Many, many years ago, I had a chance conversation with a senior marketing person at the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble. (When I say many, many years ago, I mean almost 20. In case you’re wondering, I'm old.) I’ve long forgotten her name. But she told me about the then-fledgling effort at her company to convince consumers to wash their clothes in cold water. They were working on new kinds of detergents that didn’t need hot water to work, she said. But the much harder job, she predicted, was going to be convincing consumers to make the change, because very few people in North America at that point were running their washing machines with cold water.
I filed the conversation away and thought little of it. Did I care about laundry? Not much. I lived in Manhattan at the time, in a building without a washer or dryer, and I dropped off my clothes at the laundromat like everyone else I knew.
Two decades passed. And early one morning last February, in one of my sleepless fits worrying about how on Earth I was going to come up with ten ideas for a new season of Revisionist History, I suddenly remembered that conversation. Did Procter succeed, I wondered? After I woke up, I emailed someone in the press office at P&G headquarters in Cincinnati. And—voila!—that’s how we got to Episode 8 of this season of Revisionist History: Laundry Done Right. I have to confess. This was one of my favorite episodes of the season.
What was I thinking about virtually the entire time I was working on the episode—reading long dry research papers about wool fibers, punching numbers, talking to the folks at Procter & Gamble? I’m sure you can guess. The big topic of the day! Vaccine hesitancy.
It's the same general issue, right? If you’ve listened to the episode or done a bit of reading on laundry-water temperatures, you’ll know what I mean. In both cases—vaccine hesitancy and coldwater hesitancy—science presents us with a sophisticated solution to a pressing problem. In the case of the COVID vaccine, it is protection against a deadly disease. In the case of coldwater laundry, it’s the extraordinary environmental toll created by the billions of gallons of hot and warm water used every year in homes around the world. Washing your clothes in cold water lowers the carbon footprint of running your laundry machine by as much as 90 percent. It’s less damaging to your clothes, so they last longer. And it saves you a lot of money.
In a perfectly rational world, public acceptance of both these new technologies should be 100 percent, right away. But it’s not. In the U.S.—where all adults have been eligible for the COVID vaccine since April 19—the numbers tick up steadily and slowly.
A couple of thoughts. First: What do you suppose COVID vaccination rates (currently less than 70 percent in the U.S.) and cold-water laundry use (currently less than 50 percent of laundry loads) will be 10 years from now? I think by 2031, we’ll be close to 100 percent in both cases.
Think about ATMs. They were widely available by the 1980s—but they didn't fully catch on for several years. For much of the public, automated telling was still the exception and not the rule. Lots of people swore they would never get their money from a machine: didn’t trust them, preferred the human touch. Guess what? Today, those people get their cash from machines. When it comes to behavior change and technological adoption, a lot of what looks like “no” is actually just “maybe” or “not yet.”
I realize that, on its own, isn’t a terribly original notion. So let’s dig into it some more. There’s also a big difference between the kind of reluctance that comes from principle and the kind of reluctance that comes from indifference. Anti-vaxxers are in the former category. But a significant number of those who remain unvaccinated are largely indifferent: they likely don’t see themselves as at risk, and they don’t see the point of investigating the pros and cons of inoculation. I suspect most of the anti-cold-water crowd belongs in the latter category. These aren’t people who wash in hot water because they strongly believe it’s better for their clothes. They are people who can’t be bothered to think about their clothes, and may not even be aware that with the right kind of detergent, cold water is just as effective as warm or hot water.
What that P&G marketer was telling me years ago was that they were going to have to fight that indifference if they wanted to convert the world to coldwater laundry. And I would argue that fighting indifference is harder than fighting principled opposition. In the latter case, both of us—me and my principled opponent—care about the thing we disagree on. I can engage their interest with a counter-argument, because they’re already invested in the topic. In the former case, how do I even get their attention? They’ve tuned out. I wonder, in the case of COVID, whether public health types underestimate the number of Americans who just don’t worry that much about COVID. We are at this point 18 months into the pandemic, and the total number of known COVID cases in the United States is just over 37 million. That’s a lot. But that’s out of a total population of 330 million. For an overwhelming number of Americans, COVID is something that happened to someone else.
