Laundry detergents with the smallest carbon footprints
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Truelabel uses algorithms based on climate research to estimate the carbon footprint of products, helping you reduce your impact while you shop without needing a Ph.D. in climate science.
We do this research because we believe people have a right to know the impact of what they’re buying (we do not take samples or funding from companies). Our research is based on Life Cycle Assessments, the gold standard for evaluating a product’s global warming impact holistically across its ingredients, manufacturing, packaging, etc.
photo by totalpics/istock
Does using a small-carbon-footprint laundry detergent matter?
What could be more mundane than laundry detergent? We all have it, a nice smelling tub of chemicals that remove dirt (and other things) from our clothes. Like most things related to climate change, small things add up and can be traced back to critical sources of emissions -- oil production/use and deforestation. Choosing a laundry detergent with a lower carbon footprint won't stop climate change by yourself, but here's what it looks like if the entire US does so.
The average American family’s use of laundry detergent equates to 82 hours of barbecuing or driving 130 miles (~100KG of CO2e). If all US households switch to a low impact option, it'd be the equivalent to a forest 7 times the size of Yellowstone sequestering carbon every year (1).
Where do these emissions come from? Most come from heating water to wash the clothes, and the rest come from sourcing surfactants (i.e. Palm Oil) and packaging (i.e. petroleum or trees). That all said, if you wash your clothes on cold wash and choose one of the following detergents, you can reduce the footprint by more than 90%.
The best: Detergents with coconut-based surfactants (and not that much of it) in recycled packaging
Better: Detergents with petrochemical-based surfactant
Worse: Detergents using palm-oil derived surfactants
OK, which laundry detergents have the smallest carbon footprints?
First and foremost, washing your clothes on cold saves 50% of carbon emissions off the bat. Past that, here are the three which stand out as top and roughly have same reduction in emissions, through different means.
TruEarth Eco Strips save an estimated 85% of emissions from manufacturing and packaging because they use mostly coconut-derived surfactants, less of it, and super concentrate the detergent, which means less packaging. They could further reduce emissions by adopting recycled paper as well.
Rockin Green Detergent saves an estimated 83% of emissions by uses mineral and coconut-based cleansers, as well as significantly less packaging than the typical HDPE jug. (Because this is also an enzyme-based cleaner, it's a favorite amongst the Truelabel team for making athletic clothes a little more palatable to the nose).
Seventh Generation Ultra Concentrated saves an estimated 82% of emissions compared to Tide Pods. They do this by reducing emissions from packaging by 97%, using 100% post-consumer recycled plastic and way less of it because the formula is verifiably more concentrated than many others. They also use less surfactant than average.
What other products did we look at?
We ran other major options from Dropps (which scored highest quartile of emissions due to high concentrations of palm-oil based surfactant), Method, Seventh Generation, Rockin Green, Puracy, Mrs. Meyers, etc, not to mention the major brands like Tide, All, Arm & Hammer.
New products come onto the market every day, and we're scaling up our technology to survey even more products. But if you think you've found one (or have a DYI edition) you think is low emissions let us know in the comments below!
For the data nerds, let's dive into why some laundry detergents have 90% lower carbon footprints
Emissions for any product come from raw materials & manufacturing, packaging, transporting the product to you, your use of the product, and throwing the product away (or recycling). For detergent , the largest source of emissions that you can reduce comes from
materials: 35% of emissions come from sourcing the raw ingredients (surfactants)
manufacturing: 5% of emissions come factory production
use: 50% of emissions come from heating water for a hot wash cycle
packaging: 5% from the packaging of the detergent
Transportation and disposal: 5%. However we don't include this in our calculation because people get their products in different ways (driving vs. Amazon) and each municipality has different disposal practices.
Emissions from Materials and Assembly
Like many other products, detergents start at the oil well or palm tree plantation. The raw ingredients that make up most of the emissions center around surfactant, the chemical compound that removes dirt and stains from your clothes. Surfactants are not all made equally and are divided into palm oil, petroleum, and even coconut oil surfactants. In total, about 30% of the emissions come from the raw ingredients that make up the detergent and 5% come from manufacturing processes (such as powering the factory that mixes these ingredients together)
Emissions from Packaging
There’s a huge focus on developing packaging that’s small and sustainable or uses alternative, lower impact materials. This is great, because plastic, as we discuss here, is a big contributor of greenhouse gasses across the US economy. Compared to the typical detergent bottle you know, 100% post-consumer recycled packaging decreases emissions significantly, whereas using paper increases emissions significantly. Interestingly, pods coming in pouches drive much higher emissions because the the polyvinyl alcohol pod casing is resource intensive (6,7,8).
