How sustainable is denim?

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Although denim has had a serious impact on the environment, there are a few brands committed to producing it sustainably.

How sustainable is denim?
Apparently we love the blues so much that according to an article series published in Fashion Revolution about the future of the fabric, we’ll buy up to four pairs a year. And that’s just if we’re the average consumer.

Demand has created a denim industry that was worth $90 billion in 2019 and is expected to go up by another 15 billion by 2023, according to Besides inspiring Lana Del Rey to write “Blue Jeans” and Daniel Caesar to sing about it in “Japanese Denim, after doing a quick Google search I discovered that the fabric has been immortalised in at least 50 pop songs.

It will be interesting to see if its appeal and buying patterns change this year. Haven’t most of us ignored our jeans in favour of sweatpants while working from home during COVID-19? If the work-from-home trend hasn’t influenced the sale of jeans, we know the sustainability movement has, as we all pay closer attention to what it takes to get those “will last me all my life, oh yes” blue jeans on our bodies.

Farm to factory

First up we need to look at how cotton is grown. A WWF article says that “conventional production practices for cotton involve the application of substantial fertilisers and pesticides.” These pesticides not only “threaten the quality of soil and water, as well as the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields,” but could affect the health of workers who work with the material as well as you, the wearer.

The Washington Post exposed “the dirty secret about your clothes” and shared that the chemical dyes used to colour your jeans “can include compounds” that “range from chlorine bleach to known carcinogens such as arylamines”, and are also potentially cancerous. On top of that, “if they aren’t treated properly, they can pollute the water supply.”

To boot, WWF adds that it takes 20 000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton – enough to make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans.

Factory to fashion outlet

Global denim brands like Levi’s and Gap have announced new ways of producing clothing by pledging to have 80% of all their products made using their waterless technique (that reduces up to 96 percent of the water normally used in denim finishing and conserving 10 billion litres of water) by this year.

Water is not the only concern. Labour practices have also been called into question as more and more people ask: “Who made my clothes”? The movement began as a campaign started by two women, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers in the UK in 2013. The challenge to stop ignoring workers’ rights was fuelled by the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh, where over 1 000 workers were killed and many more injured.

Though denim has had a serious impact on the environment, there are a few brands committed to changing its legacy.

How and where to find your ethical jeans?

1. Choose jeans labelled with the Nordic Swan (or Nordic ecolabel). The label helps you choose the most environmentally-friendly products, including jeans. The label has strict regulations when it comes to use of chemicals during production, the quality of the clothing, labour practices, and requires a minimum use of organic cotton. You'll find Carlings, Cubus and Velour jeans with this ecolabel.

2. Choose jeans made using post-consumer recycled cotton, which reduces waste and also requires significant lower water consumption during production. Have a look at MUD jeans.

3. Choose jeans labelled with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which works to reduce water consumption and use of chemicals during the production of cotton. One of the BCI members is Kappahl.

4. Choose jeans made with raw denim, which reduces the amount of water and chemicals needed to make them (plus, the jeans last longer). Lee and Levi’s are among the brands that use raw denim when making their jeans.

5. Choose quality over quantity!

Lastly, remember to not wash your jeans too often and that it's often possible to repair your jeans if they're broken.

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