When Tim, like many of us, started working from home during the Covid pandemic, he developed a more relaxed approach to dressing. This made him consider the time and energy that washing his clothes was costing him. “It was around the time we had our second kid, so I was totally overloaded with things,” he says. “Anything I can cut out of my life I see as a challenge, so laundry was just one less thing to do.” He had already been doing less than many people – a load every week, or sometimes every two – but then he went for an entire year without washing his clothes in the machine.
These days, Tim, a software engineer, does a wash every six months or so. “Seeing as I don’t have to go to the office any more, I don’t really have a need for clean clothes,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.” On video calls, “people only see me from my head up, and half the time I don’t put my camera on anyway”. He looks clean, if fashionably scruffy, when we speak over such a call. “If there’s some important social event, I’ll make sure I’ve got something nice to wear, but day to day it doesn’t really matter.”
He still uses the washing machine to clean his children’s clothes (and his wife still does hers), although he has cut down on that, too. “There’s still loads of washing to do – that’s part of the reason I don’t do my clothes.” It helps, he says, that he has quite a lot of clothes, but during the year-long abstention he got about two weeks’ wear out of a single outfit.
Tim cut down on socks by wearing sandals, including for much of the winter. “I never have to wash socks any more, which was always the biggest problem.” Did he at least wear clean underpants every day? “You can get pants to last a week,” he says. How, I ask nervously, do you get a week’s worth of wear out of pants? “You just have very low standards.” Sometimes, he would wear swimming trunks as underwear – he would wear them in the shower, where they would get a wash, then they would dry quickly.
Does he notice his clothes starting to smell? “I do notice – and I change them. But you just don’t need to wash them as much as people do.” His wife occasionally says he smells, “but she generally doesn’t mind too much”.
The no-wash movement started with hair – water was still in, but shampoo was out – and there are signs laundry could be next. As Vox put it in 2020, “laundry remains remarkably undisrupted”. In the article, the writer Rachel Sugar pointed out that, in the US, apps and services that promise to take care of your washing have largely failed. Unlike other chores, such as cooking or grocery-shopping, which have either become aspirational or made easier to outsource by tech, “laundry defies the rules of lifestyle innovation and the promises of capitalism”. No amount of expensive detergent brands or Instagrammable laundry rooms will change the fact that washing clothes is still a drudge.
Perhaps, then, the answer is to step away from it altogether – or, at least, do a lot less.
Denim fans were the first to popularise the no-wash trend for clothes. “I don’t wash any denim unless there’s a disaster – you spill some milk on your jeans, or something,” says Daniel, a teacher (who washes his pants after every wear). “Mainly, it gives you a better fade – the jeans age much better, they last longer. You don’t need to keep spending money on jeans. It’s better for the environment.” Unwashed jeans don’t smell, he insists. “If I’ve been to a barbecue and there’s a bit of a smoky smell, I might peg them out overnight to air.”
The climate crisis may finally have persuaded us to consider the environmental impact of hot washes, water usage and carbon-intensive detergents, while recent increases in energy prices have focused the mind on how much each load is costing us.
“I stopped washing my clothes as much during winter 2022,” says Jenny, answering a call for readers to share their experiences of reducing their laundry. “The drivers for me were the rising energy costs, the effect on the environment and the inability to dry clothes easily inside. It occurred to me that I didn’t need to wash clothes as often. Most clothes really only needed a freshen up.”
She took to spraying them with an odour-eliminating mist instead: “They are good as new. It is also much kinder to the fabric, so clothes last much longer.” Ken, a retired university lecturer, says: “We used to wash our clothes about six times a week. Now, we do it just once a week. We use soap nuts [a type of small fruit that contains soap] and wash at 30C. I put the wash on overnight, so it uses cheaper electricity.” He says he was motivated “by the climate emergency”.
When it comes to what we wear, trying to choose more environmentally conscious clothing is increasingly mainstream – many of us buy less, or secondhand, or supposedly “ethical” brands. But that is only the start, says Charlotte, who works in sustainability and fashion. “Post-purchase washing has a really big impact. Cold washing, only washing when you need to, wearing things for longer – these are of equal, if not greater, importance from a consumer decision-making point of view than buying a ‘sustainable’ brand or more sustainable fibre.”
Charlotte gets 20 to 30 wears out of many of her clothes, such as trousers. Jumpers are washed perhaps twice a season. Marks and stains get spot-cleaned. “Airing things helps, maybe sometimes steaming things,” she says. She wears a sweatshirt to cook in to avoid staining more cherished clothes. She is from New Zealand, where she says it is normal to wash at low or cold temperatures. “I’d never heard of hot washing anything until I moved to the UK. It’s a cultural thing.” It is not just a sustainability concern – she wants to keep her clothes looking better. “Washing really wears your clothes out,” she says.
