Whether fashion conscious or just practical, most of us owns at least one pair of jeans. The average American wears jeans four days a week, and even in the UK, not known for it’s cowboy culture, we each own an average of seven pairs.
Non-organic cotton production uses huge amounts of water, polluting pesticides, insecticides and other agrochemicals, giving it a massive environmental footprint. To grow and manufacture just one pair produces around 915lbs of CO2. Cotton accounts for 25 percent of the world’s agrochemical use, and the more than 4 billion new denim garments a year make up 10% of that. There’s no question that our jeans habit is also taking up land and resources which could otherwise produce food for a burgeoning world population.
Most denim is dyed with in the classic indigo hue, which in its natural, tropical plant-derived form dates back to 2500 BC. But following the advent of jeans as workwear in the late 1800s, this plant extract would be replaced by synthetic indigo. Jeans first became a fashion choice in the 1950s, and today’s denim industry uses about 40,000 tons of synthetic indigo annually. Not only is it a petroleum-based, its manufacture uses a toxic chemical that severely corrodes waste drainage piping and harms aquatic life.
The popular ‘distressed’ look has it’s own issues. The demand for instant, broken-in jeans in the latest fashionable shape damages sustainability at both ends of the garment’s life. Artificial wear has been traditionally created using machine sandblasting, which generates dust known to cause potentially fatal lung disease in garment workers. Since 2011, a cheaper, more efficient, greener ‘surface activation’ method has been available, which creates a similar effect during the final wash-down process, allows shorter wash-downs and uses less chemicals. It also does less real damage to the fabric, meaning the worn look doesn’t have to mean a shorter life for the garment. Yet despite alternatives, and a ban, Al Jazeera recently discovered sandblasting still in use in Chinese factories manufacturing for the US market.
One pair of jeans is estimated to last around four years, after which the product of all this land use, consumption, pollution and human misery is likely to end up adding to landfill.
The availability of cheap ‘fast fashion’ jeans undoubtedly leads to over consumption, and seems a million miles from Levi’s original concept of hardwearing workwear. Choosing organic can make a huge difference in terms of water consumption and chemical pollution. Recycling seems a natural response to our appetite for new styles. Many companies, including Levi’s, are already mixing recycled cotton in with stronger new cotton for their denims, as well as producing lines with some fibres made from recycled PET bottles. Several projects are working toward closing the loop so that no new cotton at all is required.
If you’re boggled by all the issues, you could do worse than check out the Nudie site, at www.nudiejeans.com. This Swedish company with international outlets has all the angles covered. Any new cotton they use is ethically sourced, GOTS [Global Organic Textile Standard] certified organic and spun, dyed and finished using ecologically sound, ethical processes.
Perhaps even more importantly, they work hard to promote the more traditional denim lifecycle, encouraging wearers to break in their own ‘dry’ (ie, not prewashed) jeans over six months and share the genuine distressed effects and the stories behind their rips online.
They hope to encourage us all to love and live with our jeans for as long as possible, including repairing rather than replacing them – a strategy backed up by their free Nudies repair service, in the form of a network of workshops and free repair kits you can order online. When your jeans have finally had it, they’ll find a way to recycle them, either into more new jeans, or as other items like new rugs and furniture. If you ever need to move on from a serviceable pair of jeans, they accommodate that too, offering a ‘trade-in’ discount on a new pair, and selling your used jeans on in their stores.
Even if you don’t decide to join their burgeoning international hipster community, a look at their site is guaranteed to get you thinking about denim sustainability.