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The Story of Denim

06/05/2021

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Table of Contents

Blue jeans are keeping us from being green in fashion. It might be hard to imagine, but our favorite wardrobe staple has become an environmental nightmare.
The textile industry as a whole is already known to be a major contributor to pollution, accounting for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and 35% of microplastic waste. One of the most insidious is denim. From cotton seed to closet, jeans can use up to 3,480 liters of water, 32.3 kg of carbon dioxide, and 5 oz of chemicals. Multiply that by the 2 billion pairs that are made each year, and we’ve got a major problem.
Surely, there must be something that the industry or we consumers can do to reduce the waste that the industry produces. To understand what makes denim so harmful to the environment and to see how we can help, it’s important to know the story behind it- how it’s made, who makes it, and the real cost of making it. (Hint: it costs a lot more than what we’re paying for at fast-fashion prices.

On average, 10,000 liters of water is needed to produce 1 kg of cotton. It takes around 0.6 kg of cotton to make one pair of jeans.

Cotton Cultivation: Water Footprint and Soil Erosion

Most jeans are 100% cotton. Despite being a natural fiber, cotton has become one of the world’s most unsustainable crops. It’s extremely thirsty and high-maintenance, requiring tons of water, fertilizers, and pesticides during its 6-month growth period. On average, 10,000 liters of water is needed to produce 1 kg of cotton. Much of the water from cotton farming is lost through evaporation, or can’t be recycled due to the presence of toxic chemicals. This wasted water is cause for concern, as access to clean water is still a problem in many parts of the world. India, for example, is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, but more than 100 million of its inhabitants don’t have access to clean water.
Aside from its water footprint, large-scale cotton farming causes soil erosion. Dead soil leads to increased sedimentation and pollution in bodies of water, clogged waterways, and a decline in marine diversity. Eroded soil also exposes coastal areas to greater damages from tropical storms and floods.

Dyeing: Water Pollution from Dyes and Chemicals

After the cotton is harvested and woven into denim fabric, it undergoes a series of dyeing and finishing processes. Using synthetic dyes, acid, and overseas labor are ways to keep costs low for fast fashion companies and consumers. However, these corner-cutting tricks come at a hefty price.
Denim factory worker

Top left: Denim factory worker, bottom: Greenpeace staff taking samples of wastewater discharge from a jeans factory (Xintang, China) Photo: Lu Guang, Greenpeace

Because of looser regulations on environmental laws in the developing countries where manufacturing is done, wastewater from the dyeing process isn’t usually retreated or disposed of properly. Next to a denim washing factory in China, a river stained with a deep, inky blue was found to contain formaldehyde and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. These are irritating and carcinogenic substances that you don’t want near your skin or near the people who make your jeans.
Indigo, the dye responsible for the iconic blue color of jeans, is problematic for a couple of reasons. First is its low color fixation rate- it washes off easily and jeans have to be dyed repeatedly to get deeper shades of blue. This is why dark-colored jeans tend to bleed in the washer or transfer color to other materials it comes in contact with. Color fixatives are used to make it adhere better, and a commonly used one is plastic-derived Polyvinyl Alcohol or PVA.
The second indigo issue is its precursor chemical, aniline. Aniline is toxic if inhaled, ingested, or comes in contact with skin. It causes skin and respiratory irritation, allergies, and long-term exposure (in the case of factory workers) causes problems with blood oxygen transportation. It is also highly toxic to marine life. Each year, as much as 400 metric tons of aniline waste is produced and two-thirds end up in the environment from wastewater discharge.

Finishing: Worker Health Problems

Distressed jean finishes with names like “acid-washed”, “stone-washed”, or “sandblasted” are actually quite literal- pumice stones are added in the machine washing phase to abrade the denim, and bleaching agents such as chlorine, acid, and potassium permanganate are used to fade colors. Manual techniques like hand-scraping and hand-sanding are also done by factory workers, often in poor working conditions. They don’t wear protective masks and gloves, exposing their skin and eyes to denim dust and chemicals. At first glance, working in a garment factory may not seem like a hazardous occupation. But in the case of denim, it can be fatal.

"If people knew that the spraying of permanganate on your jeans to give you that acid-wash look was killing the guy doing the spraying, would you still want that look?”

François Girbaud
One particularly controversial finishing method is “sandblasting”, which rose in popularity in the 90s. Jeans are blasted with sand to give them a worn-out look in less time, allowing companies to scale production. It caused silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by the inhalation of tiny particles, among the workers. After exposés and pressure from the media, the practice was finally banned in 2011. However, some companies admit they have no way of knowing if their subcontracted factories abroad continue to use it.

“If people knew that the spraying of permanganate on your jeans to give you that acid-wash look was killing the guy doing the spraying, would you still want that look?” designer François Girbaud asks in River Blue, a documentary that airs out the dirty laundry of the denim industry. “I don’t think the customer is aware of what is happening abroad. We have to change the process of making jeans and brands have to be willing to invest because we are destroying the planet.”

