Laundry Justice

What is possible in relation to living well with our clothing and environment? How can underground (and often marginalised) networks and communities offer knowledge and examples of sustainable washing practices?

While using a washing-machine is a highly routinised domestic practice, its environmental implications have extensive detrimental environmental effects. Washing machines require high inputs of energy, water and detergents; leaching chemicals and microplastics into the environment through waste water effluent. At the same time due to sharp rises in energy prices, falling real wages, and ruinous levels of economic disparity, doing laundry in this way is becoming unaffordable for a growing proportion of the people in the UK.

For the vehicle dwelling community of Bristol – who are living in the most part off-grid in urban and semi-rural areas within and around the city – the lack of easy access to laundry facilities, running water or wastewater drainage is nothing new. Without connected utilities, vehicle dwellers have had to adapt their laundry practices and garment care. However, much of this knowledge remains hidden in this largely underground (often marginalised) network.

What will the project involve? 

The researchers aim to gather and celebrate the evolving knowledge and wisdom of Bristol’s vehicle dwellers around laundry practice to expand our horizons of what is possible in relation to living well with our clothing and environment. They aim to embrace what Santos terms an “ecology of knowledges,” (Santos 2007) by taking seriously the practical knowledge of vehicle dwellers and working in an embodied and creative way, in order to interpret and disseminate their findings.

The Laundry Justice Project will explore:

  • What are the laundry needs of Bristol’s vehicle dwelling community?
  • In what ways have Bristol’s vehicle dwelling community adapted their laundry practice through lack of connected utilities?
  • What can we learn from vehicle dwelling communities about ‘alternative’ laundry practices, given the current energy crisis and the unfolding climate breakdown?
  • How might paying attention to these hidden practices redefine norms around garment care and how might this contribute to personal and community resilience?

The researchers aim to answer these questions by collecting stories from local vehicle dwellers about the challenges and opportunities of off-grid laundry practices, as well as the adaptations that have emerged. This may include practical everyday routines and practices, as well as alternative perspectives and systems of value relating to notions of dirt and cleanliness.

The researchers intend to draw on three key methods to compile rich accounts of laundry practices: participatory workshops, thematic analysis, and creative modes for reflection and dissemination.

Washing Together – Participatory Workshops and Interviews

The project will conduct participatory workshops with small groups of research participants, using a hand-operated washing machine as a “critical object” to elicit and record discussions and stories about their laundry practices at the JamJar Venue. The Bristol Vehicles for Change network will be used to recruit thirty people living in vehicles for these workshops.

Making together (Airing Our Laundry) – Thematic Analysis and Critical Making

As a team, they will compile the workshop materials and jointly code the initial themes that emerged from the interactive workshops. They will share these themes in a 1 day participatory workshop in June 2023 with professional circus performers from the Vehicle Dwelling community. During the workshops the themes will provide prompts to be explored through creative practice – the performers and researchers will respond by developing experimental circus performances.

Sharing & Reflecting Together

The performances will be filmed during the workshop day, forming the centre of a Laundry Justice Toolkit, designed to spark discussions about methods of clothing maintenance, hygiene inequalities, notions of cleanliness, individual resiliency, and low-impact laundry options. Throughout the research and dissemination phases the project team will reflect on and document a creative case study of the research’s methodological procedure.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Josh White (Bristol Vehicles for Change) is the contact for community organisation to facilitate the dialogue between the researchers and the Vehicle Dwelling community.
  • Rhiannon Craft (School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University) is a researcher with a focus on the abandonment of conventional lifestyles for new forms of housing, identification, and notions of community and family. She is also a circus performer and co-founder of Bristol Vehicles for Change.
  • Lara Luna Bartley (Digital Culture Research Centre, University of West England) is an artist and researcher focused on engaging audiences in debate about the monetary, banking and financial system through participatory art. (Lara Luna Bartley’s Website).
  • Lizzie Harrison (Department of Art and Design, University of West England) is an educator, researcher and designer working in the field of sustainable fashion and fashion futures. She is interested in how using transdisciplinary and collaborative approaches can allow us to reimagine the world we live in for a more inclusive and resilient future.
  • Keir Williams (Design Innovation, London College of Communication) is a creative technologist, educator and researcher. His research and practice consider’s participatory processes and structures in relation to accessibility, performance, advocacy and the potential of ‘playing the fool’ in all three.
  • Katarina Richter, (School of Sociology, Politics and International Relations University of Bristol) is a researcher interested in decolonial environmental politics and equitable development in times of climate crises. She is an expert on degrowth and Buen Vivir, two alternatives to growth-based development from the Global North and South.

What is to come?

Through a previous study (Laundry Justice Ideas Exchange 2022) the researchers identified circus as an art practice deeply connected to Bristol Van Dwelling culture so have chosen to explore the collected stories through the embodied practice of circus performance in order to interpret and disseminate findings in a way which engages the creative skills of members of the vehicle dwelling community and is accessible to the wider public.

The project aims to produce a Laundry Justice Toolkit centred around the filmed recordings of the project’s circus performances to create discussion around the main ideas and other research insights. The toolkit will be developed under a creative commons licence to facilitate open sharing.

The researchers intend to publish their findings in two areas, with an aim to submit two papers by the late 2023 to:

  • The International Journal of Sustainable Fashion or equivalent, where they will present their research within the emerging global decolonising fashion agenda. This research will offer new perspectives on how to seek sustainable solutions for fashion through a degrowth mindset, valuing tacit knowledge and marginalised voices.
  • International Degrowth Conference or equivalent, where they will present their research as a practical, hands-on, solution-focused project, embedding themselves within the degrowth community and its relevant networks.