Cleaning Up Denim’s Dirty Reputation

By Viola Stancati

Whether boot-cut or straight-legged, ripped or faded, jeans are everywhere. But the price to pay for the two billion pairs of jeans produced each year has been immense. Whether it’s intensive cotton farming, water pollution, excessive consumption of water, or poor working conditions, the production of denim comes at a high environmental and social cost. While denim is one of the most polluting garments in the world, new ways of producing denim are today setting an example of how the whole fashion industry might be able to operate in the future. The solution lies with one word: circularity. That means limiting the amount of new resources used in all phases of production and working with and across the whole supply chain, in a collaborative effort –such as by upcycling fabric or adopting innovative water recycling systems. 

The lifecycle of a pair of blue jeans as well as its environmental and social toll begins in the fields. Cotton, the plant most widely used for denim fabric and one of the world’s most mass-produced crops, requires huge amounts of water and hazardous chemicals to grow. Between cotton farming and fabric production, it can take up to 3,800 litres of water to create just one pair of jeans, according to a United Nations estimate. Cotton farming in general accounts for 16% of all pesticides used globally even if it occupies just 2,5% of agricultural land. 

The heavy water footprint continues inside the factories. A typical pair of blue jeans is washed at least twice in the production stage to help soften the fabric, remove dyes and provide the distressed, worn-in look many of us love. Fabric dyes used for jeans often contain hazardous chemicals such as potassium permanganate and sodium hypochlorite, both of standard use in the finishing of jeans. The residual water used to dye the cotton fabric is rarely recycled and is often just discharged into rivers. 

To know how damaging the jeans industry can be, take a look at Xintang in southern China. Xintang, a town of 1.2 million people, is the world’s jeans capital, with around 200 million pairs of jeans produced there per year (mostly for foreign brands) – or 800,000 a day. That accounts for over 11 billion litres of dirty water dumped into Xintang’s Pearl River Delta every year. That river, once considered a precious water resource for local villagers and fishermen, is today one of the world’s most polluted waterways. The pollution comes, for the most part, from the textile factories nearby.

Water contamination in places like Xintang is so bad that it is causing a phenomenon known as intersex: a genetic mutation that leads male fish to become female as a result of the estrogenic endocrine disrupting chemicals that get regularly dumped into rivers. It doesn’t have to be that way for the denim industry. What is key is to find ways to reduce the amount of pre- and post-industrial waste by limiting the resources that get extracted and eventually dumped in our landfills, impacting our world’s biodiversity. For example, avoiding blended materials – and opting instead for 100% natural fibres – means jeans can be more easily recycled and transformed into new ones, possibly endlessly. 

Source: Greenpeace

Some brands are already designing and producing jeans with circularity in mind, using upcycled or deadstock materials or selecting denim fabrics that don’t use blended fibres. L.A. based brand Nudie Jeans for example has implemented a mechanical recycling process that breaks down the jeans and turns it into new cotton yarn to be then weaved again into new denim fabric. Danish brand 1 PEOPLE uses leftover denim scraps to create new styles. It also uses natural indigo dyes in collaboration with a family-run business in Bali that works with different plant dying methods. 

Manufacturers need to find ways of adopting water-saving technologies or using different, less toxic finishing chemicals. Fabric suppliers need to source and dye differently. Some already are. Candiani, a family-run denim mill at the forefront of the sustainable denim movement, uses a substance derived from shrimp shells (known as chitosan) as a binder for the pigment used to dye denim fabric. This allows it to drastically reduce the consumption of water and energy and to limit the use of chemicals such as detergents and bleaches. Soorty, a Pakistani denim manufacturer, has been developing denim laundry systems in an environmentally friendly and socially conscious way. It includes an in-house recycling plant that recycles the water, the fabrics and fibres it uses. 

For established brands, changing the way they are doing things can be complicated. Jeans Redesign, an initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is pushing big brands and suppliers to work towards more sustainable, circular denim through a set of practical guidelines that spell out requirements on garment durability, traceability, recyclability and material health. Today, over 100 brands including GAP, Tommy Hilfiger and Reformation have adhered to that initiative. Projects like Jeans Redesign forces the entire industry and supply chain to act in unison away from isolated efforts. 

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Despite the piecemeal progress, we are still very far from a planet-positive, equitable denim industry. A real paradigm shift in the industry can occur when we decide to move away from the linear take-make-dispose model, so common in fashion, towards a more circular and restorative model that respects our planet’s limited and precious resources.

Viola Stancati

Viola Stancati is a fashion writer and entrepreneur driven by a passion for sustainable living.  She is the founder of Casa Parini, a specialty textile brand that produces 100% organic hemp cotton bed sheets in collaboration with an Italian NGO that employs migrant women. She is also the freelance fashion & sustainability editor at Harpers Bazaar Italia.