OK. Final point. I’m struck in both cases (COVID and laundry) about the transition between “lay” and “expert” understandings. So, for example, when a baby is born, he or she gets vaccinated against a series of diseases almost immediately. Only a small percentage of parents object to that round of initial shots. Why? Because they fit into our lay understanding of disease. A newborn has almost no immune system. It makes sense to take immediate steps to enhance it. Similarly, childhood vaccines, such as the measles shot, are overwhelmingly accepted, because we have a clear lay understanding of what they do. You introduce a child’s immune system to a version of a disease that has been defanged: something that looks enough like measles to prompt an anti-measles immune response, but has been sufficiently disarmed that it doesn’t pack the full punch of a measles virus.
If I asked you to describe what a vaccine does, and how it works, I suspect you would give me an answer something like that. Now, try this. The new class of anti-COVID vaccines are called mRNA vaccines. Can you describe how they work, with any degree of precision? I know I can’t, and I write about science and medicine all the time. I just know that they work differently from other vaccines, and that if I am to understand what’s happening in my body, I have to do some work. Moving from an intuitive state of understanding to an expert state is not easy.
So what is our “lay” understanding of laundry? It is soap plus hot water equals clean. Over and done. To accept the scientific truth about coldwater laundry, you have to make a giant step in the “expert” direction: you have to revise your intuitive understanding with a set of facts that may or may not, at first, make intuitive sense at all.
That’s why I spent so much time during the episode on my interview with one of the head detergent scientists at P&G, Todd Cline: so listeners could get a sense of just how complex and effective detergent is. Traditional detergents are basically soap. Today’s Coldwater Tide is hardly soap at all—it’s far beyond soap. Soap is something your great-grandmother made in her kitchen. Coldwater Tide is a high-tech product that’s easily a standard deviation more complicated than this computer I’m typing on. (To give you a sense, if you and I wanted to start a laptop manufacturing company, we could be up and running in 2 months. It’s not that hard: everything we needed, we could buy off the shelf in a single visit to China. But if we wanted to make a detergent as good as Coldwater Tide? Not a chance. It would take years of R&D, and many millions of dollars in investment to get there. It’s just a different category.)
I was struck by how many of the tweets responding to my episode were really about the implications of this transition. Here are a few:
Washing whites and towels in the old paradigm was really straightforward! Stepping outside the paradigm to wash with cold water means that now you have to be nervous about your whites—at least at first. And yes! What about fabric softener?!
When I was chatting with Todd Cline, we spent a great deal of time talking about oils. Virtually every kind of stain is easy to wash out in cold water with the right detergent, except oils. Oils are hard. So if you want to make the transition to coldwater washing, you have to move from simple fabric and color discrimination (whites here, delicates there) to a much more complicated, stain-based separation strategy. You have to know not to just put your oil-stained clothing in with your weekly or monthly laundry. If you do that and your shirt still comes out with a stain, I imagine you're going to think, "This detergent doesn't work," or "Washing in cold doesn't work." But actually both detergent and cold water work really, really well. You just have to know that an oil stain is a special breed. You have to know to treat your oil-stained shirt separately, as soon as you see the stain — with a spot of dish soap to loosen the lipid molecules, or by covering the stain with a layer of baking soda.
And what about bacteria and viruses? Our intuitive notion of laundry is that hot water is necessary not just to remove stains, but also to kill harmful microorganisms. Is that true? Generally, it isn’t. What the experts will tell you is that the hottest water in an American washing machine isn’t hot enough to kill most of the viruses and bacteria that travel on surfaces and fabrics. (You need industrial-grade laundry machines for that—or about 30 minutes in a hot dryer.) And for respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which travels much less effectively on surfaces, cold water and detergent does the job. On the question of germ safety, hot water is no better than cold. (It is, as they say, a wash.)
Have I convinced you? Maybe. Maybe not. And that’s not the end of the world. When it comes to changing our habits, we have to accept that most people take a little bit of time to change their mind.