We run down some of the key findings from the score table above.
Eight of the brands that we looked at only produced washing machines with an A+++ energy rating – LG, New World, Fisher & Paykel, Haier, Grundig and Maytag, NEFF, Siemens.
Their products are marked [S] on the table, and they received a Product Sustainability mark for this. Almost all other companies produced a mixture of A+++ to A models.
Several of the companies we looked at acknowledged that their washing machines contained the conflict minerals tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold. However, all but four received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for their policies on this issue. Either the companies failed to address conflict minerals altogether, or their response was inadequate. This meant that they lost full marks under the Habitats and Resources and Human Rights categories.
The exceptions were:
Best rating: LG and Russell Hobbs
Middle rating: Siemens AG and Samsung
Similarly, most companies lacked any real discussion of toxics like PVC and BFRs. They all got a worst rating apart from Samsung which got a best.
There was a much wider spread on ratings for likely use of tax avoidance strategies. The companies that didn’t get a worst were rated as follows:
Best: Ebac, Belling and New World, Servis, White Knight, Gorenje, Daewoo, Smeg.
Middle: Miele, Baumatic, Candy and Hoover, AEG, Electrolux, Zanussi, Haier, LG
The amount of energy used on laundry has been steadily increasing for the past six years in the UK. In 2016, washing machines consumed 4.54 TWh, the greatest amount since 2008.
That is surprising considering the improvements in energy efficiency for the average model. Energy use per wash fell 27%, between 2004 to 2015, if looking at the average machine sold in the EU. Yet, most families still consume 179 kWh of energy washing laundryevery year – three times as much as running a laptop would use in the same period.
90% of the energy goes into heating the water up. So, washing at cooler temperatures – modern detergents are designed for this – and rinsing clothes cold makes sense. A wash cycle at 20°C consumes around 70% less electricity than one at 60°C. And even just lowering the temperature by 10 degrees and rinsing cold will cut energy use by over 40%.
More and more companies are producing smart washing machines that calculate the right setting for your load, thereby maximising efficiency. They use sensors to detect the volume and even, according to Bosch, the fabric type and soiling level of your washing.
Slightly bizarrely, washing machines currently carry EU energy ratings between A and A+++. It used to be A-G but increasing improvements and a reluctance among manufacturers to recalibrate has led to a proliferation of plusses.
This means that over half the machines purchased in the UK each year are A+++ rated, and a further 21% are A++. Only four brands looked at did not produce any A+++ models at all, and so these are probably best avoided: Baumatic, Servis, Flavel and IKEA.
Unfortunately though, the rating itself is not always the guarantee we might hope for. The average A++ model sold in 2015 used just 1 kWh less a year than the average A+ model sold! So, it’s worth looking at the actual figures for energy use, rather than just the class.
In fact, it is possible to produce washing machines with an energy efficiency that goes far beyond A+++ requirements. Some companies therefore add their own additional indicators, giving a percentage efficiency above and beyond the basic rating. We found models like this from AEG, Bosch, Haier, LG, Samsung and Zanussi.
For example, LG has several models that are rated A+++(-60%): this means that they are 60% more efficient than the minimum requirements for an A+++ rating. The extra percentage won’t be marked on the energy label itself, as it is not a formal system, but is advertised on the companies’ websites.
Sometimes equivalent claims are made in the product text itself. For example, Bosch specifies that some models are ‘30% more efficient than the best efficiency class’. This is perhaps a bit misleading: such claims and ratings use the minimum A+++ requirements as a baseline, so may be fairly comparable to other A+++ models. The actual energy consumption figures themselves (given in kWh) are still the best indicator of actual efficiency.
The energy label will also tell you annual water consumption, capacity, spin drying efficiency class (rated A to G) and noise emissions (for partial and full loads).
Save energy with hot fill machines
If you have an eco-system for heating your water – a low carbon, gas condensing boiler or a solar-heated water supply – then a hot fill machine could save energy. It uses hot water from your boiler, rather than requiring electricity to heat it once it is in the machine.
Most manufacturers argue that a hot fill won’t save you much: they say that modern washing machines use very little water, and low temperature, and that the first water from a boiler is likely to run cold or cool in your pipes anyway. Removing the hot fill, however, also makes manufacture cheaper – so this should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.
Unfortunately, ISE, which was our Best Buy for hot fill washing machines in the last guide, appear to have stopped trading. However, both Ebac and Fisher & Paykel now produce dual fill machines, which have a cold and a hot fill option. Ebac’s two dual fill models cost £450 and £530, and come with a 5- or a 10-year warranty respectively. All three of Fisher and Paykel’s models are dual fill and rated A+++, and they cost £550-800.
Carbonfootprint.com estimates that doing your laundry produces 51 kg of CO2 a year (from 187 washes, in an A-rated machine at 40 degrees). This is about the same as a dishwasher but more than a gas oven.
