By now, most of us have heard of the hygeine hypothesis (the idea that our possibly too-clean modern lifestyles actually contribute to disease by not challenging our immune systems sufficiently). But what if our Western obsession with cleaning is creating even more problems? 

Turns out, that's likely, especially when it comes to washing our clothes. According to life cycle analyses of most types of clothing, it is the use phase, and specifically the washing (and drying) of clothes that uses the most resources; for most fabrics, far more energy and carbon emissions come from cleaning them than manufacturing them, over the life of the pants, blouse, dress, or jacket. 

Tullia Jack, writing in the New Zealand Herald reports, "A recent study of underwear label Chesty Bonds shows up to 80 per cent of their energy consumption happens during customer use. With Levi's jeans, nearly 60 per cent of the environmental impacts come from washing.

This is fairly normal according to Kate Fletcher, who in her 2008 book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys looked at the environmental impact of the fashion industry and reported that up to 82 per cent of its energy use, 66 per cent of its solid waste and over half of its emissions to air come from washing and drying clothes."

A simple, straighforward solution to this issue is to wash our clothes less. This seemingly radical idea isn't that crazy when we admit to how many pretty clean clothes we throw in the wash (instead of hanging up or putting clothes away, it's easier to toss them in the hamper, isn't it?). This is especially true for kids and teenagers; I know I stopped putting perfectly clean clothes in the hamper only when my grandma made me responsible for washing my own clothes (I was nine, and this is a great age for kids to learn how to do laundry and simultaneously become more responsible for their stuff).

Suggesting that people wash their clothes less can be a tough sell; most of us have learned that cleanliness is important and the idea of possibly smelling is a big cultural no-no. But what if our washing less didn't make a significant impact in the perception of how clean we are to our neighbors and friends? 

The New Zealand Herald writer, Jack, did an experiment with her friends: "I recruited 30 participants to wear the same pair of jeans for at least five days a week for three months without washing them. I raised the bar by wearing my jeans every day of the three months except one. We experienced first-hand that the jeans did not become socially challenging: they weren't visibly dirty and they didn't get smelly." She reported that several of her friends were shocked at how little even shirts that were worn multiple times smelled, and the nobody noticed any differences, even while reducing the amount of laundry by about 50 percent. 

Jack's conclusion is that much of the energy (not to mention time and money) spent by people to wash their clothes is a huge waste. So why do we do it? "Arbitrary social standards lock us into routine consumption, and how we cruise through life barely aware of the resources concealed in our autopilot actions," she writes. 

How much laundry do you do every week? Would you try experimenting with washing less? Why or why not? 

Related on MNN: 

Eco-friendly laundry tips

7 least-toxic laundry detergents

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Your clothes' biggest eco impact isn't what you think
Turns out that how—and how often—you wash your clothes makes a huge difference.