Welcome to the latest column within our broader sustainability section, which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.
This month’s column profiles an innovative new disruptor dealing in the unglamorous but potentially very damaging side of fashion – cleaning. Brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.
With the huge predicted rise in clothing rentals and increased circular economy activity via sites like HURR Collective, Rotaro and MyWardrobeHQ, there will be a need for a third party with the same high sustainability credentials to constantly clean clothing between rentals. Consider that Rent the Runway has been reported as having the world’s largest dry cleaning warehouse!
One young business working hard to provide the solution is Oxwash. The story begins with the honourable tradition of companies started while their founders were at university, largely as a kind of spin-off hustle for fellow students, and which subsequently make it big. But while Mark Zuckerberg initially developed Facebook while at Harvard for his questionable ‘Who’s hot’ and ‘Who’s not’ student-rating competitions Dr Kyle Grant had a more prosaic but just as important student goal in mind while doing his PhD in biochemistry.
Namely to alleviate the time, hassle and all-round drudgery for busy students living in rooms without decent washing machines or recourse to the hotel of mum or with long journeys to the nearest launderette to have their washing done. This he did by starting Oxwash, initially just a play on the Ox-fam name as his university was Oxford, back in 2018 after spells working at NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Armed only with a backpack and a bike he started collecting washing from fellow students. So far so good but if he had not been a biochemistry student this is where the story may have ended. However, the demand he saw on his doorstep combined with a superior knowledge of chemical processes, horror at plastic micro-fibre pollution into the seas and an interest in sustainability meant that Oxwash soon developed into something much more innovative than just a laundry collection service.
Dr Grant’s simple mission is to eliminate the impact of washing the clothes we wear on humans and our planet. And he hopes that with this two-pronged focus of a) educating people about how the potentially carcinogenic plastic micro-fibres from our clothes wash down the drains, into the sea, are eaten by marine life and then re-ingested by us on our plate and b) informing consumers about the sheer amount of energy and water wasted and strong chemicals used both in domestic washing machines and commercial laundries and dry cleaners, that Oxwash can change the huge, dirty, polluting industry built, ironically enough, around ideas of cleanliness.
In the early days of Oxwash, Grant visited a commercial laundry. “I could not believe,” he tells Retail Insider “that this cramped, hot building with chemicals spilling all over the floor was how they were all run. But it turns out that yes, it is. I knew then that this was a legacy industry ripe for disrupting”. He describes how many dry cleaning cleansers are derived from crude oil and are slowly being banned across the world.
So what’s so different about the way Oxwash does its clothes? Firstly, there is what Grant calls “the special sauce” currently being patented, which uses ozone gas as the detergent meaning maximum clean with maximum chemistry. It’s clean and created using oxygen and renewable electricity – this is the kind of thing you can do when there is a biochemist at the helm! Amazingly, it also means that without the usual kind of chemicals present even normally delicate materials can be washed by Oxwash in one washing process eliminating the dreaded ‘dry clean only’ situations.
Secondly, the lagoons (as Oxwash refers to its three washing facilities in London, Cambridge and Oxford) reclaim the water from the last spin cycle to fill the next machine, which immediately saves 60% of the water consumption. At present the three lagoons do around 30-35 tonnes of washing a week between them and this will increase when the company deploys a big central facility somewhere in the south of England.
Finally, there is a filtration system for the micro-fibres, which catches 95% of them. Given that estimates say one third of all ocean plastic are micro-fibres from clothes this technology alone definitely appears to be a game-changer.
Dr Grant seems bemused by society’s dependence on time-consuming, space-hogging washing machines. ”Why do we think it is a good idea for every house to have a large machine plugged directly into the fresh water mains to do our washing?” he asks baffled. Interestingly, Grant says that he originally thought his core customer would be young families with mountains of washing but it is actually the single professionals, retirees, house-sharers, people running Airbnb’s, busy young couples without children, and the eco-conscious who form the bulk of users at the moment. “They are definitely attracted through the convenience” he says.
This won’t be the first time that technology originally developed for use in space has then entered the terrestrial world (think freeze-dried strawberries and SatNav) but it is definitely a good time to have your cottons washed in ozone along with your silks and give Oxwash a go.