Why do we expect our clothes to maintain their quality while we subject them to regular chemical abuse?
While watching Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye, I was stoked when the Fab Five's 'grooming expert' Jonathan Van Ness gasped in horror when the episode's straight guy admits to washing their hair every day. According to JVN, daily shampooing strips hair of its natural oils and, unless you have a particularly oily head, you should not be washing more than once (or at most twice) a week.
This happens in almost every episode. JVN invariably reads the back of the label he finds in our protagonist's shower, shakes his head in dismay and lets us know that the guilty shampoo contains harsh chemicals typically used to clean car engines. The lather-rinse-repeat days are over.
As the co-founder of The Fabric Social, where we exclusively use natural fibres, I couldn't help but make the link between mindless hair washing and the way many of us have been taught to treat our clothing. Fashion needs its own JVN to preach to the masses: stop washing your clothes!
We have demanding expectations of our fabric. We would like it to be natural and organic with a soft drape. Simultaneously we want a single use relationship with our clothing wherein we can wear it once and toss it into a washer and dryer ad infinitum. Like our hair, we expect our fabrics to maintain their bounce and shape while putting them through regular chemical abuse.
This is why synthetic fibres are far and away the most popular fabrics used by the big fast fashion brands. They fit the marketing message that we should be buying clothes cheaply and often. Clothing that is cheap, easy, reliable and disposable.
But sustainability experts have called out our reliance on polyester and acrylic and our appetite for invincible fabric. A 2016 study from the University of California at Santa Barbara found that synthetic microfibres shed a huge amount of plastic into our rivers, lakes and oceans every single time they're washed.
A University of New South Wales study in 2011 found that microfibres made up 85% of human-made debris on our shorelines. This was particularly true of fleece and activewear made from recycled plastic. Every time we wash our synthetic clothes (even the seemingly innocent recycled ones) we are leaking toxic particles that are going on to damage our oceans and marine life.
This is to say nothing of the fact that even the most efficient machines use around 40 litres of water per wash. If you don't need to wash something, don't.
Much of The Fabric Social's clothing is made from a mixture of eri silk and khadi cotton. Silk is a magical thing, and like hair, it is a natural protein fibre. Even though silk is lightweight, soft (and even compostable) it is incredibly strong. They say that pound for pound silk has a tensile strength greater than steel. Just because a fibre doesn't enjoy being beat around in the washing machine doesn't mean it is fragile. Just like your hair.
My eri-khadi clothes almost never get washed: I am a straight-up JVN evangelical when it comes to my silk. I have never stepped foot in a dry cleaner. When I do wash my Fab Sosh clothes, I give them a rinse in soapy water. But hanging them up in some fresh air usually takes care of any mustiness that has accumulated.
So to you I make this plea: consider buying fabrics that don't require such frequent washing. Natural fibres are not the enemy of the busy modern woman. I urge shoppers to look past the "dry clean" or "hand wash only" label and consider that natural fibres don't need washing as frequently as their smellier synthetic counterparts. Start buying natural, and stop washing everything without thinking. Make Jonathan proud.
Fiona McAlpine is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social - a conscious fashion label working with conflict-affected women in Asia. Photography: Instagram @JVN