Stella McCartney doesn’t wash her suits.

In fact, the UK fashion designer tries to avoid washing her clothes altogether, preferring the idea of brushing off dirt to throwing them in the machine after each wear.

For many of us, putting our clothes in the laundry basket is all part of the daily routine. But this fastidiousness is harming the planet.

Over-washing is guzzling water and decreasing the life of our clothes. Levi’s, for example, estimates 37% of the climate impact of its clothes is down to consumers. And washing machine firm AEG says 90% of clothes are thrown out earlier than necessary, mostly due to faded colours, shrinkage or damage from overwashing.

On top of this, the microfibres released from synthetic clothes in the washing cycle are making their way into oceans and contributing to microplastic pollution.

Image: The American Cleaning Institute/Clean Water Research Foundation

Wash less by design

But where the fast fashion industry is helping drive a culture of virtually disposable clothes, there is also a growing band of labels specifically designing items to be washed less and last longer.

At $85 a piece, Pangaia’s seaweed fibre and peppermint oil infused T-shirt isn’t for everyone. But its eco credentials – the company claims it uses 3,000 fewer litres of water compared to that needed for a standard cotton T-shirt – have seen the brand win celebrity endorsements from the likes of Justin Bieber.

Wool & Prince meanwhile has created shirts designed to be worn all week. The company says its woolen clothing absorbs sweat more efficiently and is more durable than other materials. Unbound Merino, likewise, builds on the natural benefits of merino wool to create products marketed for those wanting to travel light and wash less.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

Unlike many synthetic fabrics like polyester, these natural wool-based materials are breathable and have a natural resistance to odour. They can absorb large volumes of moisture vapour, allowing it to evaporate rather than cling to clothing and cause unpleasant, sweaty smells.

Image: Statista

In recent years, a number of brands, including sportswear firms Reebok and Adidas, have started working with Polygiene, which manufactures a silver salt coating that prevents odour build-up. Organic Basics is another brand using silver technology with a similar purpose.

But taking it a step further, San Francisco start-up ODO has blended silver into its clothing materials to create “self-cleaning” jeans and T-shirts that repel stains and odours.

Image: Statista

'30 is the new 40'

The marketing departments of cleaning product companies have spent many years and lots of money convincing us we need to wash more often.

Trying to recondition our thinking, AEG teamed up with fashion labels including Adidas and Not Just A Label to encourage people to prolong the lives of their clothes by washing less and following a ‘modern care guide’.

This includes washing at lower temperatures, adjusting to more efficient wash cycles and avoiding dry cleaners.