Why Is Sustainable Denim So Hard To Find?
From jeans to jackets, from indigo to acid wash, denim is a staple of any wardrobe. But, despite a staggering 2 billions pairs of jeans produced EACH YEAR, it’s hard to find sustainable denim. Why!? Well, when you look at what it takes to make your regular pair of jeans, where the materials come from, how they’re processed, and who makes them, it’s easy to see why some brands cut corners, don’t prioritise sustainability, and sacrifice environmental and social practice for cost. We don’t want to nag on at bad practice, we want to share what it takes to make your jeans and show where there is option for sustainability, sharing some of our favourite independent brands and what they’re doing to make denim better.
Water is a good place to start when having a look at denim. Although originally made out of wool, denim shifted to cotton, and unfortunately the cotton cultivation process isn’t the most sustainable. It takes around 6,500 litres of water to cultivate 680 grams of cotton to make one pair of jeans. This can range of course, a study by Levi Strauss & Co found that one pair of Levi’s jeans requires 3,781 litres of water, which is still a staggering amount. Think about that, your daily recommended intake of water is 2 litres per day, or 730 litres a year, the water it takes to make 1 pair of Levi’s jeans could provide water for 5 people a year.
With over 10% of the world’s population currently deprived of access to clean water, and typically the driest countries harvesting cotton, it puts a perspective on how costly cheap denim is. Luckily, small brands recognise this problem, and are producing responsibly made denim with purpose,
Often World’s denim jeans are an 100% raw organic cotton twill, made in Portugal, with the cotton grown naturally with rainwater. The organic rainwater growing process saves 6,000 litres of water. By working with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified factories, their denim not only uses less water, but incorporates natural dyes and environmentally friendly production techniques.
Pesticide use is another focus point in the story of sustainable denim. Cotton consumes fertilizers, pesticides and a significant quantity of water during its cultivation. Despite cotton only taking up 2.5% of agricultural land in the world, the cultivation accounts for 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide. These pesticides can be poisonous to local ecosystems, poisoning soil and water systems for local animals and communities, and in turn threatening food supplies and workers harvesting the crop, between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning.
Ourver have worked together with suppliers to find new organic, recycled and eco-friendly alternatives to the typical cotton used for denim. The cotton used by Ourver is GOTS certified, meaning it is completely free of destructive toxic pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Better yet, growing organic cotton improves soil quality, prevents water contamination and conserves biodiversity. Organic cotton is also rain-fed meaning less irrigation, requiring 91% less water, 62% less energy, producing 46% less CO2 than regular cotton. Ourver’s denim jeans are also stitched using Denimfil® Eco a recycled sewing thread made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles and certified by the Global Recycle Standard (GRS). Even down to the hardware they look at reducing chemical and water use. The brand’s buttons are made with an 100% reduction in toxic chemicals and waste, compared to common metal button production they use 89% less water, 64% less energy and 46% less electricity to produce.
Once harvested, the cotton is dyed an array of colours. The classic indigo dye typically used in denim was originally natural and derived from plant source, but trends and cost efficiencies shifted the process to use synthetic indigo dye. New dyes can contain chemicals harmful to people and the environment. For example, Azo dyes, the largest group of synthetic dyes, can sometimes release carcinogens. We look for brands which use natural dyes and organic cotton (the GOTS stamp is a great one to look out for).
Nudie jeans, for example, only work with suppliers with approved wastewater systems, because chemicals released with wastewater are a large source of chemical pollution. Nudie Jeans requires all of its suppliers, whether production is outside or within Europe, to comply with European legislation and regulations on chemicals. All Nudie Jeans suppliers must sign and follow their code of conduct including their Restricted Substance List (RSL) and their RSL is based on the European chemical legislation REACH, but with stricter limitations for many of the listed chemicals. Furthermore, each season, Nudie Jeans conduct random chemical testing to check that the requirements of the RSL are upheld for their production. The Chemical Policy and RSL form their basic requirements, and they continuously communicate with suppliers about the chemicals used, as well as the handling and storage of the chemicals.
Something that we probably wouldn’t think about is how our jeans get their distressed look, and it’s not because they were worn by a tight legged Rockstar on tour for 6 months or a skater cruising down Venice Beach - they are sandblasted. As the namesake suggests, the jeans are blasted with sand to wear the fabric. It doesn’t sound too problematic, however, the process poses significant health risks to workers as the fine dust particles can lodge in people’s lungs. This problem relates to another issue in the fashion industry, the lack of knowledge of the supply chain. Because brands depend on suppliers for their products, they often don’t know where the materials, fabrics, cuttings or products are sourced, and don’t know the processes that go into making them. For example, investigations have shown that, unbeknownst to brands, factories continue to use sandblasting techniques on denim, putting worker’s health at risk.
SELF CINEMA employ a ecological ozone and laser techniques with hand finishing to give their denim a vintage look. The brand's blue denim is GOTS certified organic cotton fibre with yarn from India and Turkey mixed with Ecocert recycled organic cotton from pre-consumer waste. With the material dyed and woven in Japan, utilising the master denim craftsmen that have evolved in Japan over the years, the brand have focused on every step of the denim, from the material to the vintage look, ensuring fair treatment across their supply chain. You can shop the brand here.
A sad yet important point to discuss is people, those who harvests the cotton, who dye & distresses the jeans and who’s hands does denim go through before getting to you? Unfortunately, the cotton industry is rooted in the slave trade and child and forced labour still exists to cultivate the “white gold”. The water scarcity, potential poisoning by pesticides and health concerns with distressing processes all affect people. Where cotton isn’t organic, people are harmed.
Aware of forced labour and with a true concern for people, Outland Denim offer sustainable employment and career opportunities to women who have experienced exploitation. Through establishing personal relationships with each individual, Outland Denim unlock social change for their staff, their families and their communities. The desire for social change, paved the way for their environmental mission, with the knowledge that the world’s most vulnerable people are also affected most by environmental degradation. The brand tell how every button, rivet and stitch is carefully selected by the designers at the beginning of the process, with the intention to minimise impact on the environment and reduce risk of exploitation across the supply chain. Outland denim pay their workers with fair wages; hold ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems Certification; and are Standard 100 by OEKO-TEXⓇ Certified as evidence that their products and practices have been tested against harmful substances. Their business model illustrates that the fashion industry can actually be a solution to some of the world’s most pressing global, social and environmental issues, and we don’t disagree.
The fashion & textile industries have one of the largest environmental impacts in the world and denim is indicative of this. But, you’re here, and we’re here to champion brands that are looking to change this side of the industry. One thing we can all do is be conscious of this problem, and next time we want to buy a denim jacket or a pair of jeans, buy sustainable or buy second hand.
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