By their very nature, jeans are one of the most sustainable items in our wardrobe because we wear them so frequently and keep them for a longer time. Trends in denim move slower than most, and the manufacturing quality means that preloved jeans often stay in circularity for some time, making second-hand denim easily accessible. However, when it comes to investing in new denim, there is a minefield of social and environmental issues to navigate. Here, steer through the denim supply chain and discover some ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Killer cotton and toxic waste
Sometimes I take for granted my knowledge of textiles from years of studying fashion, but the majority of consumers don’t know what their clothes are made from, how those fabrics are processed, and where the raw materials originate. So first up – the basics. Most denim is made from cotton, a plant-based fibre grown across Pakistan, India, the US and beyond. Many modern jeans are designed for comfort and stretch, so they contain some elastane (a synthetic, plastic-based fibre), and other materials such as polyester threads, metal rivets and plastic zips.
Cotton itself is, unfortunately, not the natural, eco-friendly crop it might seem. This is for three main reasons: the water input, the chemical input, and the land use. It takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water (about 6 years worth of drinking water) to grow enough cotton to make just one pair of jeans, and with much of this water accessed via irrigation, natural water sources such as the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been drained, destroying plant life, animal habitats and human livelihoods.
Conventional cotton agriculture uses nearly a quarter of the world’s insecticides, herbicides and pesticides. This can have a carcinogenic effect on human health, and wipes out essential soil biodiversity. Monoculture is also an area of concern, with the rise of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) creating crop monopolies and indebting cotton farmers to exploitative multinational corporations such as Montsanto.
It can be easy to forget that everything we wear comes from the ground, be it a plant grown in the soil or fossil fuels deep beneath the surface. Clearly, when weighing up sustainable materials, it is not as simple as natural vs. synthetic. Fortunately when it comes to denim, there are plenty of options to reduce the environmental impact of your purchases, namely choosing organic cotton rather than conventional cotton. Organically grown cotton, certified by GOTS or Soil Association, uses no pesticides, chemical fertilisers, GMOS or unethical practices such as child labour or forced labour.
In addition to the staggering levels of water input at the raw material, material processing and garment production stages of the denim supply chain, we have to also consider the water pollution outputs. The 2016 documentary RiverBlue investigates the impact of the denim industry on some of the world’s largest waterways, where entire river ecosystems can dramatically shift as a result of the intense dyes and chemicals used by local factories. The mismanagement of waste disposal pollutes these essential water sources and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people and animals. In fact, nearly 20% of all wastewater originates from textile dyeing processes alone.
It’s not just the rich indigo colour of denim that produces this toxic waste – the treatments used to give jeans that worn-in, faded look we all crave – as well as retro looks like acid wash, distressing and creasing – are highly resource-intensive and potentially harmful to the health of workers too. Brands like Levis have long been developing lower impact alternatives – check out this video to explore their digital design techniques and laser treatment lab. We can also look to smaller startups such as TOBEFRANK who use more sustainable technology like natural dyes and Ozone treatments.
Wear, care and repair
Sustainable fashion isn’t just about what we buy, it’s also about how long we wear and care for our clothes. Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh famously claims he never washes his jeans, and while that may seem extreme, the truth is that the less frequently you wash denim, the longer it lasts and the better it looks. What’s more, reducing at-home washing and drying could help reduce up to 21% of all greenhouse gas emissions related to a garment’s full life cycle.
Circular solutions are also slowly seeping into the mainstream. The Jeans Redesign initiative by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation provides a series of guidelines to set circular economy requirements for durability, sustainability, recyclability, and traceability of denim jeans. Various brands have signed up so far, including fast fashion retailers like Gap, H&M, C&A and Weekday.
While ripped jeans may be in fashion, we’ve all had an unfortunate crotch-related rip in public (just me?), or a broken zip, missing belt loop or loose threads at some point that look less than desirable. Jeans are harder to repair than most clothing because of the thickness of denim and the hard-wearing seams required, but there are several handy DIY jeans repair videos available online, and skilled seamstresses that specialise in denim repair service too.
Overall, when shopping for jeans it’s a good idea to go for classic, enduring styles such as high-waisted skinny jeans, straight leg, Mom jeans or flares, rather than trends like super-wide leg jeans, or more fashion-led colours, washes and distressed treatments. Investing in a perfect fit pair of blue jeans, black jeans, and a roomy denim jacket will provide versatile wardrobe staples for many years to come.
Sustainable jeans brands
- Outland Denim provides employment for women that have experienced sex trafficking. They produce reduced water- and energy-intensive denim with a fully transparent supply chain.
- Mud Jeans is a B-Corp certified zero-waste denim brand who recycle every single preloved pair into new jeans. You can also lease their jeans to take part in a sharing economy system.
- Nudie Jeans offer classic jeans made from 100% organic cotton, specialising in raw, untreated, dry denim with longevity in mind.
- ELV Denim creates unique designs using only vintage, reclaimed denim that is reworked into luxury zero-waste jeans.
- Boyish Jeans are a women’s denim brand with a non-toxic production process, using Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified materials, plant-based dyes and cradle-to-cradle design.
- Sézane is a slow fashion label that has released a capsule collection or organic cotton jeans that are designed to flatter the body, and made to last with timeless French style.
- Warp + Weft is a family-owned business producing size-inclusive jeans from recycled denim using recycled water. The vertical supply chain means costs are minimising, creating ethically made and affordable jeans.
Remember, second-hand is a more sustainable (and affordable) option than buying new. Heritage brands like Levi’s and Wrangler are in almost limitless supply in vintage stores and on eBay and Depop too.
Enjoy your denim treasure hunt!