Do we matter? We most certainly do. Imagine that all the industrial laundries in the world disappeared overnight. What would happen in hospital operating rooms, kitchens, ambulances, nursing homes, fire stations, pharmaceutical factories, food factories, laboratories, and testing centres? Slowly they would begin to spread contagion, diseases and epidemics until they ground to a halt and brought vital parts of society to a standstill.

The laundry industry is paradoxical. Washing clothes is the world’s oldest recycling industry and arguably the largest. Industrial laundries play, on the one hand, a highly subdued, semi-secret, bordering on taboo role, and, on the other hand, have a highly central and decisive importance in modern societies and their development. Industrial laundries service most of society’s most critical and important functions, not just one of them, but practically all of them.

There is a direct line from laundry through hygiene standards to living standards. Without laundries, old infectious diseases would reappear, production would stop, health services would collapse, people would die. Laundries are a prerequisite for modern living, but it’s as if we’ve failed to tell anyone. Why?

Purpose and values

Marketing is fundamentally about purpose. Purposes without values are dangerous. Making money is simply not enough. It is a very narrow set of values twhich risks disregarding considerations for customers, employees, society, surroundings, nature, and everything else that we consider valuable in life. Ignoring questions of value in the company’s direction, development and action, risks backfiring, as, for example, a couple of big name American foodservice companies found out with their investments in Putin’s Russia. It is not a healthy move in an age of powerful social media and shareholder activism, to make good money in bad ways.

Values without actions are hollow, empty, irrelevant. Actions that disregard values are lies, sooner or later discovered and reacted to, like Enron’s in 2000 and the UK’s ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to be a contemporary take.

Value sets are not indifferent, toothless copies of other companies’ pungent, politically correct slogans, twisted to suit the occasion, making business partners suspicious, undermining the credibility of managers and employees insecure. These are formulated on the basis of a notion that everyone must have a set of values, so we’d better get started.

Core values are a rallying point for employees, it’s what everyone has in common despite their differences, the commonality you experience, regardless of which employee you meet. But they require courage, sacrifice and induce pain. They limit the company’s freedom of action and the employees’ behaviour, and prevent, for example, truckers from hiring hundreds of illegal Baltic drivers at £3 an hour. Or should. They are a few, deep-rooted and invariable principles that govern all a company’s actions, never compromised, either for convenience or financial gain.

A dream

If purpose and values align, marketing can, with benefit, be based on values. There is a very large marketing potential in values, as e.g. Benetton, Nike and Apple have shown with their campaigns, see e.g. Breastfeeding for a change (1989), If you let me play (1995), and Think different (1997).

The best value-based campaigns deal with current, relevant and potent issues, express attitudes that affect us, challenge us, provoke us, move us, we sympathize with them and they help us, or may even force us to take a stand. Right now it would be Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, climate challenges, pollution, inequality and immigration. Big challenges.

Value-based marketing completely disregards the price of the gizmo. We identify with the companies behind the campaigns and want to be on their team or do like them, long before anyone has even started talking about ironer speeds or number of pieces per hour. Valuebased marketing makes companies more than, and something above, their products and solutions. This makes their products less sensitive to competition and makes the company more competitive. Or the industry, if you think big enough.

It’s complicated

Our industry is complex – characterised by a combination of unskilled, repetitive low-wage work, with many female employees, female managers, ethnic origins, different religious beliefs, prison inmates, a relatively higher proportion of socially disadvantaged, whole tiers of society particularly sensitive to economic trends. The industry is global, performs highly valuable societal functions and has a direct and noticeable influence on nine out of the UN’s 17 global goals (#5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14).

Candidates for value-based marketing? Take your pick. Compared to manufacturers of jerseys, shoes and phones? Our industry is a dream for any skilled marketing agency.

For example, imagine a surgical team in used, bloody clothes in an operating room at the Central Hospital. Nobody smiles. At the bottom left of the picture is written in large type: ‘If they get clean clothes’. See picture above. A Ukrainian hospital in Donetsk, a fire brigade in Paris, the night shift at Novo Nordisk’s production facility. If they get clean clothes…

The footprints

Washing clothes affects the planet’s scarce drinking water resources and the atmosphere’s exposed CO2-balance noticeably. 22,000 industrial laundries globally employ 400,000 people, wash 35 million tons of clothes, use 283 million m3 of drinking water, discharges 255 million m3 of waste water, consumes 46 billion kWh and emits 13 million tons of CO2 annually. Not exact numbers, but qualified estimates. This equals filling a 500 m3 hot air balloon with CO2 every two seconds, around the clock, all year round, every year. In comparison, Denmark emits 44 million tons of CO2 equivalents annually. In absolute terms, laundries burden the CO2 balance on the order of a city with a milion citizens, and relatively on par with Qatar, the most CO2-polluting country in the world.

The hard questions

On almost all parameters, there is a wide range from the best to the worst laundries. The best use 3 litres of drinking water/kg.

clothes, and we are proud of them because the poorest use 12 litres of drinking water/ kg clothes, but why wash in drinking water at all? It makes no sense in a world where only 1% of the water resources are drinking water and where 70% of drinking water is used for crops. We are now 7.9 billion people on the globe. Water does not become, it is a scarce resource.

The best infrastructures lead the waste water to modern treatment plants and we are proud of them, because the worst lead it directly into rivers and seas and it is terrible, kills fish and wildlife and seeps into the groundwater, but why emit it at all, why not clean it and use it again, and again, in a closed loop?

Why do we use cotton textiles when the cotton holds onto the dirt and hides the water in its fibres? Each cotton plant consumes 38 litres of water until picking maturity. To grow 1 kg. of cotton, the equivalent to a pair of trousers, requires 20,000 litres of water. I have seen images of the the impact of cotton cultivation on the Aral Sea over 47 years – in one area larger than Denmark, only dust and a 50°C hot desert remain.

Today, 2 billion out of 7.9 billion people on Earth have access to mechanised laundry. The rest washes in buckets, tubs, rivers and lakes. By 2030, the global middle class will have doubled in size, growing from 2 billion to 4.9 billion people, with increasing demand for hygienic standards, which will constantly and continuously drive the global volumes of washing.

One of many big, decisive questions is therefore: How do you raise the standard of living in countries with scarce water resources and poor infrastructure, without increasing resource consumption? Or, equally relevant: How do you reduce resource consumption and environmental impact in developed countries, without lowering the standard of living? How do we implement the best technologies with those whose burden is heaviest?

The first two questions can be solved in the same way – by taking the laundries off-grid. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. In reality, there is a need for the laundries to go traceless, to lift both feet at the same time and leave no footprint on the planet.

Not just off grid, but traceless.

Is that at all possible?

We’ll have a look at that next time.