Washing clothes is a common task in our lives. Perhaps for this reason, we don’t think much about its impact on the environment.
“People don’t think about it, but they should,” says Sundar Raman, chief executive of Fabric and Home Care at consumer goods company P&G.
The vast majority of carbon emissions in the laundry, a staggering 60 percent according to the European average, comes from heating the water in the washing machine. “The most important action anyone can take to reduce emissions in clothing is to wash it cold,” says Raman.
At a time when energy bills are skyrocketing and the climate crisis is worsening, something as simple as lowering the wash temperature can reduce the impact on the environment and on consumers’ pockets.
POLITICO Studio spoke with Raman to learn more about how P&G is working to decarbonize clothing at every step, from innovative ingredients to products that are easier to transport.
Click here to read the first article in this series, written by P&G.
POLITICO STUDIO: Why is it important to think about the impact that washing our clothes has on the environment, and why should consumers care?
sundar raman: The laundry process—caring for our clothes, washing them, cleaning them—has an impact on our planet.
The greatest impact on emissions occurs during the use phase, thanks to the energy required to heat the water in the washing machine. In fact, this is the number one contributor to the laundry’s carbon footprint.
But washing clothes at lower temperatures can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of clothes. There are clear benefits for the environment, as well as an immediate benefit for consumers due to reduced energy consumption.
PS: If it’s as simple as washing with cold water, why don’t people do it anymore?
RS: In fact, people are already washing some of their laundry loads in cold water, because they don’t want the heat to affect their clothes or the colors to fade.
But for some garments that require more thorough cleaning, consumer perception is that I’ve got use warm or hot water. This is the main barrier to why people do not wash more clothes with cold water; they are afraid of whether or not their clothes will come out clean, which is, after all, the main reason people do laundry.
There are four cleaning vectors for clothes: time, temperature, movement (the mechanical action of the machine), and ingredients (the cleaning power of the detergent). So, it’s a balance between these four vectors. While the thermal energy in the water can contribute to cleaning, it can provide performance at lower temperatures if it enhances the other cleaning vectors. That’s why we continue to innovate our formulas with high-performance ingredients.
ps: is there a solution? Does it come with offsets?
RS: One of the biggest misconceptions about tackling sustainability is that sustainability must come with a trade-off. This is one of the reasons why technological progress is key.
For P&G, innovation is our lifeblood. This is what we do for a living. We have scientists who innovate to solve problems and we see sustainability as an opportunity. That’s a design brief for innovators in our R&D departments and our partners. We approached them with this challenge that we must work on as a team, which is to develop products with superior performance that can clean clothes with cold water.
It’s a science-based approach to innovation that can unlock the best of both worlds. Consumers can still get the clean clothes they want and have a positive impact on the environment. The need for performance and environmental sustainability no longer need to be contradictory.
PS: What do you mean by ‘sustainable innovation’? Can you tell us about some of the ways you’re implementing this?
RS: Simply put, it means developing formulas that achieve superior cleaning performance with less impact, to decarbonize clothes at every step. To achieve this, we have an innovation roadmap to help us offer safe, more sustainable and high-performance ingredients that allow for cold washing.
There is also a lot that nature and the biosciences can teach us about how things work at different temperatures. Our brands, like Ariel, translate this into the ability to clean more efficiently using inspiration from nature.
For example, P&G scientists, in collaboration with Newcastle University, discovered enzymes used by microorganisms living in cold-water marine algae. Our Ariel brand has further developed them into innovative powerful enzymes, called Purezyme, which are highly effective at removing sticky soils from fabrics, even in cold water. That is literally biomimetic. It came from nature and could be replicated in a detergent context.
PS: More and more consumers today are concerned about the products they use, how safe they are, and how many chemicals they contain. What is your take on this and where do P&G products fit into this debate?
RS: Safety is one of the first things consumers think about before bringing products into their homes, and that’s not going to change. Our number one priority is to offer safe products that are effective: to be able to innovate using safe and sustainable ingredients that provide a superior clean.
So it is not only the result of the product, but also what is in it. There is a misconception that products of natural origin are safer. This is not a given: natural ingredients can be harsh or cause reactions.
The approach our brands take is to achieve more with less. So only using the ingredients and the volumes of ingredients that are absolutely necessary, nothing more. It is important that detergents do the job in cold water. If they don’t, we are victims of overcompensation behaviors, such as washing at high temperatures, re-washing clothes, overdosing cleaning products, pre-washing, etc., due to an imbalance in the cleaning vectors. So if you have to make up for underperforming ingredients, are you really having a better impact on the environment?
PS: What is the role of politics, especially the role that product labeling can play, in helping people make better decisions?
RS: Consumers use the labels to decide the option that is right for them. Labels need to educate them, share information and empower them.
The policy is broad and sets the boundary conditions, putting the consumer at the center. A fundamental role of politics is to enable innovation. In a laundry context, there is a great opportunity for the sector to solve these problems together through public-private partnerships.
For example, ingredients account for about one fifth of the carbon footprint of laundry in Europe. Brands need to act accordingly for sure. But you are incomplete without understanding its impact in the use phase and what that means for consumers when they use the product. High-performance products that enable sustainable laundry habits make a real difference. Detergent ingredients are a critical part of labeling, but so should be what happens when you use them in your washing machine, and therefore the impact you have on the environment.
PS: Beyond encouraging consumers to switch to cold water washing, what other innovations has P&G implemented to decarbonize clothing?
RS: We are making progress on ingredients, working closely with partners and academics to find new low-resource or even carbon-negative ingredients that are safe for people and the planet. We are also making progress on packaging and are on track to achieve full recyclability by early 2023 for our Fabric Care business in Europe.
Also, there is significant progress around manufacturing and transportation. Ariel’s new capsules® ECOCLIC® box, for example, was designed so that 51% more washes could be transported per pallet. That means a 19% reduction in the number of trucks on the roads and a saving of up to 5.7 million kilometers of travel per year – the equivalent of 7.5 trips to the moon and back! These are all examples of fabric care’s contribution to P&G’s overall 2030 and 2040 commitments.
But solving sustainability challenges is a big task, and we can’t do it alone. That is why alliances are important. We welcome help from anyone willing to work with us to find solutions in this space, and have created a dedicated website for anyone to submit ideas that can help us achieve our goals.