Unbound is part of a broader wave of startups designing clothes that require less laundering. An eco-friendly brand called Pangaia, which launched late last year and already counts celebrities like Jaden Smith and Justin Bieber as fans, creates seaweed fiber T-shirts that are treated with peppermint oil to keep the shirts fresher longer between washes. The brand estimates that this will save about 3,000 liters of water over the course of a lifetime, compared to a regular cotton T-shirt. Then there is menswear label Wool & Prince, which creates everything from oxford shirts to boxer briefs out of wool, all designed to be washed infrequently. Last year, the company launched a sister womenswear brand called Wool& that makes dresses that can be worn for 100 days straight without washing.This new flock of wash-less brands are capitalizing on the convenience of not having to launder your clothes a lot, which is particularly useful if you’re traveling or crunched for time. But they’re also making an environmental argument: Over-washing clothes is not good for the planet. Washing machines account for 17% of our home water usage, and a quarter of a garment’s carbon footprint over the course of its lifetime comes from cleaning it. And yet, washing machine company AEG estimates that 90% of clothes washed aren’t actually dirty enough to be thrown in the laundry basket.
Part of this has to do with the fact that laundry detergent brands have convinced consumers that they need to wash their clothes frequently, perhaps even after every wear, to be clean and hygienic. For instance, many laundry detergent ads show parents washing their children’s muddy and messy clothes, suggesting that good parenting involves doing a lot of laundry. Mac Bishop, who founded Wool & Prince, saw this firsthand. His first job after college was working for the marketing department of Unilever, which produces dozens of laundry detergent brands around the world. “The only way to grow as a laundry detergent brand is to make customers feel like they need to keep washing their clothes more and more,” he says.
Decades of marketing from the cleaning industry has conditioned many people to throw their clothes in the laundry after one day’s wear, even though this is rarely necessary. So one of the biggest challenges for brands pitching clothes that don’t need to be washed frequently is to convince people that they will not be gross, smelly, or dirty if they aren’t constantly doing loads of laundry.
DESIGNING A WASH-LESS SHIRT
Before brands can convince consumers to stop washing their garments, they first need to design clothes that will live up to this promise. This comes down to carefully selecting materials that are more resistant to odor and dirt. All of these brands believe that a big part of their mission is also to reeducate customers about how much laundering is necessary–and when cleaning becomes superfluous. “It’s important to understand what makes clothes dirty in the first place,” says Bishop. “Sweat itself is clean. It’s when it gets absorbed in clothing that it begins to attract bacteria and smell bad. So the key is finding materials that don’t trap sweat.”
Both Unbound Merino and Wool & Prince rely heavily on wool because the material has many properties that make it less likely to get dirty. Wool is naturally breathable and moisture-wicking, which means that when you sweat the perspiration evaporates from your skin into the air, rather than getting trapped inside the fabric. But this also means that wool fabrics are temperature regulating. When it is hot, the evaporation of your sweat makes you feel cool. But when you are cold, the wool creates a layer of insulation that traps your body heat, keeping you warm. (The miraculous properties of wool make sense you when consider that it evolved to help sheep manage different weather conditions.)
Of course, the usefulness of wool as a clothing fiber has been known for centuries across many cultures. And more recently, outdoor brands like Patagonia and Icebreaker have used wool to create temperature-regulating inner layers and flannel shirts that stay clean on hiking or camping trips. Sneaker brand Allbirds creates wool shoes that can be worn without socks without making your feet smell. But these newer startups have worked to incorporate wool into clothes that can be worn everyday.