Jeans have been around for about 150 years and were invented as hardwearing workwear meant to last years, if not decades. Sadly, jeans are actually one of the least sustainable items of clothing mass produced by the fashion industry. Here’s everything you need to know about the trouble with conventional denim.
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Why conventional denim isn’t sustainable or safe
The process of making jeans and other denim products is decidedly not eco-friendly. Why?
Because denim is one of the most resource-heavy types of fabric around, requiring:
- Huge amounts of conventional cotton
- Massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides
- Colossal quantities of water for growing the cotton
- Even more water during manufacture
- Toxic bleaches, dyes, and distressing agents.
With fast fashion growing apace in the last few decades, the demand for cotton has led to over-farming, soil erosion, and all manner of other devastating impacts on people and planet.
Things to look for in a sustainable denim brand include:
- Use of organic cotton (certified by GOTS or USDA Organic)
- Use of recycled materials, including for zippers, threads, and packaging
- Smart manufacturing processes that use less water and energy
- No use of harsh toxic chemicals (no bleach, carcinogenic dyestuffs, or acid washes)
- Sustainable packaging (recycled and recyclable materials and no plastic)
- Closed loop systems with an option to return old jeans for repair, recycling, or upcycling.
Making a pair of jeans also typically involves the use of toxic chemicals including dyes and distressing agents (like chlorine bleach). These can pollute waterways and harm aquatic wildlife, with chlorine bleach linked to the production of carcinogenic byproducts called dioxins.
After all that, most pairs of jeans are worn just a handful of times, if at all, before they’re thrown away or stuffed in the closet never to be used again.
What is sustainable denim?
When looking for eco-denim, you’ll want to assess a brand’s transparency. If it is committed to sustainability, chances are the brand will let you know.
That said, some brands go to the trouble of producing in-depth environmental and sustainability reports but fail to make these accessible and understandable.
Conversely, some brands will throw around vague language about sustainability but have no clear, demonstrable actions taken by the company to make their processes more eco-friendly. Greenwashing is very real in the denim industry, and certainly gives me that distressed look.
I love companies like Organsk (see our review) that have taken the time to conduct full lifecycle analyses for their jeans’ environmental impact. It takes the guesswork out of finding genuinely eco-friendly denim and helps keep companies accountable as they improve their operations to get even more sustainable.
Just one pair of jeans can suck up nearly 2,000 gallons of water, if the cotton isn’t organic!
How to choose eco-friendly ‘green’ jeans
The best approach is to look for jeans from one of our vetted, five-leaf brands, recommended here. Failing that, check that your chosen brand source its cotton sustainably, accounting for fair worker wages and conditions and environmental impacts.
GOTS organic or equivalent is best. The Better Cotton Initiative is a start but nowhere near as robust as brands like to make it out to be. Fair Trade status is also a good sign, as is B Corp status (ideally for several years running and with measured progress in all realms).
Choosing organic cotton, deadstock fabric, or upcycled denim helps cut down on resources used to make your new favorite jeans. And avoiding toxic dyes and chemicals, offsetting carbon emissions, minimizing transportation and packaging, and offering a repair and/or recycling initiative are also good signs that a company takes sustainability seriously.
As always, if you fall in love with a particular pair of jeans but don’t see any clear info on materials, manufacturing, or sustainability, contact the company and ask about their sustainability efforts.
The more of us who do this, the more these brands appreciate that to get our business they need to step up.
Other ways to make your jeans more sustainable
Finally, if you invest in a well-made pair of jeans, take care of them. If you repair any rips and tears yourself, or get a local tailor or the original company to do it, that helps extend their life and reduces overall resource use.
Then, when your jeans reach their true end of life, find ways to repurpose them to further reduce their environmental footprint. Some great ways to repurpose jeans include turning them into:
- Jean shorts (if ripped at the knees, for example)
- A shoulder bag
- Patches for other jeans
If you remove metal rivets and zips, jeans can be used for insulation material or stuffing. And if you’re not crafty or so inclined, look for a fabric recycling facility near you that will accept old jeans. If not, you can use a TerraCycle box to send your old jeans to a dedicated recycling operation or check to see if your next pair of jeans is made by a company that accepts old jeans for recycling.