‘Woke’ Meets the Washing Machine

Terry Schwadron
4 min readMar 20, 2023

Terry H. Schwadron

March 20, 2023

The new perceived woke stain in the climate debate has bled into the home washing machine.

Once again, information manipulation is rampant towards forcing a political divide over a perfectly reasonable, if debatable, government proposition: As water supplies worldwide become more noticeable, let’s start to make washing machines — as well as refrigerators and freezers — appliances that work as efficiently as possible.

The Energy Department issued changes to regulations governing new manufacture of machines last month, amid a lot of projections that show $3.5 billion in consumer savings on energy and water bills over 10 years while reducing harmful consumer greenhouse gases. The rules would not take effect until 2027.

Of course, manufacturers responded said that those regulations changes will require them to invest in new processes with costs that will be passed along to consumers.

And Republicans in Congress, amplified by right-leaning media reports, immediately leapt to the top of the political divide barricades to shout about government overreach and the ills of advancing climate-oriented rules over maintaining consumer behavior.

Here was the headline on Fox News.com: “Biden Washing Machine Rule Would Make Americans Dirtier and Stinkier — and Raise Prices: Manufacturers.” Apparently, the point can’t get made adequatly without the stain of sarcasm.

The new rules happen to be a good example of what each of us can do to forestall the kind of climate-related problems we hear described as “existential” without a lot of stress or effort, with some potential savings as a side benefit.

As if in rebuttal, The Washington Examiner, a conservative news outlet, said by reducing volume and temperature of water used by washing machines, the new efficiency standards could negatively affect performance because higher water temperatures are needed to remove many types of stains, as Whirlpool told the government in January.

It’s a reminder that the much-balleyhooed volleying over how “woke” we should be knows no limits. We could make these demands as consumers, but, as a rule, we don’t. Think there might be some limit on declarations of “woke” anytime soon?

Looking at Appliance Efficiency

We just had the same kind of dust-up over whether to bar gas stoves in new construction, something prompting states to adopt different policies — sometime in the future. When he was president, Donald Trump, a developer, fumed about proposed water-saving toilets — presumably for some reason other than flushing classified documents.

So, there are logical questions about the reasons for the rules as well as why we would not all want the most efficient appliances we can get. Compared with phasing out gas-fueled cars, for example, this review of washing machine construction seems tame.

It turns out that under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the Energy Department is required to conduct regular reviews of appliance efficiency standards.

Although the department is not required to tighten the standards, it usually chooses to do so. Groups like The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, however, wants to end the reviews that are performed every six years under the act, arguing that the changes always lead to unwanted regulation and higher consumer cost.

The Energy Department notes that 15 million refrigerators are sold in the United States every year, and a typical new one uses 75 percent less energy than its 1973 counterpart while offering roughly 20 percent more storage capacity and more useful features. Over that time, the Energy Department has raised the efficiency standard for refrigerators three times.

With climate awareness rising, the Energy Department has estimated that changing standards for refrigerators and freezers could save consumers as much as $20.4 billion on energy and water bills, cut energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. The same is true for clothes dryers, which saw new regulations last year, and now washing machines.

Just for comparison, in the Trump years when regulations were being rolled back, the Natural Resources Defense Council and consumer advocates, sued the Energy Department because it did not take action on 25 appliance standards.

How Big a Change?

Under the standards changes, consumers will still be able to choose between top-loaders and front-loading machines. According to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, the new standards will actually phase out machines that use older technology called agitators and replace them with ones that use impellers, or wash plates. Consumer Reports says that impellers use less water and more motion to get clothes clean and cut down on time in the dryer with equivalent results. Even Whirlpool, which opposed the new standards, says on its website that impellers and agitators are “roughly equal” in “cleaning performance, energy efficiency, capacity, innovation and convenience.” The Energy Department estimates that the proposed standards could cost manufacturers about $690 million to make the necessary updates, but save consumers up to $14.5 billion over 30 years.

The changes do not appear to affect coin or commercial laundries.

Manufacturers and congressional backers say consumers would likely want the most efficient appliances without help from government interference, thank you. But, of course, not if they don’t make them on their own.

The Biden administration has taken more than 110 such actions aimed at strengthening energy efficiency for appliances. Clearly, Biden has made no secret about seeking out ways towards energy changes where possible.

Yet, as Media Matters, a press commentator, notes, Fox, The Examiner and others have targeted such energy-efficient products as dysfunctional, expensive, and intrusive “scams.” Anchors, hosts, and guests on Fox News and Fox Business have taken the word of industry spokesmen to repeatedly claim the new standards will somehow make Americans “dirtier and stinkier” with poorer cleaning results that take longer. Sean Hannity calls it “idiotic,” and Sen, Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) rues that the government wants to control our laundry. Others just call climate concern a “lie.”

Of course, no one is telling you to buy a new washing machine. But we could use a new Washington machine about now.