Denim is a staple in just about every wardrobe. Whether it’s a pair of pants, a jacket or jumpsuit, let’s face it denim will never be out of style. Unfortunately, denim is quite the environmentally-impactful textile. From the water used – to grow the cotton, dye the fabric, and process the denim – to the copious amount of disregarded denim and wasted textile, it is essential for companies to clean up their supply chains and for consumers to be conscious with their denim purchases.
How Denim is Made
Let’s start off by learning how denim is made. Denim is traditionally made out of cotton, a crop that uses 2.4% of the world’s cropland and 24% of its insecticides. So let’s start in the cotton fields. It takes around 1,000 gallons (10 full bathtubs) to grow the amount of cotton needed for ONE pair of jeans. From there the cotton is grown, harvested than a cotton gin separates the cotton fiber from the seeds. From there, the fiber is spun into yarn. Denim’s traditional look comes from weaving indigo-dyed cotton yarn with white undyed cotton yarn. This brings us to the next step, the dying process. Denim was originally dyed with indigo dye extracted from plants, often from the Indigofera tinctoria plant. Since the late 1800’s that signature blue dye has been created synthetically. Fifty thousand tons of indigo dye are made yearly and more than 95% goes towards denim production. An average pair of jeans can take up to half an ounce of dye. From there the dyed yarn is cut and woven using machinery to create the jean pieces we all know and love. Oftentimes, the entire woven cloth is not all utilized creating even more textile waste.
Other Things To Think About
Aside from the excessive water usage (2,000 gallons) used to make the pants and abundant textile waste there other environmental impacts to consider.
Damaging Dying Process
For one, how damaging the dyeing factories are for the planet and nearby communities. Xintang China is the denim capital of the world, producing ⅓ of all denim sold in the world. They churn out over 250 million pairs of jeans PER YEAR. Runoff from the factories here pollutes nearby rivers. The water in the East River in Xintang has turned blue and smells strange. They spill the water from dyeing straight into the East & Dong River. This raises concerns about the quality of the drinking water for communities living downriver.
Poor Working Conditions
Then you bring into the equation the workers and the effects coming in contact with so many chemicals every day has on their health. I’m not just talking about the synthetic dye used. It’s common for factories to spray the denim with potassium permanganate to make it look pre-used. Potassium permanganate can cause severe skin irritation resulting in rashes, redness or burns. It can damage your skin as well as the mucus membranes of your nose, eyes, and throat. These factories produce denim to sell to fast fashion companies, meaning there’s a reason those Zara jeans were only $20. Exploited laborers, and unethical business practices. You can learn more about that on my 5 Ways To Reduce Your Waste When Shopping For Clothes And Other Textiles blog post.
There is Hope For Denim
Okay I know this was kind of a depressing blog post, but hey the truth hurts and it’s good that you’re educating yourself on where your clothes come from. Now for the silver lining, manufacturers and consumers are getting innovative.
Here are some companies finding creative ways to change the way denim is produced and disposed of.
You can upcycle old jeans to be reused as insulation in new home construction like this Phoenix-based company, Bonded Logic.
Levis makes jeans that incorporate at least 20% post-consumer plastic recycled content. That equates to about eight 12-20oz bottles per pair. Plastic bottles and food trays are collected from municipal sites, cleaned, sorted, crushed into flakes and made into a polyester fiber. This is blended with cotton fiber, which is finally woven with traditional cotton yarn to create the denim.
Organically grown denim without the use of pesticides is starting to be a common offering amongst retailers.
Freitag has created compostable rugged, five-pocket jeans without rivets or polyester threads made in Europe using European bast fibers true hemp and linen that is 100% compostable.
MUD Jeans allow you to lease a pair of jeans for a low monthly fee and after a year lease you can swap them out for a new pair. They are also working on recycling jeans they sell to recycle them to make new jeans.
Here are some ways you can be a savvy denim shopper.
This one is easy but a lot of people have a hard time BUYING LESS! You do not need 10 pairs of jeans. Like Marie Kondo says, clothing that sparks joy should only be the things you keep in your closet. Now I don’t know about you, but only like 3 pairs of blue jeans spark joy in my closet. Next time your shopping, try to not over-consume, that is where the problem starts.
Support companies like MUD Jeans and Freitag by shopping for denim from them so you not only contribute less to denim pollution but reward those doing it the right way. Plus your jeans will now have a fun story behind them which is always a fun conversation starter.
Thrift thrift baby! There are so many cute, in-style jeans in a thrift store near you and for a fraction of the price. Before you head to your nearest HM or American Eagle, visit your local thrift store and see all the unique options perfect the way they are or some potential pieces you can totally transform. Check out how I made these adorable high waisted shorts from pants I found at a thrift store.