An electric dryer would increase this number four-fold, producing 159 kg of CO2 a year from 148 uses. That’s why we haven’t looked at dryers in this guide. Our recommendation would be to avoid them when at all possible: a clothes horse or washing line are the truly zero-carbon options. Plus, drying clothes in the sun actually acts as a natural disinfectant.
If you don’t have much space, or live in a wet climate, and are worried about the drying time, look at the spin dry efficiency on the energy label (rating A-G). This tells you how dry clothes will be, when you take them out of the washer.
Washing machines used to consume as much water per cycle as an average person now uses in an entire day (up to 150 litres!)9 Luckily, they have improved a lot since then, although they are still responsible for 10% of water use in the average household (the third largest contributor behind showering and flushing the toilet).
Water usage varies greatly by model. When adjusted for capacity, the most water efficient machine will use around 6 litres per kilogram, and the least about 14. Efficiency will be greatest with a full load. Different cycles also use vastly different amounts. Synthetic wash programmes, for example, use around 50% more than cotton ones.
Unfortunately, more energy efficient models often use more water. Water consumption has to be listed on the Energy Label of any model, so check this before you buy.
Wash less often
There is a sensible middle ground between smelly clothes and washing things unnecessarily. Air clothes to keep them fresh, and share loads with other household members to make sure that the drum is always full. Reducing the number of washes saves time and money. A lower carbon win-win!
Human-powered washing machines
We surveyed our online readers in December 2017 and found that while 4% washed by hand, 96% used a washing machine for their laundry. For almost all, then, the time and effort of a handwash isn’t worth the carbon savings made. But if you do want to avoid using the machine quite so often, hand washing remains a more sustainable option, particularly if your dirties don’t make up a full load.
As our readers pointed out, doing ‘easier-to-wash-in-the-sink stuff a little at a time’ can halve the amount you use your machine (reserving it for towels, sheets, jeans and similar things). There are also lots of ways to make hand washing quicker, for example soaking items while at work or busy doing other things.
Also, a few places sell tools to help. The Laundry Pod, Wonder Wash and EcoWash all offer what are essentially big salad spinners for your dirty clothes. You fill them with water, manually spin, and then drain them via a hose into your sink. These use no electricity, less than 14 litres of water, and only 1/5 of the detergent in a normal load. Clothes will need a fair amount of wringing afterwards though, and you can only wash about a shopping-bag-full at a time. These spinners cost between £40 and £70. You can also buy big plungers that reduce the arm power needed in a hand wash. One reader responded saying that they got the “same level of cleanliness” from these as from using a machine.
Drum sizes available range from 5.5kg capacity to 11kg but as a machine runs most efficiently when full, it’s worth assessing what capacity you will actually use.
Picking a drum size that best suits your needs will ensure no energy or water is wasted. A 6-7kg washing machine will normally be sufficient for a couple, a 7-8kg for a family of four and a 9kg or above for the larger family.
When should I replace my old machine?
The average person will spend twice as much money on energy using a machine during its life cycle as they will on the original machine itself. So choosing an efficient model may be economically, as well as environmentally, beneficial. But when are the energy savings great enough to make replacing a machine worthwhile?
LG estimates that 57% of a washing machine’s carbon footprint comes from use, and the remaining 43% from production, transportation and disposal. If LG is correct, you’d have to be making phenomenal energy savings for replacement to be worth it! A new product often also has an added human cost, from the raw material extraction. Our advice would be to avoid replacing your machine until it is actually broken.
The reliability of a brand is, then, an environmental as well as economic consideration – particularly if you live in an area with hard water, which is likely to break your machine faster. In October 2017, Which? surveyed its members to find the most and least reliable brands. Of the brands in our table, LG and Zanussi both received five stars for their reliability, with Miele following close behind. Hoover, by contrast scored just two stars, and AEG three, with Whirlpool the next lowest on the list. (Which? did not cover all brands looked at in this guide.)
If you can get hold of an energy efficient, reliable model second hand, when you do come to replace a machine, it will therefore be a much more environmentally friendly option.
Keep your old machine going
The environmental, not to mention economic, cost of a new machine makes maintaining your old one all the more worthwhile. Consumer advice sites suggest:
Cleaning the drum, detergent drawer, and the rubber seal every month or so, using a half and half mixture of vinegar and water.
Clearing the drain pump filter every few weeks, or if you notice problems with water drainage, excessive vibrations, unusual pauses and a longer cycle, or if your clothes are coming out wetter than normal. Hair and fabric can get stuck in it. (The position of the drain pump filter varies by machine, but it is usually located at the front and bottom of the machine behind a small trapdoor. Some machines also have other filters, which will also need cleaning.)
Most companies recommend doing a maintenance wash every 40 cycles. This is a hot wash in an empty machine with a normal amount of detergent. Obviously, this will use some energy, so we are hesitant to recommend it. Some machines have a special eco drum clean cycle.