Where would we be without our faithful denim jeans? They are the item that is the hardest to shop for but when we find The One, they improve our mood and make any outfit look cool. Yves Saint Laurent said: “I wish I had invented blue jeans: They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity.” For something invented for 12th Century sailors, jeans have left a major impact although the “simplicity” part is tricky… Jeans may have a straight-forward look but the processes that go into making them are anything but basic and this is what’s killing the planet.
For starters, 2billion pairs of jeans are made every year. They use 2million tonnes of chemicals in the process plus 2,630 litres of water – per individual pair of jeans – and approximately 1.4million tonnes of raw cotton. You already know that cotton is a thirsty, chemical-reliant crop… and jeans are made out of cotton… Add on chemical-laden synthetic dyes, a huge washing and rinsing (water-wasting) cycle and finishing process using more chemicals (acid-wash), stones (pumice stones to be mined and quarried for stone-washing) and finishing (like sanding to create holes and faded patches) which is often done by hand by workers without masks in factories that want to make as many pairs as cheaply as possible, exploiting workers health and rights in the process.
Oh and did you know about the cyanide?
You’re careful about shopping for clean skincare – what goes on your skin goes into your skin, right? – but what about the jeans that rub up against your legs? 99.9% of all denim is dyed with synthetic indigo which includes, yep, cyanide, formaldehyde and sometimes aniline – all of which are potentially harmful to human health (with aniline “very toxic” to aquatic life, according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.) There’s a textile industry “joke” that if you want to know what colours are trending next season, just look at the colour of the rivers in China. Reports have shown that the dye residue often ends up in waterways (turning the rivers blue) or on the skin (and in the lungs) of factory workers. And embedded in the denim you could be wearing right now.
Washing your jeans to simply rinse out the chemicals is not the answer. There is a rising tide of members of the No Wash Club, who pledge not to wash their jeans for six months, as championed by Hiut denim (as worn by Meghan Markle). Freezing and airing your denim is allowed with the overall aim to conserve water – and stop chemical run off into rivers – and to make your jeans last longer, meaning you need to buy fewer pairs.
What else can we do to stop the mega impact of denim on the planet? At a tour of the Italian denim mill Candiani, who supply denim to designer brands, I discovered some optimistic innovations that mean not shopping isn’t the only solution. PHEW. Finding jeans dyed with natural indigo is a cleaner option, as are jeans dyed with pre-reduced liquid indigo. Only 15% of denim mills worldwide use liquid indigo (instead of powder) as it’s more expensive but it’s far more sustainable. Most synthetic denim also needs PVA glue to fix the dye in place – PVA is a micro plastic… And we know where all micro plastics end up, don’t we? Another alternative dye is Kikotex, an innovation made from recycling shrimp shells from the food industry which uses 30% less energy, 50% less water and 70% less chemicals than conventional dying. There is a vegan version, too.
Back to the raw materials and the baddie of textiles, cotton. What can you do when you need (want) to buy new jeans? Look for organic cotton or BCI standard for a start. Find cotton sourced from rain-fed crops – rather than irrigated. Linen doesn’t need irrigating and hemp has inbuilt resistance, growing without herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. Tencel is a natural fibre made from wood pulp while Refibra contains recycled fibres. Any of these are be far less impactful than conventionally grown cotton. Weaving the denim and washing it make a huge environmental impact so choose unwashed denim. The less distressed your jeans are, the less distress they’ll have on the planet.
And never, ever just chuck your jeans when you’re done. The UK is on track to send 235million garments every year to landfill so shopping sustainably means investigating second-hand options too.