Emissions from Use
It turns out that about 50% of the contribution to climate change comes from using the detergent at home (mostly hot water used during the wash cycle). So if you use cold water (or have a solar panel on your house), you'll reduce emissions by 40-50% (2,3).
Emissions from Transportation and Disposal
Transportation includes both the distribution of the raw ingredients to the factory, then to the distribution center and finally to the location of sale. About 5% of the emissions come from transporting the product and is mainly related to the maintenance of the transportation vehicles. Lastly 5% of the emissions come from the disposal of the detergent (along with the dirt and grime) in the rinse cycle of your washing machine (3)
How to see through marketing:
Now you know the science, but how do you actually read product labels and see when you're at the store (hint: you can use the Truelabel extension when shopping online so you don't have to read labels)? Here are common tricks used in eco marketing and how you can see through it.
Verdict: It depends on the eco strip. Compact laundry detergents like eco strips and granular detergent are generally more environmentally friendly because they require less chemical use in their production, weigh less (i.e. take less energy to transport), and use less packaging. That said, the type of surfactant and packaging type are the most important variables so having a eco strip doesn't necessarily mean it's less impactful than alternatives. For example, they may still use significant palm oil and virgin paper (which has a much larger carbon footprint than plastic) .
Verdict: this is a red herring. "Plant-derived" is usually code for palm oil, which has a bad track record of clear cutting forests for production and comes with a huge carbon footprint. While sustainable palm oil certifications exist, on average palm oil is associated with 27% more emissions than petroleum, so it’s on the manufacturer to prove that they’re using “plant derived ingredients” that aren’t contributing to climate change and destroying virgin forests.
“Zero packaging" or "compostable packaging" or "bio-based” packaging
Verdict: this is a red herring, from a carbon footprint perspective. If you want to have a zero waste life, that's great. But that might be separate from low carbon. Because surfactant choice is the largest driver of emissions, it's hard to prove trees weren’t cleared to make the detergent, you might be driving to your zero waste store, you shouldn't rely on packaging as an indicator of an overall low carbon footprint. For example, driving to the store to refill your container with detergent could blow out any saved emissions from packaging. Surfactants are also the most important driver of greenhouse gas emissions, so you could have a zero-packaging detergent that was made from clear cut forests. Bioplastics (corn or sugarcane-based) can reduce packaging emissions by 25% only if a company can verify they’re not contributing to deforestation to grow plants needed to create the bioplastics. That certification doesn’t really exist though, so it’s hard to know whether your bioplastic is truly helping.
"Made with Renewable Energy"
Verdict: it depends. Renewable energy is a good thing in lowering emissions for a product, but it doesn’t mean a product has low emissions. In other words, having a solar-powered factory using palm oil produced from deforested land doesn’t exactly mean the product will have a small carbon footprint. If you want to get into the details, it’s crucial to understand that not all renewable energy is created equal. Solar energy, for example, is cleaner than fossil fuels, but the production of solar cells emits powerful greenhouse gasses, therefore it has to be the main type of energy used by the company over a longer period of time for it to reduce emissions. Furthermore, hydroelectric energy requires the use of dams so water can turn turbines and produce energy. These dams, apart from being extremely expensive, lead to environmental degradation, flooding, and loss of habitats.Lastly, a company can be saying they use renewable energy by purchasing renewable energy credits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s less dirty energy on the grid — they’ve simply bought the right to say they’re using green energy that’s already been produced. Using renewable energy is an important step to reducing emissions, but it doesn’t mean the product has low emissions.
Verdict: this important, but it depends on the product. A concentrated product will use less packaging and be lighter, both of which are great. Most important, however, is the type and amount of surfactant used.
Limitations and assumptions
While a LCA is an accurate method for estimating emissions of a product, there are limitations and assumptions we want to point out.
We calculate our percent changes by identifying a baseline product representing an example of the most commonly used product in that category. For example, for tissue products we used virgin wood since it is most commonly used by the world’s major paper-producing companies.
We also focus carbon emission equivalents from the product to better understand the climatic impact, which doesn’t take into effect impact on other aspects of the environment like biodiversity, pollution, etc.
Our data model estimates carbon emissions and therefore isn't 100% accurate, That said, we believe empowering you with enough information to reduce emissions without knowing with 100% accuracy what that reduction is. If you’re a consumer or manufacturer who thinks we’re wrong, let us know or better yet prove us wrong by showing us your emissions. Furthermore, we can’t see into company supply chains, but as they become more forthcoming, this limitation will lessen. Lastly, we know that science changes day by day. As new products, technologies, and methodologies are developed, we will also evolve. This means our ratings and methodology will be continuously improved to reflect the most up-to-date research and so you can continue making a difference.