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The Front Line of Corporate Sustainability: Laundry?

Elizabeth (Lisa) Zelljadt
Elizabeth (Lisa) Zelljadt | Thursday March 21st, 2013 | 0 Comments

Image Credit: Tony Crider

Image Credit: Tony Crider

While innovative new business models in the sharing economy are making headlines for reducing resource use, the green business community is buzzing about vehicle use patterns in big-name car companies like BMW, and silicon valley firms like Google and Apple are touting efforts to green their data centers, there is an incredibly un-sexy set of corporate players quietly reducing resource use at the household level every day – makers of washing machines.

Most of us have missed it, but washers have come a long way in the past couple of years – current models use about half the energy that old ones do. Mostly this is because they also use less water than older models: about 80 percent of the electricity washers use goes toward heating the water, so less water is key.

In areas with high water and power prices, the consumer savings from buying a super-efficient washer are pretty staggering – and pretty simple. Calculating payback times for sleeker, more popular “green” investments like installing rooftop photovoltaics can be tricky, as it depends on financial incentives that vary by state and region as well as whether and how you can sell renewable energy credits

How much a new washer will save you, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward if you know what you pay for electricity (cents per kWh) and for water ($ per 1000 gallons). The company ClearlyEnergy will even figure it out for you if you type in your zip code in its appliance search function, pulling up all the washer models in order of bang for your buck.

So why doesn’t the revolution in the washing machine industry make news alongside car-sharing, sustainable data centers, urban transit disputes and other hotter sustainability stories? Let’s face it – we do not like to think about laundry.

“Many consumers have never heard of a high-efficiency topload washer,” said Leanne Dugan, manager of consumer insights for GE Appliances, which makes some of the most efficient washers on the market along with Electrolux (which owns Frigidaire brand washers), LG, Samsung and Whirlpool (which owns Maytag).

Laundry tends to be something people want to get over with quickly, so carefully researching options and comparing washers is not necessarily what firms expect consumers to do – in contrast to our avid comparison of cars’ MPG or reading the label on every cleaning product to see what chemicals it contains. Sustainability in the washer world is therefore actually driven by the companies that produce the appliances meeting standards, rather than explicit consumer demand for more efficient ways to do laundry.

Whirlpool’s Senior Director of Sustainability, Warwick Stirling, said his company was striving to pass high appliance efficiency standards long before sustainability became an important part of business. Now the firm is reaping the rewards: “In 2012, the company marketed over 350 EnergyStar qualified major appliances, more than any other appliance manufacturer for the U.S. and Canadian markets” Stirling said – adding that the models frequently coming up as the highest cost-savers on ClearlyEnergy’s search page are “among our best sellers.”

In fact, the sustainability teams at all the washer companies listed above told me their efficient models are selling particularly well. According to GE’s research, high-efficiency (HE) topload washers are the fastest growing product category in home laundry appliances.

Julie Wood of the appliances PR team at GE pointed out that consumer interest may be growing: Increasingly, visitors to the website appear to be exploring and comparing the efficiency features and energy or water use data.

After all, you can end up paying a couple hundred dollars more for a super-efficient top of the line model, but even the least efficient new models can be twice as efficient as old ones. In terms of rankings, there’s the familiar EnergyStar rating but also an exclusive EnergyStar Most Efficient label – only a few products in each appliance fleet meet that high standard.

LG’s Director of Brand Marketing for Home Appliances Dave VanderWaal gushes about this fairly new designation, calling it a “groundbreaking initiative by the EPA.” I probably would too if Americans purchased over a million items carrying that label from my company in 2012. That’s the case for LG, whose 2013 product line contains 100 products holding the Most Efficient designation – of course only few are in the laundry sector. The one LG’s marketing team is currently hyping up is the pricy but enormous “Mega-capacity TurboWash,” which holds over 5 cubic feet (twice as much as a normal machine), looks like a spaceship with its flashy metallic design, uses some kind of new patented steam technology, and has a direct drive motor…

…hey, what happened to the un-sexy washer makers quietly contributing to sustainability with their humbly efficient appliances? I guess we may be entering the era of hip, snazzy clean laundry.


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