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People, places and practice: a case study of the energy implications of migration and domestic laundry practice

Guest-blogger Quqing Huang recently completed her Environmental Technology MSc (specialising in energy policy) at Imperial College London. ACE Research acted as her external supervisor for her thesis, upon which this piece is based. Quqing is interested in the human-environment relationship, sustainability and clean energy. She currently works as a researcher at SynTao in Beijing, analysing government policies on corporate disclosure, corporate social responsibility and corporate compliance in China.

Britons seem to place a high value on the cleanliness of their linen, as a typical household runs the washing machine 5.5 times per week and uses the dryer for 5 times every week on average1. On a macro level, wet appliances are estimated to consume 1.3 Mtoe in 2014, which is the second largest source of electricity use in the household2. Being an energy-intensive practice, it opens a window for change in terms of demand reduction.

So far, to address domestic energy use, policy and research have focused on ‘behavioural change’. They principally draw on research outcomes from economic and psychological understandings of human behaviour, with an emphasis on individual choices. Therefore, some important aspects of the energy-use activity, such as infrastructure, practical skills, and shared social understandings behind the activity are rarely discussed and poorly understood.

The purpose of the research I conducted for Master’s thesis at Imperial College was to look into the domestic laundry practice via the perspective of social practice theory, identify its components (material, skills and images) and discuss how the interaction between those components may dictate the energy use outcome in the case study of a small group of Chinese immigrants in the UK.

One of the findings of my thesis is that laundry practice varies in different socio-cultural contexts. In the comparison between China and the UK, the difference mainly lies in the technology and the images. For example, in the UK, laundry practice has been highly automated with less seasonal impacts. People here are used to laundering by pressing a few buttons on the washing machine and repeating it on the dryer. In a few hours, the clothes are fresh and clean and ready to be put on again.

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China's Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China’s Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014 3

Meanwhile, in China, most families use impeller washing machines. They are semi-automatic compared to the drum machines typical here, and require users to judge whether the clothes have been properly washed (foam-free) at the end of the washing cycle – rather than the machine taking control of it. This also partly reflects why washing by hand is popular among the Chinese, as they distrust the cleansing capability of their machines. Another reason to wash manually is convenience. It is inefficient in terms of time and money to run the washing machine just to wash a few pairs of socks and some t-shirts. Hygiene is also important when it comes to washing underwear. Most survey respondents in my thesis said that the underwear is usually washed separately and manually.

Chinese people are obsessed with getting washed clothes out under the blazing sun, which is pretty much at the same level as the British love of sunbathing. Not surprisingly, it accelerates the drying process. It is also perceived to have a germ-killing effect. Keeping in touch with nature and drying laundry in the open air seem to be driven by sensory needs (as shown in the pictures).

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China's Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014

Bamboo poles serve to air out clothes in Xiamen in East China’s Fujian Province on November 25, 2009 (photo / IC)

Given pre-existing differences in laundry practice between the two countries, Chinese migrants to the UK have needed to change their original way of laundering in order to adapt to local infrastructure and social norms. This leads to another important finding of the thesis. Which is that migration allows the components of laundry practice – materials, practical skills, images – to change in different dimensions. Thus, the outcome of these components’ dynamic interaction, i.e. the detailed configuration of laundry practice and its energy use, is hard to predict. Take students for example: a busy studying schedule, the effort needed time the use of public laundry facilities right and the relatively expensive service charge together lead to a reduced laundering frequency. At the same time, the lack of space and the necessary gadgets to air-dry clothes contribute to a greater tendency to tumble-dry. Thus, the energy use associated with laundry practice among Chinese students shows a rather mixed picture.

Even so, measures need to be taken in order to direct current laundry practice into more sustainable ones. Space and tools that are essential for air-drying should be made available; and the cleanliness, convenience and comfort aspects of laundry practice should be emphasized more in awareness raising and marketing campaigns.

  1. Zimmerman et al., 2012, Household electricity survey- a study of domestic electrical product usage. Final report issue 4
  2.  DECC, 2015, Energy Consumption in the UK (2015)
  3. Photo by Zhang Haiyan / Asianewsphoto; Chinadaily (2014) Hanging to dry, indoors or outdoors?

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