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The fact that every day is washing day for many families means that, collectively, we are expending far more energy, water and detergent on our laundry than ever before in history. None of these are good for the environment – particularly the detergents, which are often derived from rather unappealing petroleum by-products. Nevertheless, many companies produce eco-friendly alternatives, which can be just as effective and rarely cost much more than your usual brand.

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60-second green guide

  • If using a mainstream brand, choose a washing powder over a liquid. Concentrated powder is better than standard powder
  • Use soap-based detergents, or ones with a high soap content
  • Vegetable-based surfactants are better than petrochemical-based ones
  • Use a product without phosphates, phosphonates or carboxylates
  • Make eco-products work better in hard water areas by using a water softener
  • Choose a low wash temperature, or select the ‘economy’ cycle

The mega-wash companies Procter & Gamble and Lever Brothers churn over 84 per cent of the British clothes that are washed every day. Their research and development divisions are masters at devising new and impressive-sounding formulations for their products, dazzling people with promises of whiter and whiter whites. While performance and value for money are undoubtedly important, most of the things put in the average British wash simply don’t need the highest level of performance. As small, environmentconscious companies often point out, most of our clothes just require gentle freshening up – not full-scale decontamination.

Ingredients to watch

Detergents from the mega-wash companies are more likely to contain petroleum-based surfactants, which can take many years to biodegrade. Look for vegetable-based alternatives, and avoid detergents that contain other chemical ingredients such as phosphates, phosphonates and carboxylates. Phosphates are a known cause of eutrophication, a process that disrupts the natural balance of rivers and streams and can cause problems for fish and other wildlife.

Enzymes used in detergents are not directly bad for the environment, but have in the past been reported to cause problems for workers in the factories making them. The good news is that these problems have been almost entirely eradicated in recent years.

Ecological brands including Ecover and Bio-D dispense with the most environmentally damaging ingredients found in the mega-wash products, particularly the petrochemical-based surfactants. Many of their products are certified by BUAV and the Vegan Society, so look out for the logos on their packaging. Some users find eco-friendly brands less efficient at removing the most stubborn stains, but their eco-credentials balance out the occasional use of something stronger!

Other innovations

Some companies such as Ecover have begun to offer a refilling facility, so that the bottles of their ethical laundry detergents do not have to be thrown away when empty. The sellers (such as a specialist shops and health food stores) are provided with a supply of the product so that customers can return their bottles to the nearest available outlet and fill them back up. As most detergent packaging is not suitable for recycling, this is a significant step in reducing the amount of household waste produced.

Also available are products that claim to reduce the amount of laundry detergent required, or to remove the need for it altogether. Some work using enzymes, while others help to soften the water in the washing machine. Reception to these innovations has been mixed, with some saying that the products have lower stain-removing power, but they are nevertheless worth researching.

For most clothes, The Good Shopping Guide recommends a combination of Ecover/Bio-D or an equivalent eco-friendly detergent, plus a quarterly wash in biological powder for the dirtiest items. This will provide the best possible trade-off between efficiency and environmental impact.

Ethical Comparison – Laundry Detergents Detailed Rankings Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Bio-D, Clear Spring, Ecover, ACDO, Advance, Co-op, Cyclon, Login, Novon, Surcare, Persil, Surf, Ariel, Bold, Daz, Dreft, Fairy

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