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Behavior Change
Conflicting Motivations Prevent Us from Washing More Sustainably

A new study examines a critical, overlooked barrier to the sustainability of our laundry habits — the ingrained, psychological mechanisms behind how often we feel compelled to wash our clothes.

Most people today say they would lean towards environmentally friendly lifestyles and behaviors, but not at the expense of being clean. When it comes to our washing habits, the evolutionarily conditioned fear of being perceived as dirty often wins out over the desire to act in an environmentally conscious way.

This is explored in a unique study from Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology — which examines the driving forces behind our laundering behaviors and provides new approaches for reducing the environmental impact of laundry.

Today, we wash our clothes more than ever before, and the emissions from laundering have never been higher — because many people wear clothes fewer times before deciding they need washing, technological advances have made it easier and cheaper to do laundry, and access to washing machines has increased. Plus, 16-35 percent of global microplastics pollution comes from washing synthetic fibers; detergents contribute to eutrophication; and the use of energy and water for washing also has environmental impacts.

"Even though machines have become more energy-efficient, it is how often we choose to wash that has the greatest impact on the climate — and we have never done as much washing as we do today. At the same time, most of us seem to be uninterested in changing our laundering behaviors to reduce climate impact," says Erik Klint, doctoral student at Chalmers’ Division of Environmental Systems Analysis and co-author of the study.

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Pro-environmental behavior is undermined by disgust sensitivity: The case of excessive laundering was led by researchers from Chalmers' Division of Environmental Systems Analysis in collaboration with the research group for Decision Making, Environmental, Economic and Political Psychology at the University of Gothenburg. The study is part of a larger project, The future of the laundry — which is carried out at Chalmers’ HSB Living Lab in collaboration with The Research Hub by Electrolux Professional.

Written by Klint, along with Chalmers' Gregory Peters and Lars-Olof Johansson at the University of Gothenburg, the study is based on two surveys — each of a representative sample of roughly 1,000 Swedish adults — which asked questions about washing behavior, habits, cleanliness norms, disgust sensitivity and shame, among other things.

The research dives into two underlying, psychological mechanisms that affect washing behavior — environmental identity, or how strongly we identify with environmentally conscious people; and how inclined we are to have feelings of disgust — two clearly conflicting driving forces, as the study shows.

"We humans are constantly faced with different goal conflicts. In this case, there is a conflict between the desire to reduce one's washing to save the environment and the fear of being perceived as a disgusting person with unclean clothes,” Klint says. “Disgust is a strong psychological and social driving force. The study shows that the higher our sensitivity to disgust, the more we wash — regardless of whether we value our environmental identity highly. The feeling of disgust simply wins out over environmental awareness."

An evolutionarily linked emotion

The fact that disgust drives our behavior so strongly has several bases. Klint describes disgust as an evolutionarily conditioned emotion that functions as a protection against infection or dangerous substances. Disgust is also closely related to the feeling of shame and can thus also have an influence in social contexts.

"We don't want to do things that risk challenging our position in the group — such as being associated with a person who doesn't take care of their hygiene," he says.

In terms of our washing behavior, he adds: “Here, an evolutionarily rooted driving force is set against a moral standpoint; and in most cases, you're likely to react to that evolutionarily linked emotion."

‘Washing campaigns have the wrong starting point’

The study highlights that many campaigns and messages aimed at encouraging environmentally friendly behaviors have the wrong starting point, since they often fail to consider the psychological aspects behind people's behavior.

"It doesn't matter how sensible and research-based an argument you have, if they run counter to people's different driving forces, such as the desire to feel a sense of belonging to a group, then they won’t work," he says.

Klint says questions such as "How do we get people to wash less?” and “How do we do it in a more environmentally friendly way?” — the latter being the focus of ongoing work by brands including Tide, Electrolux and Samsung — are misplaced; he says the focus should instead be on the indirect behavior that leads to the actual washing. He suggests a subtle shift in approach, such as: “How do we get people to generate less laundry — specifically, laundry that needs to be cleaned by a washing machine?”

"You do laundry because the laundry basket is full, because your favorite sweater is dirty, or because there is a free timeslot in your shared laundry,” Klint points out. “Therefore, the focus needs to be on what happens before we run the washing machine — i.e., the underlying behaviors that create a need to wash. For example, how much laundry we generate, how we sort the clothes in the machine, or when we think the washing machine is full.”

One of the study's main suggestions is to encourage people to use clothes more before they end up in the laundry basket — an approach used by brands including H&M and Levi’s.

"It can be about targeting excessive washing, with messages such as 'most people use their T-shirt more than once.' But also replacing washing machine use with other actions — such as airing the garments, brushing off dirt or removing individual stains by hand. One way could be to highlight the economic arguments here, as clothes get worn out when they go through the machine," he says.

Gregory Peters, Professor of Quantitative Sustainability Assessment at Chalmers and co-author of the study, emphasizes that the research is a unique combination of behavioral science and natural science.

"This study is part of a more extensive thesis that goes beyond the usual research framework for life cycle assessments and has made it possible to create a more holistic understanding of how we wash and what drives washing behavior. The result we hope for is to contribute to reduced environmental impact from laundry, but it is possible that the research can be generalized to other areas where behavior and technology interact," he says.

Considerations for brands

Policies and messaging that try to enhance pro-environmental behavior will often force consumers to prioritize competing interests. As the research shows, people are confronted with an implicit dilemma when deciding whether to wash or not: reducing emissions but risking social repercussions. Since the latter takes priority for most people, it comes as no surprise that previous interventions have been and will be unsuccessful in steering behavior.

The researchers recommend that campaigns attempting to increase the sustainability of laundering behavior treat reduced emissions and resource use as beneficial byproducts, rather than the main objective — focusing on addressing the underlying behaviors that create a need to wash, rather than the act of running the washing machine.