How We Can Counteract The Social And Environmental Harms Of Denim
Jeans are the ultimate wardrobe staple. At any moment, around half the world’s population is wearing them, and billions more are sold each year. Denim sales slumped during the pandemic but now they’re back and booming, with searches for jeans up 23% in 2021 and denim looks dominating both the AW and SS fashion weeks. The main ingredient of the essential ‘jeans and a nice top ’combo might seem innocent enough, but denim manufacturing is a source of significant environmental and social harm.
Let’s start with what makes denim, denim: the iconic blue colour. Although originally natural indigo was used to dye denim, cheaper petroleum-based synthetic indigo replaced it in the early 1900s and now the denim industry uses over 40,000 tonnes of it per year. And chemicals such as formaldehyde and cyanide are in the mix too, used during production to make the dye itself and prevent bacteria growth and staining.
If all those chemicals are released into local waterways after manufacturing, they can starve aquatic life of oxygen, killing the natural ecosystem – and the issue with water doesn’t end there. Levi’s found that a single pair of 501 Jeans uses as much as 3,781 litres of water in a lifecycle, and one pair of used jeans can release around 56,000 microfibres per wash.
If you love the worn look, your jeans may have been sandblasted, which is a process that can cause workers to contract respiratory issues and silicosis – a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of abrasive silica dust. We often focus on nature because the climate crisis is, for obvious reasons, at the front of our minds, but workers should always be centred too. Cotton, which denim is made from, has troubling, inescapable links to Uyghur forced labour. It is estimated that more than one million Uyghurs – the largest minority ethnic group in Xinjiang, China – have been detained in ‘re-education camps’ and as many as one in five cotton garments are linked to forced labour in the area.
So do we give up on denim? Not necessarily, but we do need to pay attention and put pressure on brands and retailers who have the power to make things better. And, thankfully, some are already putting in the work, creating a lower-impact denim industry better fit for the future. Here are five brands and innovations to have on your radar:
- Waterless jeans: In 2011, Levi’s introduced its ‘Water<Less’ jeans, which can save up to 96% of water compared to conventional production. Since then, the denim giant has made serious strides and, as of 2020, 67% of its products are Water<Less, saving 13 billion litres of water.
- Compostable stretch denim: Plastic fibres used to create stretch denim take hundreds of years to break down. Heritage Italian denim manufacturer Candiani tackled this with Coreva – the world’s first compostable stretch denim fabric. At the end of its life, the fabric can be returned to nature, acting as a fertiliser for new cotton. Brands including Hiut, Denham and Stella McCartney have embraced the fabric.
- Nettle denim: Launched by Pangaia and made by Candiani again, PANettle (denim made from nettle fibres and organic cotton) is wild grown, supports farmers in off-seasons, uses less water, and it’s traceable. Pretty impressive.
- Repairs for life: To honour the work and resources that go into each pair of jeans, Nudie Jeans, Ganni and Iron Heart offer free repairs for life. And, although they’re not free, you can also get repairs via brands including Levi’s and Uniqlo.
- Waste not, want not: Denim deserves to be loved for a lifetime, even when it’s beyond repair in its original form. That’s why ELV Denim and Revival London are taking a zero-waste approach; upcycling, patchworking and reworking denim into everything from reimagined jeans to corsets and bags.
Sophie Benson is a freelance journalist covering fashion through the lens of the environment and human rights. She’s the sustainability columnist for Dazed and writes for publications including Vogue, AnOther and i-D