Is Denim Sustainable? A Look Into The Environmental Impact of Denim

Is Denim Sustainable? A Look Into The Environmental Impact of Denim

Is denim sustainable denim jeans hanging on display

What closet doesn’t have a few pairs of jeans or a nice denim jacket?

The sturdy fabric has long been a staple for the fashion industry, not only surviving but thriving through all eras and fashion trends.

It’s easy to see why the material has become so popular and maintained its appeal through it all: Denim is an incredibly durable, comfortable, and versatile fabric, perfect for a capsule wardrobe that’s always in line with the trends.

But in the wake of a growing interest in sustainable fashion, denim has started to lose some of its charm.

Not all fashionistas are aware of the impact that denim production has on our planet, but if you haven’t looked at the figures and want to know more about the environmental cost of a typical pair of jeans, you’ve definitely come to the right place!

So, is denim sustainable?

The answer to this question might be a little more complex than you think!

A brief history of denim

While U.S.-based German immigrant Levi Strauss is usually regarded as the father of denim, the fabric was actually first invented a few years earlier in Nimes, a city in southern France.

In fact, the name “denim” derives from the French “serge de Nimes”, meaning sturdy fabric from Nimes. The city had long been a hub of textile production before serge, the prototype for modern denim, started to be exported to the United States.

And it’s in the United States that denim found its home!

Levi Strauss invented denim jeans as we know them, using the sturdy serge de Nimes as the foundation fabric for a new, much more durable type of trousers — the perfect uniform for working men! 

Fast forward to the 1960s, and the fabric finally started to be embraced by the fashion industry, first becoming the go-to casual wear for celebrities and then, for the rest of the world.

Girl in sustainable denim jacket laughing
Photo by Felipe Vieira on Unsplash

What makes denim unsustainable?

All denim products, including your favourite jeans, are made of cotton. True and original blue jeans are made of 100% cotton, while cheaper denim is often made of a cotton and polyester blend.

However, the overwhelming majority of jeans available today are made of cotton only (plus usually some elastane) — which is unfortunately not great news for the planet, as we’ll explore below.

So, what are the biggest environmental issues in the denim production process?

Water use and carbon emissions

The biggest issue with denim comes down to the fabric’s enormous water footprint.

Non-organic cotton is infamous for being the world’s thirstiest crop, with a single pair of jeans needing as much as 10k litres of water to produce. 

The amount of water needed to grow conventional cotton is so large that even the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s biggest lakes, has shrunk to half its former size due to cotton cultivation.

The processing, dyeing, finishing and shipping also release on average 32.5kg of CO2 emissions per pair of jeans.

Waterway pollution

In addition to the water consumption issue, cotton is also a problematic crop when it comes to pesticide use.

The ever-increasing demand for cotton products has pushed farmers to rely on chemicals and pesticides more than ever, impacting the quality and biodiversity of the soil and polluting surrounding waterways in the process. To learn more about sustainable cotton read here

The dyeing process behind classic blue jeans is also important in considering whether denim is sustainable.

Synthetic indigo is the colour most commonly used, and once the excess dye is rinsed off before drying, hazardous chemicals (including formaldehyde) end up polluting surrounding waterways, reducing available clean water and threatening marine wildlife.

Buttons and rivets

And what about the buttons and metal rivets we usually find on a pair of denim jeans?

Unfortunately, these classic accessories do little to help fix denim’s reputation as one of the most polluting fashion pieces.

Metal rivets in particular are slowly being phased out by fashion brands looking to make their pieces more sustainable. This is because rivets, once used to make the fabric stronger and more durable, are now nothing more than a simple accessory, plain wasteful in the face of shrinking non-renewable resources.

On top of that, both buttons and rivets cannot be recycled and are incredibly difficult to remove, forcing recyclers to cut around them and waste a lot of the fabric in the process!

Stonewashed, ripped and “lived-in” jeans

Finally, stylish stonewashed, acid wash, sand blasted or otherwise “weathered” denim also comes with a heavy environmental and human cost.

Creating pre-treated denim products (meaning denim that has gone through the industrial wash and finish process) consumes large amounts of water and uses unnecessary toxic chemicals like chlorine. Sandblasting, which can create the worn look of rips and tears, can produce silicosis in the lungs of those who inhale the fumes during production.

Raw, untreated denim, on the other hand, is a much more eco-friendly option, especially if you’re also opting for jeans and jackets made of organic cotton, which don’t need nearly as much irrigation.

In addition to saving water, supporting raw denim also reduces the amount of chemicals used in the manufacturing process, further cutting down on waterway pollution.

And new technologies now exist to create distressed and creased effects on jeans with lasers rather than sand. Plus waterless and foam dyeing have been developed, preventing the toxic run off found in current techniques. With time we hope that these innovations will become mainstream.

Sustainable denim jeans hanging on a rail
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The challenges of recycling jeans 

Unfortunately, denim also makes for one of the trickiest fabrics to recycle effectively.

