I have been wearing the same T-shirt for the past four weeks, and nobody knows
Covering Climate Now
This article is published as a part of Index's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. The English edition of Index regularly covers the most relevant stories of Hungary. If you would like to know more, visit our website, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
When the idea of a potentially disgusting experiment started circulating in the office, I volunteered immediately. When I realised what it was about, I first laughed in disbelief, then got disgusted a bit, which turned into some kind of perverted curiosity. The experiment was
TO WEAR THE SAME T-SHIRT EVERY DAY FOR WEEKS. WITHOUT WASHING IT.
The first time I read about merino wool and its miraculous non-smelling properties was in an article of the Fast Company, and I was a bit sceptical, to say the least. Of course, it happens to everyone, even to me: sometimes we wear the same clothes for a few days out of necessity or laziness. But for weeks, or even months? I was afraid that if it does smell, I'll be shunned by my colleagues (I've only been working here for four months). Also, people will realise I haven't changed shirts in weeks (although, since Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg became fashion icons, it's not that bad). Especially as the t-shirt will be all wrinkly and saggy. At least that's what I thought.
Unbound Merino swears they've figured out all of these problems. Except for the one where you wear the same t-shirt every day - magically changing the colour of their garments is something they are yet to crack. We ordered a t-shirt – I could barely find one in my size L, they ran out of that in almost every colour, so business might be going well – which promptly arrived at the end of July. On August 3rd, full of worry and hope, I put on the t-shirt I was going to be wearing every single day for four weeks.
It's time. I wanted to keep it safe, so it was sitting at the bottom of a drawer, but the experiment has begun. What can be a better start than a trip on our brilliant public transport and train systems to the other side of the city? I put it on, and the first thing I noticed was how light it was. Well, I set off, beautiful summer day, scorching heat, tons of people, no AC on any of the buses or trains. Okay, so that was a while ago already, and it might be hard to remember in the middle of September, but let me refresh your memories: it was unreasonably, awfully, unbearably, insufferably, frighteningly, devastatingly hot (we also had that putrid smell as well, but I promise, I had nothing to do with that, even though by then I haven't changed my shirt in a week).
During the trip, I noticed that although I was sweating, it evaporated far quicker than it usually does. It was a good start, so I cranked it up a bit: I helped some friends move, which involved lugging a wardrobe up to the 7th floor of their new building. It didn't fit in the elevator, of course. The t-shirt was quite wet at this point, so when I got home, I put it on a hanger, as per instructions, and from then on, it slept on one every night.
One of the big promises of Unbound Merino is that their clothes wouldn't smell. But how can you wear a t-shirt for weeks without smelling like you just took a round trip on the tube? To understand it, we need to know why our clothes start to stink after we wore them. Certain types of foods or drinks (e.g.: lots of alcohol) and even some vitamins (B or C) can turn your usually colourless, odourless, salty sweat into an olfactory nightmare. However, the usual body odour comes from the bacteria living on our sweat and dead skin cells (we shed 500 million every day).
According to Unbound Merino, their material doesn't even give a chance to these bacteria. Merino wool, the material of most of their garments is very breathable and brilliant at wicking moisture off of the body, so the bacteria have no time to settle. Apart from this, being breathable makes it comfortable in the summer, while its insulating properties make it warm and cosy in the winter. This is not that surprising, considering the difficult weather conditions the grazing sheep have to endure. Merino wool also has a wax-like coating called lanolin which keeps the sheep relatively dry. Some of this coating survives the manufacturing process and prevents the t-shirts from becoming mildewy or moist.
The Spanish first started breeding merino sheep in the 12th century, and their monopoly on the wool contributed to the economic boom of their kingdom in the 15th and 16th centuries. The sheep could only be exported under punishment of death until the 1700s, but in the second half of the 18th century, they relaxed the ban, which started the merino-diplomacy (even we, Hungarians received a few sheep from the royal flock as a gift in 1775). During the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish merino industry almost entirely collapsed, most flocks were dispersed or slaughtered. In the middle of the 19th century, the centre of the merino industry shifted to Germany, the US, Australia and New Zealand, where they carefully worked on the breed, which brings us to today's merino-market.
Unbound Merino uses Australian wool, which could remind some people of the attack PETA led against the Australian wool industry in 2010. To prevent flystrike, some breeders use mulesing, a technique which involves cutting off meat from the breach (butt) of the animal so parasites won't appear in the folds there. Mulesing is still an accepted technique in Australia, although the government of New Zealand banned the practice in 2018. If someone is afraid they would support mulesing by buying this t-shirt, don't be: Unbound only buys wool from suppliers who don't use this technique, whose sheep can wander around free-range and who shear their sheep every year, so they don't collapse under the weight of their own wool.
