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Denim with good intentions

Denim with good intentions

With its durability and style versatility, denim is a wardrobe staple. But, whilst denim looks the part, we must ask ourselves – how ethical and sustainable is the denim that we wear?

By Rose Elizabeth Dodd


Denim looks great; it’s a fact. First originating in France, denim found its feet in California in 1851 after Löb Straub (otherwise known as Levi Strauss) journeyed to San Francisco to supply work-wear to miners.  Denim’s reinforced, weaved cotton structure and resulting durability made it fit for purpose. By the 1960s, denim was very trendy in cult/subculture groups; rebels, bikers, hippies, ravers, all wore denim in various modes. Today, denim is such a versatile, timeless and long-lasting fabric, styled in so many ways, fitting with pretty much every trend, henceforth its popularity.


Now, here’s the thing, despite denim’s flexible omnipresence, the fabric comes with its trade-offs; many of which are underestimated, some even unknown to countless people.


Denim is a very resource-heavy fabric, consuming masses of energy, lots of cotton and even more water.  The water used to produce a single pair of jeans is a whopping great 10,000 litres. To put that into perspective, if a person drinks the advised 11-15 cups/2-3 litres of water per day – then a single pair of jeans uses the same amount of water a person would drink in 4000 days… 10.95 years! Furthermore, considering that over 10% of the population are water deprived, these figures are excessive.


The production of denim from cotton uses masses of toxic chemicals. Fertilisers and pesticides are sprayed on the cotton fields, many harmful to local ecosystems. After harvesting, the cotton is dyed with synthetic chemical stains. It is then fabricated into garments and chemically treated in a process called Sanforization whereby the denim is washed in heavy chemicals to prevent future shrinkage. Irresponsible manufacturing and improper waste disposal damage the surrounding environment. Greenpeace tested the outflows near a denim dyeing and finishing facility in Asia. The group found high levels of heavy metals including mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and copper, alongside toxic chemicals, leaching into the surrounding ground and water. Such waste can accumulate in food chains causing serious damage to humans, animals and the planet.


A huge part of the problem with denim is the huge demand and thus the scale of the industry. In 2019, the denim industry was valued at 90 billion dollars. This figure is predicted to rise to 105 billion dollars by 2023.  In the UK, 70 million pairs of jeans are sold per year, whilst 450 million pairs are sold in the US.  Consumerism has transformed people’s perspective; resulting in greed, mass purchasing and excessively full wardrobes.


In recent years, it has come to light that many factory workers are exploited and that to some corporations – the physical exertion that labourers go through to produce masses of garments – means little. Whilst not all brands are evil, faster fashion names are rather guilty, often turning a blind eye to the injustices occurring along the garment supply chain. For example, Uzbekistan is a major exporter of cotton, however, they relies on modern-day slave labour.


What is the future of denim, clean denim? Levi’s have strategized several practices to reduce water, energy and chemical usage whilst aiming to use ethically grown, sustainably sourced and recycled cotton by 2021. They plan to recycle, repair, and reimagine denim to increase product longevity and reduce the number of textiles ending up in landfill sites. G-STAR RAW have invented a more sustainable dying technique, hopefully, they will share this with other denim manufacturers to lessen the impact of toxic chemical waste.


Other brands are supporting cotton farmers and local communities with initiatives where wastewater from processing is cleaned and returned to local systems. Brands like ELV Denim are sourcing and reconstructing disregarded denim from vintage warehouses. Sustainable and ethical denim is certainly on the up, but given the scale of the denim industry, it may take a while. Below are a couple of tips for those who love denim, but also love the planet and its people.

Tips for denim lovers with good intentions:

Buy high-quality denim so it lasts a long time.
  1. Window shop before purchasing to ensure that you’re buying a garment you like. Its better to have fewer garments you really like, than lots that aren’t perfect.
  2. Reuse, reconstruct, and retailer. Denim lasts so why not buy vintage and slow the demand for producing more. Also, patchwork denim looks awesome.
  3. Shop with designers who have eco-initiatives.