In fact, while cotton is a natural and biodegradable material, even 100% cotton denim contains problematic dyes, plastics (most commonly elastane, especially for skinny jeans) and metals (in zippers, buttons, and rivets) that make it unfit for recycling. 

But while all these components are incredibly hard to separate in a standard recycling facility, there are still ways you can reduce your waste and make sure your choice of denim is eco-friendly.

Your pre-loved jeans and denim jacket can be spared from the landfill through “material to material” recycling, where old denim is used to create new and sustainable denim pieces by cutting around the rivets. We have more about cotton fabric recycling, both mechanical and chemical, in this article.

There are now plenty of garments made from recycled materials and a growing number of independent fashion brands offering denim made with water-saving organic cotton and recycled fabrics!

What measures is the denim industry taking to finally go greener?

So, what is the denim industry doing to ensure their denim is more sustainable going forward?

As we’ve mentioned before, using organic cotton, rather than traditional cotton, can help ease the environmental pressure of pesticides, as well as save water. And reducing elastane content helps in jeans’ recyclability.

The Jeans Redesign project

Primark jeans redesign
Primark @primark.com

The Ellen McArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign project has brought together nearly 100 denim brands, producers and even laundries to try to make denim more circular, meaning that it can be recycled, is non toxic and is longer lasting. 

Brands include the likes of Gap, Guess, C&A, H&M, Ganni, M&S, MUD Jeans, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, Thought, Levi’s and Wrangler. Through collaboration, they are finding new solutions to denim problems. These include among other things: reducing elastane content, the use of rivets, creating harder wearing wash-proof denim, increasing recycled and organic content and reducing the use of toxic chemicals, sandblasting and stone finishing.

Those fashion companies that pass all of the Jeans Redesign strict requirements can proudly use the Jeans Redesign logo on their products. You can now look for these in their stores.

What else are brands doing?

Independent fashion brands like Thought, Lucy and Yak, and People Tree rely on organic cotton to create their denim pieces, as well as using natural dyes to reduce waterway pollution and soil degradation.

Brands like Frank and Oak, Everlane, and even the very originator of jeans Levi Strauss & Co. have also started to implement energy and water-saving processes to make their garments more eco-friendly. This includes using recycled water, getting rid of rivets, and operating in energy-efficient factories.

Frank and Oak has also embraced the sustainability of Circular Denim, a program designed to give your old denim a brand-new life and minimize waste through recycling.

Their recycled denim collection is made of recycled fibres from old denim, and once you’re finished with your jeans, you can choose to send them back to be recycled all over again!

Netherlands-based fashion brand Mud Jeans also offers recycling, as well as a handy subscription that allows you to lease your jeans for €7.50 per month, free repairs included.

Finally, industry giants like Levi Strauss and G-Star have also made substantial commitments towards more sustainable practices.

G-Star is aiming to cut back GHG emissions by 15% before 2025, as well as make 75% of their collection recycled and/or compostable.

Levi’s is committed to reducing water waste through their patented Water<Less® technology, and according to their data, 9.6 billion litres of water have been reused and recycled since 2011.

Girl in pair of Levi's sustainable denim jeans
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

But are these commitments genuine or just another example of corporate greenwashing?

Only time will tell!

Here’s what you can do to make your own jeans more sustainable

Now, chances are that you already have plenty of denim pieces in your collection, some older, some newer.

Taking better care of the jeans and jackets you already own can be an even more sustainable solution than buying new eco-friendly garments, so here are a few tips to help you reduce your carbon footprint:

Repair

All clothing will show some wear and tear over time, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw it away altogether!

A good pair of jeans can last for decades, so all you need to do is visit your local tailors for a quick patch or even learn how to fix a hole yourself.

Repurpose

Once your denim is fully worn out and way past repairing, you can always get a trusty pair of scissors out to cut the fabric into all sorts of new items!

With a little bit of sewing knowledge, you can use your old jeans to craft a fashionable bag, make a pair of oven mittens, or simply create some brand-new summer shorts.

Wash cold

graham-hunt-_bearded guy stamping in jeans
Photo by Graham Hunt on Unsplash

If you really want your denim to last, you’ll want to make sure you’re washing your jeans as little as possible and washing cold when you do.

This will not only make them last longer but also save plenty of energy in the process!

Is denim sustainable? What to consider before you buy…

So, how sustainable is denim? Simply put, as sustainable as you can make it!

And when the time for investing in a new pair of jeans finally comes, know that just any brand won’t do: Seek out the Jeans Redesign logo, opt for shopping untreated/raw denim as much as possible with minimal elastane content, as well as supporting brands that use organic, GOTS-certified cotton, natural dyes, rivetless designs, and recycled fabrics.

Denim pieces have long been the cornerstone of any timeless closet, and when we consider their durability and trend-defying nature, they have plenty of potential to be a lot more sustainable!

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