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The psychology of laundry habits suggests a new spin on sustainability campaigns

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The psychology of laundry habits suggests a new spin on sustainability campaigns

So far, efforts to get people to wash clothes in a more environmentally friendly manner have had little effect. A new study suggests the problem is in our heads.
June 18, 2024

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Carbon emissions from clothes laundering are at an all-time high, and between 16 and 35 percent of microplastics generated worldwide come from laundry. Over the last several decades washing machines have become more energy efficient, but people are doing more laundry than ever before, canceling out these gains.

So far, campaigns to encourage people to wash their clothes in a more environmentally friendly manner have had little effect. And a new study suggests the reason might be traced to primal facets of our psychology.

People with higher sensitivity to disgust tend to do laundry more often, the study revealed. The pattern persists regardless of the value they place on being environmentally friendly.

The findings suggest “the importance of acknowledging conflicting goals when it comes to pro-environmental behaviors,” says study team member Erik Klint, a graduate student at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Disgust is a primal emotion that protects people from infection and dangerous substances, part of what scientists call the behavioral immune system. Disgust is related to shame: we feel shame when we are the target of another person’s disgust, such as being perceived as a person who doesn’t keep clean. “The fear of evoking disgust in others is a strong social driving force,” Klint says.

The new study is one of only a handful of psychological investigations of laundry practices. Klint and his collaborators conducted two online surveys of people in Sweden, with about 1,000 participants in each. They also conducted online focus groups with a total of about 40 people to help them revise the questionnaire between the first and second surveys.

 

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“What surprised me the most was how engaging laundering discussions can be,” Klint says. Study participants exhibited “almost a hidden need to validate and contribute to the discussions about laundering behaviors.”

Psychological constructs such as disgust and shame don’t directly influence how often people run the washing machine, the researchers report in the journal PLoS ONE. Instead, these factors influence how fast a person’s laundry pile builds up – which in turn determines washing frequency. “This means that if we aim for behavioral change for environmental reasons, we cannot target laundering directly but should instead focus on what behaviors and habits generate laundry,” Klint says.

In other words, rather than hectoring people about the need to reduce carbon emissions from laundry, sustainability campaigns should focus on, say, normalizing wearing an item of clothing more times before throwing it in the laundry hamper.

“From the interviews, we also saw that few people consciously evaluated whether the clothes needed to be washed and decided based on the principle of ‘better safe than sorry’,” Klint says. “Instead of using a washing machine, the clothes might just need to be aired out or stains removed by hand, which is more beneficial for the environment.”

This would also help people save money, the researchers point out, since clothes wear out faster when they are washed in the machine.

Messages that take into account people’s underlying motivations rather than simply focusing on environmental impacts of a behavior could be useful in other sustainability campaigns, too. “That being said, to what extent (and how) we can practically use this knowledge to increase willingness to change remains to be investigated,” Klint says.

Klint himself has developed a more relaxed, don’t-worry-be-happy attitude towards laundry. “My impression from conducting this research is that apart from strong body odor or large stains located near your face, most of us are unaware of others’ cleanliness but highly aware of our own,” he says. “It’s all in our heads.”

Source: Klint E. et al.  “Pro-environmental behavior is undermined by disgust sensitivity: The case of excessive laundering.” PLoS ONE 2024.

Image: Michael Dales via Flickr.

 

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