Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Green Washing (Jun07)

Cleaning clothes

Did you know that on average we release 1 billion skin flakes a day, 1 litre of sweat and 38grams of grease? Probably not, but looking around the research centre at Procter & Gamble’s Brussels headquarters, these statistics abound.

The corporate giant behind everyday brands such as Ariel, Bold and Fairy Liquid has rows and rows of washing machines, dryers and automated hand washing robots testing, testing, testing.Having been invited to chair a workshop session for consumer organisations, I joined them in looking around the research centres. It was fascinating.

Julia Hailes at P&G 2007

If you wash at 60C (which should be a very rare event) you’ll find that 85% of the energy used is to heat the water and only 15% to rotate the drum. By turning to 30C you’ll be saving 1kw – and that’s what modern day detergent makers are trying to encourage us to do. For them it means re-designing their products to be effective at low temperatures. It also means encouraging consumers to use them in this way.

The average wash temperature in Belgium is 48C, in Germany it’s 45C and in the UK 43C – so some of us are getting the message. I’m one of them. Pretty well all my household laundry is washed at 30C. And, as I explain in The New Green Consumer Guide, even with three grubby boys, our clothes come out clean.

I should also point out that I don’t use so called ‘green’ detergents. Their biggest selling point seems to be that they’re biodegradable. But that’s not such a big deal on two counts. First, the mainstream detergents are biodegradable too – they are required to be by law. And second, if you ask the water authorities about whether the biodegradability of detergents causes them any problems (I have asked them), they’ll tell you that this is no longer an issue.

Another contentious issue is the use of enzymes. Bizarrely, in the UK, we’re pretty exceptional in our conviction that biological detergents (the ones that contain enzymes) cause skin problems. Research doesn’t seem to support this view. And interestingly, in other European countries this isn’t a big concern. If you look at sales of Ecover (the most well-known ‘green’ detergent), you’ll find that only 10% of its sales in the UK are biological, whereas in Europe, this is by far their biggest seller. This is important because enzymes are key to detergents working more effectively at low temperatures.

Washing dishes

Apparently there are three main ways that people wash their dishes. I fall into the first category – filling a bowl (or sink) with water and squirting in the detergent. But if you live in Japan you’re far more likely to use what’s called ‘direct application’ – 90% of them do. This is when you pour detergent onto a sponge and wash up under a running tap. The third approach is very common in Arabia and Mexico but used by only 1% of Americans (I wonder what happens when the Mexicans cross the border). They use a concentrated mini solution – perhaps in a bowl and dip the sponge into it, whilst the main water used is in the sink or a bowl.

I asked which of these methods used the most detergent, water and energy. I was disappointed that the answer was not top of mind. It seemed that research was focused on designing products around what consumers currently do – ‘We look at consumer behaviour but don’t try and change their habits’.  So P&G weren’t using their expertise to promote the greenest dish washing on the planet. Why not?

Posted originally on Telegraph Blogs by Julia Hailes 

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  1. Hello,

    I am interested in different ways to clean your dishes and read with interest your blog. Could you please give the reference where you found the talk about the different ways to wash up? Thank you very much.

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