It still doesn't smell at all. I'm trying to be careful with it, but only to the extent that I'm trying not to get stains on it. Otherwise, I wear it during training and basically everywhere. But if it doesn't smell, it doesn't need to be washed either.
If we believe the ads for laundry detergents, a proper person (and especially the best housewives) do laundry at least three times a day, so everything smells as fresh as a daisy. Although this might be an overstatement, we still wash our clothes far too much. If we can wear something for longer, we need fewer clothes overall, we need to buy new ones less often, we do less laundry, and the bills are lower (an average washing machine uses 80 litres of water for a cycle, and doing laundry makes up 17% of a household's water consumption). The carbon footprint of our wardrobes would shrink as well, since a quarter of that comes from their time in the laundry. It's easier on our environment and on our wallets (in the long run), so it's no surprise that the clothes you don't need to wash became quite the green fashion trend. According to the Guardian, doing laundry every two days (washing and drying) produces 440 kg of CO2 a year on average, which is almost equivalent to flying from Budapest to Munich and back with a 50 km cab ride thrown in for good measure.
Startups like Unbound Merino, Wool&Prince, Son of a Tailor (they also use merino wool), or Pangaia, (which uses vegan methods, i.e. seaweed and food waste) all promote sustainability and comfort. Their websites all point out how the current trend of fast-fashion revolves around phasing out products as quickly as possible, and this is reflected in the style and quality of clothes as well. They want to create clothes that last long and don't go out of style. There are no logos covering our bodies; when they use synthetic materials, they strive to use as little as possible (e.g. Unbound Merino's underwear collection has 12% nylon and 4% spandex in them), so their clothes are made to last. They might be the heralds of a welcome change because
the clothing- and footwear industry are responsible for more than 8 per cent of our global climate impact, exceeding the effects of all international flights and maritime shipping trips combined.
– CBS writes.
Having clothes you don't need to wash sounds pretty neat to me. Of course, merino clothes also have to be made, and sheep eat and burp like the rest of us. According to a study from 2016, producing 1 kg of wool creates 24.85 kg of CO2, and an average sheep burps up to 30 litres of methane every day. Nevertheless, wool is still a more sustainable material than synthetic stuff, especially because if you leave a merino sock in the forest, it will biodegrade right back into the soil in a few years, releasing valuable nutrients into the earth. A nylon shirt will just sit in a landfill doing nothing, the lazy bastard.
As I've said, when I'm not wearing it, the t-shirt lives on a hanger in front of my window. Every morning it's as if I just pulled it from my drawer, freshly laundered and ironed. Sadly, a small, dark patch appeared around its stomach-region, but other than that, it's like putting on a new t-shirt every day, although it doesn't have that nice fabric softener smell either. The material itself has a distinct cloth-smell, but it's not unpleasant, (neutral, rather) and you have to sniff pretty hard to actually smell it. I am really proud of my Unbound shirt, but I'm surprised at the same time: it survived the Sziget festival (and I think someone spilt some drink on me. At least I hope it was a drink), bicycle tours, training, moving and taking the bus and tram every day.
One wouldn't expect such resilience from a regular wool sweater. When I thought of something made of wool, I pictured something crude, scratchy, and lumpy, which is accurate for the traditional stuff. Merino wool, however, is a lot thinner and lighter than average wool. The thickness of regular human hair is 50 microns (0.050mm). In comparison, the so-called superfine merino wool, which they use in these kinds of t-shirts and shirts, is only 15-18.5 micron thick. Wool must be thinner than 25 microns if you want to use it for making clothes.
My t-shirt looks freshly ironed because of the springy structure of the individual strands called fibre crimp'. This makes the fabric wrinkle-resistant, so Unbound says you can just slam it in your backpack and it will be fine the next day.
Well, I did it, and it's true.
The only sign of its everyday use is the pilling on the chest, courtesy of my bag's strap. On the manufacturer's FAQ page they say that to prevent pilling, one should wash it after the first four wears, or together with a pair of jeans (with the zipper up).
At this point, my colleague, Zsolt Hanula also joined in on the experiment with a merino t-shirt from Wool&Prince, as the control group. He had similar experiences. “At first, I obviously didn't believe that it wouldn't smell, but a week and a half later I started to change my mind. The final proof was when I went to two BBQs in two days, and in the mornings after the parties, the t-shirt simply shrugged off the smell of smoke with ease. The only problem is that it's not dirt resistant, but otherwise, you can throw everything at it, and in the morning, it will seem as if it was freshly washed and ironed.
