Clothes That Shrink in the Wash are Bad for the Environment

Garments shrunk in the laundry quickly end up in the trash - is it time to change how we wash? 

We've all had clothes that shrink in the wash.

A little tight around the middle perhaps, or with legs and arms coming up rather shorter than they were prior to entering the washing machine.

When it happens to a favourite pair of jeans or expensive new outfit, it's more than just an annoyance - and once shrunk, the chances of clothes being worn again reduce significantly.

The number one reason cited by people for disposing of clothes is that they don’t fit anymore, or have been damaged in the wash.

Disposed clothes in a dump

So we know that if we can prevent shrinkage and other damage caused by washing, we can extend the useful life of our clothes - saving money and, crucially, reducing the environmental impact of the clothes we wear.

Why Do We Wash Clothes in a Machine?

For centuries, we washed fabrics and clothes by hand - gently cleaning them by soaking, and then massaging the cloth to remove dirt.

Automatic washing machines have been around for a hundred years or so, and a modern machine - with its multitude of wash programmes - has mechanised and automated this laborious process.

They've made our lives easier, and are typically viewed as a necessity in most households in developed countries.

Household washing machine

Unfortunately, however, machine washing just isn’t as gentle to your clothes as washing by hand.

The sheer power of the machine can stress and break clothing fibres in ways that your hands simply cannot, damaging your clothes and leading to shrinkage - and ultimately, early retirement. 

To understand why clothes shrink in the wash, we first need to understand a little more about what happens to them when they're made.

What, Actually, is Shrinkage – and Why Does it Happen?

Throughout the process of making our clothes, particularly the spinning of fibres and the knitting and weaving of textiles, materials are constantly under tension.

But when we wash them in a machine they are subjected to heat, moisture and harsh mechanical action - this damaging combination causes the tension in the fibres to be lost, allowing garments to shrink and change shape.

There’s actually a technical term for it - consolidation shrinkage - and it's defined as a change in the dimensions of fabrics and garments, including length, width and thickness.

It can be affected by lots of things, including the type of fibres, how they've been woven or knitted into the final garment, and the harshness of the washing process.

Weaving machine

From one wash to the next, the signs of shrinkage can be subtle.

But over ten washes, the difference can be enormous - changing your clothes dramatically, with waistbands no longer fitting, or trouser hems hanging some distance above your ankles.

Other potential issues caused by machine washing include:

  • Clothes sagging or changing shape ('shrinkage' can, somewhat surprisingly, also mean that clothes get bigger! Any change of shape that happens during washing is loosely defined as shrinkage)
  • Damage to transfers, embellishments and other details
  • Colours fading or running
  • Pilling (sometimes known as bobbling)
  • Shedding of fibres and microfibres

Our Clothes are Harming The Environment.

Collectively, we spend trillions of dollars on clothes every year - making the fashion industry one of the largest in the world.

But it is also one of the most environmentally damaging - consuming vast amounts of resources and generating huge volumes of waste.

Estimates suggest that more than 100 billion garments are made each year, and it’s thought that 85% of textiles are dumped into landfill yearly, instead of being recycled or reused.

Fashion Show

Fast Fashion - the culture of changing the style of clothing ever more frequently - has contributed to the growth of these numbers.

Consumers are buying fashionable, inexpensive clothes and wearing them just a few times before disposal. Some surveys have even suggested that a significant number of people now see fashion as ‘throwaway’ – with millions of garments dumped after being worn just once.

Wash Better.

So, if we better care for our clothes, preventing shrinking and other damage that can hasten their journey to the trash, it’s likely we will wear them longer - reducing unnecessary waste.

New technologies can help by significantly reducing damage caused by washing.

We also need to rethink our relationship with fashion, and learn to love our clothes for longer.

There are some practical steps you can take right now to reduce laundry damage and prolong the life of your clothes:

  • Wash less often if you can. Most of us wash our clothes more than is necessary. Jeans, for example, rarely need to be washed more than once or twice a month

  • Wash shorter. Long cycles can exacerbate damage. Short, daily wash programmes are usually sufficient to freshen up your clothes – they're better for the environment and will save you money 

  • Wash colder. Most wash cycles are run at 40°C, but 30°C is actually hot enough to get all but the most heavily soiled items clean - and 20°C is even better!

  • Use less water. Quick daily wash cycles typically use less water than other programmes. As a bonus, fewer microfibres - a major source of pollution in the environment - will be washed down the drain.

Extending the life of a garment by just 9 months can reduce its environmental footprint by 20%-30%.

This has significant benefits for the environment, saving vast amounts of water, carbon emissions and waste.

In the long run, it will save you money too.