You could go the Anderson Cooper route and wear the same jeans every day, without ever throwing them in the wash.* OR, you could follow these three tips for eco-friendly** machine washing.
1. KEEP THINGS COOL
About 90% of the energy associated with doing laundry is just heating up the water, so turn the dial to cold. It's true that warm water is more effective for stain removal, but try pre-treating the stain instead of heating things up. Cold water has the added benefit of protecting the colors from fading, and unlike warmer water, it won't cause shrinkage (ouch) in natural fibers.
2. GO NATURAL
Make the switch to plant-based detergents and stain removers. Ironically, conventional detergents are often derived from petroleum, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around. Frequently, these detergents also contain neurotoxins and hormone disruptors, which are no friends of your skin, lungs and overall health. As if that's not enough, these non-biodegradable chemicals also lead to polluted wastewater that kills aquatic life when it's fed into rivers and seas.
By contrast, natural detergents*** tend to be free of chlorine bleach, dyes, optical brighteners and synthetic fragrances. As a bonus, they’re usually formulated to work better in the cold water you'll now be using.
To tell whether your detergent comes from natural sources, don't go by the marketing language or any "green" stamps on the bottle. Research your options if possible, or at least take a moment to read through the labels. You won't always be able to find out everything that’s in the formula (manufacturers aren’t required to disclose this information), but it's surprising how often you'll see words like “danger,” “poison,” “toxic” and “hazardous.” For obvious reasons that transcend environmental concerns, we steer clear of those; we've also found that companies making natural products tend to be more forthcoming with their ingredient lists.
3. FILL 'ER UP!
Even the most energy-efficient laundry loads use up to 40 gallons of water; doing small and frequent loads is a waste of precious freshwater resources. Hand wash dirty items that you want to wear ASAP, and sit tight until you have enough laundry for a full load before putting garments in the washer. Aside from saving water, your utility bills will be lower too.
If you consistently find yourself doing small loads, consider a portable mini washer, many of which are electricity-free. Commenters on this Apartment Therapy post swear by this Haier one.
*We're not quite brave enough to wash our clothes just once a year, but it's not the worst idea to aim for getting more than one wear out of most items–excluding undergarments and exercise clothes, of course.
**The most environmentally friendly laundry method is hand washing, which uses a lot less water and energy than a machine. Check out The Life Experimenter's take on hand washing her clothes for 30 days.
***Trash is for Tossers blogger Lauren Singer is launching a three-ingredient detergent that's organic, all natural, vegan and biodegradable. It's called The Simply Co. and will be available in February 2015.