Airing Clean Laundry

While laundry is about water (see other article on Household Water Usage), this essay is about status symbols. Starting by looking at the energy used in drying our clean clothes, i end with the challenge of creating status symbols appropriate for our situation today.

Today, in India brands abound and the rich are using more energy to dry clothes.
For example, most using washing machines, use higher speeds in spin cycles using to dry clothes. And some have dryers in this tropical country!

Though, i am happy that hanging clothes out to dry is still acceptable in all parts of India.

Originally, published in HaasWeek, the newspaper of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1996.

Airing Clean Laundry

Rajesh Shah
November 4, 1996

Last weekend i decided to reduce my contribution to global warming by hanging out some towels to dry on my balcony. A few minutes later, i heard my landlady standing downstairs on the pavement, loudly complaining about how awful it looked. Later in the evening i got a lecture about how my laundry made the apartment look like a ghetto.

A ghetto? Yes, there was an element of saving money by avoiding the dryer in the basement and an element of saving time not waiting for the dryer. But i was far more concerned with reducing my energy usage — energy generated by coal and nuclear power plants somewhere out of sight. I also did not want to generate carbon dioxide by burning natural gas in the dryer for an hour. And i wanted to maximize use of the pure, non-polluting sunlight that arrives in abundance on my balcony in the morning.

I understand that it’s in our nature to display our class, our wealth, our status. I have no problem with a person flaunting his Rolex over my Casio. There are no bad side effects generated by that marketing success. However, when a gas-guzzling Land Rover is touted over a Civic on city streets, that bothers me. The Civic consumes far fewer resources to manufacture: less land is dug up to mine the raw materials, fewer chemicals are used during fabrication, and fewer toxins are released during finishing. Finally, during usage, much less fuel is consumed and a lot less exhaust is generated. It bothers me that most of the status symbols we use are not good for us and are even worse for our children. Our energy consumption and car driving are sending 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year. And that number is increasing exponentially as gas-guzzlers are becoming popular in China and India.

Can we do better? Native Americans used feathers and hides to display status. In Morocco it is a privilege to go barefoot indoors and enjoy the luxury of feeling the carpet or marble.

In our material society why can¹t we consider it high class to have the most efficient, most non-polluting goods? To pollute less, we just have to consume (actually one can think of it as “waste” instead of “consume”) less. Use the dryer less, use the car less, use less paper, and turn off the lights. But if we do make status symbols out of consuming less, how can we ensure that only the deserving get the status symbol? It’s one thing to price a Mercedes so that only a few can afford it. But if walking (as opposed to driving) to work became a status symbol, how could we stop the non-privileged from acquiring this status symbol? This is a productive challenge to be taken up by MBAs (and all designers) interested in avoiding warming up the earth and endangering the human species.

If the rich hung out their clean laundry in front of their house to boldly show how they reduced their contribution to global change, it would be easy for the real “ghettos” to also look rich. And, while it might take a genius to recognize the real status symbol from the fake, all of our children could happily walk by breathing cooler cleaner air.

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