Will smart clothes spell the end of the weekly wash?

Sensemaking / Will smart clothes spell the end of the weekly wash?

Innovative textiles and redesigned washing machines could drastically reduce our water and energy usage, says Peter Madden.

By Peter Madden / 31 May 2013

In 10 years’ time, we can expect to clean our clothes much less. Textiles will be designed to repel and remove dirt and odours, so that clothes only need occasional washing, while on-the-go ‘spot’ cleaning will allow us to keep outfits looking pristine for longer.

When they do make it into the laundry basket, smart clothes with embedded sensors will inform intelligent machines about their colour, weight and washing needs. There’ll be no more finding that your favourite garment has come out half the size and a different colour. And there may well be a ‘freeze cycle’ to get rid of bugs and bacteria.

The washing machine itself will be small, silent and virtually waterless – in accordance with the latest regulatory standards. And it may well be on loan from your local utility as part of your energy and water saving package. On some tariffs, the utility will even switch it on and off for you, so as to make optimum use of the energy supplies and smooth out peak demand.

There are trends taking us in that direction. With demand for water projected to outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, water will certainly be in short supply in many parts of the world – and this is likely to translate into higher prices, universal water metering, and tougher efficiency standards. An average machine today uses 70 litres for one basket of washing. That will have to decline drastically.

As billions more people across the world gain access to their own washing machine, energy use will be an issue. Efficient, pedal-powered machines are already being prototyped in the developing world [see 'Pedal powered washing saves water, time and energy']. With 75% of people expected to live in cities, and space at a premium, we’re likely to see a rise in neighbourhood laundering services and ultra-compact domestic machines – or even cleaning capabilities built into multifunctional household furniture.

Some of the most cutting edge-innovations will result from cross-industry collaborations. These will be spearheaded by clothing companies such as Levis and Marks & Spencer, who are already cutting water-use and encouraging line-drying; by appliance makers such as Philips and Panasonic, who are already prototyping new designs; and by detergent manufacturers like Unilever and Ecover, who are trying to reduce the total footprint of their products, from packaging to consumer use.

Some of these innovations are now with us. British washing machine manufacturer Xeros has a new process which uses polymer beads to cut water and energy use by 90%. Nudie jeans encourages wearers not to wash their denims for six months. And, in China, engineers have created a cheap new chemical coating which makes cotton clothes clean themselves of stains and remove odours when exposed to sunlight.

Washing machines have been a hugely beneficial social innovation, especially for women, during the last century. Relieving billions more of the drudgery of hand-washing can only be a good thing. But all those new machines whirring around won’t be great news for the planet, unless they are radically redesigned to have a fraction of today’s environmental impact.

Peter Madden is Chief Executive, Forum for the Future.

Photo: Nick Woodford / Forum for the Future

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