The test wasn't even over, but I wanted to see if it's all Unbound's brilliance, or if the wool is really the key. Wool&Prince sent me two merino shirts (cheers), and I've been wearing these for the past two weeks.
The first thing I noticed on these shirts was their weight. They were a lot heavier than the t-shirt from Unbound, or any of my other shirts. The second thing was that the material was quite stiff and coarse. According to the manual, you shouldn't wash these in hot water, or at all (they say let the wool do its job), but if you must, have it dry-cleaned (which isn't really green), or wash it by hand in warm water.
I did, and the whole house was filled with the primal stench of wet beasts. Or wet sheep.
After opening every door and window, the crisis was averted and the shirts dried quickly. That was two weeks ago, and they still don't smell at all. The wash didn't really soften the fabric, but after a few times I've worn them, they got softer and more comfortable. Unlike the t-shirt, they don't look freshly ironed in the morning, but the wrinkles resulting from tucking in the shirt or rolling up the sleeves still disappear quickly. I wouldn't call the look "ironed," but I wouldn't call them wrinkly either. I think it's fine unless you need a shirt with edges you can shave with.
After two weeks, I can safely say the shirts work just as well as the t-shirt. No smell, no wrinkles, looking sharp. If someone wants to dress in merino from head to toe, they can. Unbound Merino makes shirts, t-shirts, socks, and underwear, while Wool&Prince sells pants, shirts, t-shirts, jackets and socks. These are just two companies in a market full of startups who are trying to provide an alternative to the fast-fashion giants.
Unfortunately, while Adidas and H&M can sell their not-too-sturdy pieces at a lower price, these merino startups – due to the material – have to set a higher price for their products. A shirt usually goes for around $150, a t-shirt for around $60. If someone really wants an all-merino getup, it's going to cost them $330-$500, plus delivery. This might seem to be a bit steep, but in theory, two sets should be enough for day-to-day life, which cost us a mere $600. According to EU statistics from 2016, an average Hungarian spends €200 every year on clothing, which means one could spend less than three years' worth of their fashion-budget on two sets of merino clothes, and then they could alternate between those – of course only if they don't mind wearing the same clothes every day. No more worrying about what to wear.
So these are not viable alternatives to the dime a dozen clothes you can get from Aliexpress, or to the fast-fashion items from the likes of H&M.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, this was all about men's clothes, the ladies are less fortunate. They can find merino items, but not really on the scale of Unbound or Wool&Prince's sister site, Wool&. Unbound only sells t-shirts for women, but Wool&Prince has a more varied store: a black and a white tank top and a few shirt styles. They also have Wool&, which sells a moderate range of merino dresses. One of the reasons for this disparity is that it's often difficult to advertise clothes with the fact that they don't need washing, and it's hard to build a rousing marketing campaign around the message that you can wear the same thing every day, and how wonderful that is. Mac Bishop, the founder Wool&Prince told the Fast Company that while working at the marketing department of Unilever, he saw first hand how for decades, half of the global market was conditioned to do laundry, wash clothes, and repeat. He was afraid that women would be less receptive to a marketing campaign that says you don't need to do laundry, so his campaign targeting women focused on timelessness, sustainability and being eco-friendly.
With only a month and a half, I'm still far from the big players of the merino-world. Bishop, who wore a Wool&Prince shirt for a hundred days launched Wool& with a deal: wear one of their dresses for 100 days, get another one for free. There was such an influx of applications that he had to stop giving away free dresses at 50. The testers of Unbound's t-shirt wore the piece for 46 days while travelling around Asia and even wore it to a sauna. There are many people on Reddit who alternate between a handful of merino shirts.
I've been dressing myself for the past 16 years, and I if I can, I'm trying to follow the couple of simple guidelines (metaphorically) beaten into me: fresh underwear every day, fresh t-shirt/shirt, you can wear a jumper more than once (but only for a week or two), and a pair of jeans can be considered clean until proven otherwise without a reasonable doubt by a jury of its peers. This system was shaken to its core by these past six weeks, and although in week #2 it did start to bother me that I'm wearing the same thing every day, by today, which is the 45th day to be precise, I'm automatically reaching for one of the two shirts hanging by my window. The best thing about them is going on a trip: I took them on two shorter vacations, and there are few things more liberating than travelling without a huge suitcase.
Trusting merino boxer briefs is not an easy thing, so I'll wait before getting any, but I'm sure it'll be some time until I go back to my old shirts. These startups won't change the world, they are not the answers to global issues. Sadly, only a very small part of the Earth's population can get a $150 shirt, but for those who can buy free-range bio cucumbers and fair trade Kopi Luwak coffee, this is a brilliant product which also reduces their impact on the environment.
Support the independent media!
The English section of Index is financed from donations.