User Phase: Freshwater and Marine Toxicity

Consumer appetites continue to fuel the giant denim industry. The UN reports that between 2000 and 2014, the number of clothes an average consumer buys increased by a whopping 60%, thanks to low prices and constantly changing trends. Our throwaway attitude towards clothes isn’t helping, either. Once a trend dies or if clothes get a little damaged, we don’t think twice about discarding them.
Surprisingly, the user phase contributes the most to clothes’ freshwater and marine toxicity. When we wash clothes, they continue to shed all of the nasty stuff. Chemicals, microplastics, and microfibers combined with detergent residue are released, harming aquatic systems and marine life. Water and energy consumption is also quite high in this phase from frequent machine washing, tumble drying, and ironing. This is an example of how our small, everyday acts compound to become something bigger.

Sustainability in the Denim Industry

Fortunately, the denim industry recognizes its mistakes and is working towards sustainability. Innovations in cotton use, water conservation, dyeing, and finishing alternatives are being explored and adapted.

“Over my lifetime, I’ve probably been responsible for many an ecological disaster,” says Adriano Goldschmied, founder of Goldsign and co-founder of Diesel Jeans. “And the idea of someone actually dying as a result of some process- sandblasting, for example- used just to make a pair of jeans, well, the idea is terrible, horrible. It’s an industry that has to clean up.”

Denim companies are starting to use laser and air technology to give jeans vintage-looking styles. Lasers can “burn” washes into denim and create textured patterns. Ozone gas treatments fade colors quicker than chlorine. These disruptive technologies effectively eliminate the use of excessive amounts of water, energy, bleach, and laborious manual techniques.
Eco-friendly alternative dyes and fixatives are also available. New generation sulfur-based dyes require smaller amounts to achieve desired colors and have a much better fixation rate than aniline-based indigo. To replace the plastic-based fixative PVA, companies like Candiani Denim are using chitosan-based Kitotex. Chitosan is sourced from shrimp shell wastes from the food industry.
To reduce water footprint, some companies are starting to switch to organic and recycled cotton. Levi’s is a supporter of the Better Cotton Initiative, a green certification that advocates for sustainable and ethical cotton cultivation. Post-consumer cotton waste is also another opportunity- cotton is taken from discarded textiles, spun into new fibers, and remade into new jeans.
As companies start to clean up their acts, we can also help by changing some of our habits. Here are some tips on what you can do and how to shop better:
  1. Wash less. You can hang your jeans out in the sun and air to freshen them up in between wearings.
  2. Line dry instead of tumble drying. The heat and air agitation during tumble drying cause microscopic damage to the fabric, wearing out your clothes faster or even shrinking them.
  3. Repair and alter jeans if needed. If you can’t sew or don’t have the time, take them to a professional. Your local tailor will appreciate the extra business, too.
  4. Shop less, but buy better. Choose raw or untreated jeans, which don’t have chemicals or dyes. Checking labels when you buy also gives you an idea of how it’s made. Most eco-friendly and sustainable jeans will have certifications that state the type of cotton or dyes used.
  5. Beware of greenwashing. If you really care about the impact of your choices, you can even go beyond checking labels and do some research on the ethics and policies of a brand.
  6. Support companies that invest in sustainable practices. Stylish and ethical at the same time? Yes, please! We’re sharing with you some of the best sustainable jeans you can find online.

5 Sustainable Denim Brands You Should Know About:

1. Elv

Elv Denim
ELV– a zero-waste brand that takes jeans destined for the landfills and transforms them into modern, sophisticated pieces. Founder Anna Forster works with local businesses in East London, supporting her local community and reducing their carbon footprint.

2. Nudie Jeans

Nudie Jeans
Nudie Jeans– a denim company that offers us a “smarter way to consume”. Their 100% organic cotton jeans are all-natural, without extra treatment or washes. They advise breaking in your denim the old-school way- 6 months of daily use without laundering. And get this- they offer free repairs forever! For those who don’t live close to their repair shops, they’ve still got you covered with a DIY repair kit and tutorial on their site.

3. Mud Jeans

Mud Jeans
MUD Jeans– the world’s first circular denim brand. Their jeans are made of either organic or recycled cotton and made by happy people, thanks to fair trade practices and a short supply chain. Their innovative practices include using eco-friendly dyes and water recycling. MUD highly values supply chain transparency– a trait that’s lacking in most fast fashion companies. You can take a look at their annual sustainability report and see if you’re happy with what you’re supporting.

4. HNST

HNST
HNST– urges us to “ditch fast fashion and change the world”. Founded by Tom Duhoux, a waste management expert, HNST is a fully circular denim brand that recycles cotton from old clothes and repurposed into new denim fibers. No toxic chemicals, plastics, or unethical labor.

5. Warp + Weft

Warp + Weft
Warp + Weft– a size-inclusive, sustainable jeans brand. Mindful manufacturing is in the heart of each pair. They use dry ozone technology, high-quality dyes, responsibly sourced cotton, and water-saving methods. They also employ ethical labor practices.

From crop to landfill, it’s evident how environmentally taxing a pair of jeans can be. To reduce its environmental impact, the industry and consumers have to act together. The story of denim continues to evolve and we’re excited to see where it’s heading: towards a future where sustainable jeans are the norm, rather than the outlier.

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