Can we be green AND clean in Covid-19?

In a bid to reduce my environmental impact on the planet, I have been re-assessing the more mundane parts of my life. Now it’s the turn of my dirty washing. Sorry, readers, forget about not airing it in public.

But does going green mean compromising on being clean? And does it still count for anything in the midst of Covid-19?

How green is “green”?

I have been washing with one of the best-known “eco” products Ecover for a long time. It’s one of only two ‘eco’ washing products I could find in my local shops, so my choice was limited. But when I looked at Ethical Consumer‘s sustainability ratings, I was surprised to see it rated really low – 7 out of 20. It appears that Ecover had been bought by UK firm SC Johnson in 2018 and its reputation has suffered. For example, although Ecover proudly states its products are cruelty-free, its new parent company tests on animals. This parent doesn’t have the best reputation, according to Ethical Consumer, for pollution, toxic chemicals, human rights, supply chain management, anti-social finance and political donations either. Ouch.

Before the takeover, Ecover appears to have performed fairly well. Now, it seems the poor Ecover child now gets a bad rap because of its adoption by terrible parents. I feel a little sorry for the child, but should I stick with it despite the rest of the family’s poor behaviour? I really quite liked their post-consumer recycled plastic bottle, their cardboard boxes, their re-fill stations, their innovation when it comes to finding plant-based ingredients. Except, they still use palm oil.

What a rabbit warren of ethical dilemmas I had gone down. While one product was tested on animals, the next contained toxic chemicals. The next, palm oil, or non-recyclable packaging, and so on. Take your pick from a whole host of eco-criteria – sadly, not one product seemed to meet them all.

Sometimes, I just want to be told that this product is “the sustainable choice” and be done with it.

I tried two less conventional options for my laundry; soapnuts (dried berries from a tree) and a wash ball, a re-useable plastic case housing mineral pellets containing biodegradable detergents.

Here’s a summary of what I found:

Not really that much between them, depending on your preferred eco-criteria of choice. A friend even suggested I tried washing with just water: “Try it! You might earn yourself the most eco-points that way.”

How clean is “clean”?

The science of how laundry liquid actually gets your clothes “clean” is a mystery to me. I just buy the product, put it in the machine and my clothes come out clean(er). Detergent is usually an oil-based product containing a whole host of ingredients, including bleaches or other stuff that doesn’t easily degrade down the drain. Soap, or eco-products like Ecover is generally made of natural fats or biodegradable ingredients and often pushes fewer chemicals down the drain.

But, to be honest, neither the soapnuts nor the wash ball really made my clothes radiate “clean”. Not the way that Ecover did. Or the way my mother would approve of. But at least my clothes weren’t dirty, which was good enough. Maybe it just depends what your own standards of “clean” are.

Does any of it matter amidst Covid-19?

Now is perhaps not the best time to blow the trumpet of washing with berries from a tree. Like never before, people are placing much greater emphasis on sanitising hands, surfaces and clothes. But, I worry that the obsession with being clean comes at the expense of being green.

This National Geographic article warns about the ineffective and unnecessary use of chemical cleaners to fight off the virus. I agree – in our obsession with cleanliness, we are doing damage to ourselves and our environment that we will only realise later down the line.

Coronavirus won’t prevent me from using more environmentally-friendly laundry products. The WHO advises washing hands with nothing more than soap and water. Soap is enough to break down the fat surrounding the virus molecule allowing it to wash away (read the Scotsman’s explanation of the science of handwashing). On laundry, the Government guidance doesn’t need us to wash our clothes any differently to how we would normally do.

So I’m not going to reach for the bleach. I will not be deterred from using a more eco-friendly washing product like soapnuts or the eco-egg.

And if you don’t like the smell, it’s a good job we’ve got 2m between us.

What are your experiences (not of me and my smell)? Let me know in the comment section.

What YOU can do

Follow a hierarchy when it comes to clothes washing, depending on how dirty your clothes are:

  • wash less often, with full loads
  • wash with soapnuts or a wash ball (or with just water)
  • wash with detergent with decent environmental credentials – concentrated, or in a cardboard box, to minimise plastic.
  • Take advantage of refill stations
  • If stains are bad, hang them outside (UV light removes them)

2 thoughts on “Can we be green AND clean in Covid-19?

  1. Hi Eva. What’s your take on the Ethical Consumer downgrading for change in parent company?… I presume the product itself is still just as good. Surely having Ecover in the company ‘family’ should improve the company’s ethical standing rather than the product itself being downgraded?
    Also interested to know if you were able to find out if the soap its and wash balls are actually air-freighted in, or if they come on cargo ships? Cargo ships aren’t super-green either, but for the volume of stuff they can carry have a far lower footprint. This is how I justify buying wine from South America 😉

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    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. In terms of Ethical Consumer downgrading Ecover for the sins of its parent company, I feel conflicted. I like Ecover, and I want to support it. I’d also like its parent company to emulate Ecover’s ethos. But I also don’t want to support bad behaviour, even if indirectly.

      There is a powerful argument that boycotts do sometimes change behaviour, and if an Ecover boycott can change Johnson’s behaviour, then maybe that’s valuable. But you need to tell them why – engaging with companies as a consumer is a powerful way to make change happen.

      What I didn’t mention is that it’s a competitive market – there are enough other companies who have equally good products (BioD, for example) and who don’t have the link with the bad parent company, so if we are uncomfortable with a company, we can vote with our feet.

      In terms of air-freighting, you make a good point. I just presume everything comes on a ship because it’s way cheaper than flying, but I didn’t ask them. But, both companies I contacted were really responsive and happy to answer my questions.

      The problem with your South American wine is that it’s probably quite a heavy product (in glass bottles) so would take quite a bit of energy to move around, even on a ship. I found this with milk in glass bottles (see earlier blog). I concluded that the milk that came in glass bottles might have a higher footprint than plastic because of the weight involved in the transportation!

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