Tom, a psychiatric nurse, has about four merino-wool sweaters that he wears on rotation for work. He has gone at least a year without washing them; two have never been washed. “I might rinse them or sponge a stain off,” he says. “They have a magical sort of repelling property; the wool doesn’t pick up odours.” He hasn’t noticed them smelling. “I don’t think anybody has complained,” he says.
He is now such a fan of merino wool that he has started stocking up on shirts, as well as socks and underwear. The latter two get washed. After every wear? “I can go longer,” he says. “I’m almost ashamed to admit, but let’s say three or four days … In my trade, when somebody says something, you double it – if somebody says they only smoke one joint a day, they mean two or three.” So he can go for a week in his woollen pants? “Yes, something like that,” he says, laughing.
Non-merino items get washed regularly – jeans, for instance, will be worn for a week. “I feel that water is an important resource, so I try not to use as much as I could,” says Tom. “It’s also just pure laziness.” His approach is a hangover from being poor in the past, he thinks, when he would have only one pair of trousers and no socks. “It’s just a habit,” he says, adding that he enjoys the asceticism of it.
Habit is partly what explains others’ low-wash lifestyles. “I didn’t live in a house with a washing machine between the ages of 19 and 39, so I did hand-washing and used launderettes,” says Michele, a graphic designer and drummer. “During that period, I either didn’t have much money or much spare time.”
Clothes, she realised, could be worn many times, with an airing in between. “I got used to not washing things after just one wear. Even when I finally lived somewhere with a washing machine, I was never tempted to get into doing washing daily or every other day.” Her motivation is largely environmental, “knowing that all the microfibres and detergents pollute our rivers, seas and wildlife. Manufacturers make money out of our fear of dirt and promote ridiculous levels of ‘cleanliness’ – and the planet is suffering.”
It is only relatively recently, says Rosie Cox, a professor of geography at Birkbeck, University of London and a co-author of Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, that we have taken domestic laundry for granted. “It’s actually really complicated, technically. What happens inside your house is only because of big transformations: having running water, the invention of washing machines that fit in people’s houses, being affordable.” Only since the 1960s, she says, have a majority of households had a washing machine; now, it is close to 100%.
The other element is how our clothes have changed. Essentially, they have become more washable. Before the second half of the 20th century, many garments were made from wool fabric. “You clean those by dry-cleaning them occasionally, but often you brush them, dab them, that kind of thing,” says Cox. “People would have owned fewer things and they would have been more durable.”
The advent of synthetic fibres and cheap manufacturing of fibres such as cotton “happened at a similar point in time to when we started having washing machines”, she says. So, clothes could be washed – and increasingly people had the machines to do so.
What we consider to be clean is “culturally, historically and socially specific”, says Cox. “It’s prevalent in our society to think of cleanliness in visual terms: Does it look clean? Are your whites white?” This is why many of us, spotting a small mark that seems to tarnish an otherwise-clean garment, decide to toss the whole thing in the laundry basket. It is also why manufacturers push stain removers and brighteners. We also became concerned about smell – not just removing odour, “but putting other odour in. Today, we have all these things like scent boosters.”
Ryan, the father of a four-year-old in Fife, grew up in a house where his mother “used to wash and iron everything religiously.” He had always questioned it: “You just put something ironed on and it gets creased.” Now that he is a father, he tries to make life as easy as possible. This means less laundry – and definitely no ironing. He doesn’t go as far as others in terms of wears between washes – a T-shirt will get two or three outings – but he is doing less washing than he was. He has convinced his wife to cut down, too: “She wanted to wash our daughter’s pyjamas after every wear.”
Alison, a stay-at-home mother in Glasgow, also grew up with a heavy laundry load. “My mum taught me to wash everything after wearing once,” she says. “She ironed everything, too.” Once Alison realised she could put worn clothes back in the drawer or cupboard “without fear of contamination”, she stopped counting how many times they had been worn. Her husband, who grew up in the countryside and had a much less stringent approach to laundry, took on the washing “and made it the norm in our house”. She worried that “people would think I was dirty – and then I realised nobody notices. I think my mum would be horrified if I told her, but she doesn’t notice. Why do all that work? It saves us money, is better for the environment and our clothes last longer.”
Amber, a marketing manager, has designated a drawer for worn-but-wearable clothes: “I check for visible marks or any odours, and if there’s nothing that makes it a problem to re-wear, I simply put it away again. I use the washing machine only once a week instead of most days.”
This year, Chet’s washing machine broke down. He decided not to replace it. “It was an easy decision to live like I was in the 19th century and do clothes washing by hand,” says Chet, an artist. “I started out trying to wash on the same schedule as before, but quickly I realised it wasn’t easily done.” Washing gradually became less frequent; now, he does a monthly hand-wash. “It became clear that I didn’t need to wash jeans or shirts, so it came down to underwear and socks. I feel sure that I don’t need a washing machine ever again.”