PART 1 – DENIM’S SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES
There are an estimated 6 billion pairs of jeans made every year! An infinite number of styles, colors, washes, finishes and trends that keep changing every season. Shades ranging from classic blue, to light blue and white, to dark, grey, black and various seasonal colors. From a clean basic to distressed, ripped, waxed, stretch, adorned with embroideries or Swarovski crystals. From straight cut, to boot cut, flared, cropped, high-rise, low-rise, boyfriend, skinny! Then of course there is the iconic jean jacket and shirt, denim shorts that we absolutely must have in the summer, dresses, skirts, overalls etc. As a professional fashion buyer I always found it very difficult to make a seasonal selection from denim brands with so many options available. The same happens to me when I go shopping for a new pair of jeans, I simply get overwhelmed with the choices and I often ask myself – how many jeans do I really need?
I know you love your jeans as much as I do, and I hate to break it to you, but unfortunately, denim production is one of the most destructive in the fashion industry. It uses incredibly large amounts of water, energy and hazardous chemicals. Over 50% of denim is produced in Asia (most of it in China’s Xintang province – known as capital of denim), India, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where environmental and workers health regulations are not always well enforced.
Here are the main denim sustainability issues that will make you think twice before buying your next pair of jeans:
It is estimated that an average pair of jeans consumes about 10,000 litters (2,600 gallons) of water over its lifetime! It’s an equivalent of about 30 bathtubs! Denim fabric is almost entirely made of cotton which requires a large amount of water to grow and to produce (you can read more about cotton production in “Keep calm and save your cotton t-shirt” post). On top of that denim fabric, unlike others, requires more water for multiple finishing processes like synthetic indigo dyeing, stone-washing, sandblasting, acid washing etc. to give it that signature denim color, softness and that “worn” look. In the 1980’s when stonewashing became popular in the industry, some companies had machines running up to 7 hours while jeans were abraded by pumice stones to achieve a distressed look. And lastly, just like in the case of a t-shirt, the amount of water we use at home to wash our jeans is staggering.
USE OF HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS
Denim production uses massive amounts of chemicals and many are hazardous. The original blue jeans were colored with natural indigo, a blue dye derived from plants like Indigofera tinctura. But today it is done with synthetic indigo, which is not soluble (not able to dissolve in water). To make synthetic indigo soluble so it can attach to fabric, denim manufacturers must mix it with harsh chemicals. At every step of the denim production and finishing processes described above, tons of chemicals are used, like chlorine, caustic soda, silica and more (click here for an illustratoin of chemicals used in denim). Of of the most harmful denim finishing processes is known in the industry as “PP spray” (potassium permanganate). It is rather an outdated but still used method to fade color and create visual effects on jeans. It is very harmful when in direct contact with skin and causes irritations and burning, in contact with eyes it may cause permanent loss of vision. Unfortunately, wastewater from denim factories in some cases does not go through proper recycling processes and is simply dumped into the local rivers contaminating fresh water sources for the communities around it and destroying the wildlife within it.
According to The World Bank about 20% of industrial water pollution comes from overall textile dying and treatment.
Manufacturing one pair of jeans produces an estimated 20kg (44 lb) of CO2, it is an equivalent of driving a car for about 80 km (50 miles). That includes growing the cotton, all the processes described above to make denim fabric look the way we like it, to make the jeans, transport them around the world and then wash and tumble-dry many times over its life cycle.
You would think that jeans being made from a natural fiber like cotton, very durable (originally designed to withhold long wear and tear by miners back in 19th century!) is a perfect candidate for recycling. But the reality is that all the hardware on your jeans like rivets, metal buttons and zippers, leather patches, the signature orange stitching often using synthetic tread, blending in synthetic fibers like Spandex or Lycra for stretch – all that makes recycling of jeans particularly difficult. Recycling companies are often left with large amounts of fabric swatches containing these additional materials being cut off as they are hard to remove and landfilled or incinerated instead of recycled.
If you haven’t yet watched the award winning (13 awards globally!) documentary about denim industry “River Blue” please do that as soon as finish reading this blog :-)!
It might leave you heartbroken, disappointed and discouraged in the beginning, but you will also learn about many great initiatives and technologies happening since at least a decade now towards a more sustainable denim production. According to industry experts, about 35% of denim is now made in a more sustainable way! In the next post I highlight some of the most important developments as well as tips on how you as a consumer can help drive this change.