, as clothes get worn out when they go through the machine."

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