Feelin’ Blue? The Truth About Denim

Jeans. Are you wearing them now? There’s a big chance you are. They’re effortlessly chic, suit everyone, and are easily dressed up or down for almost any occasion. Whether distressed or acid washed, they provide a cool and fashionable outfit option which goes with almost anything.

Denim jeans, originally used as work wear in the 19th century, have become the pinnacle of fashion, so much so that we produce 6 billion pairs of them each year. However, as it often is with fashion, our obsession with jeans has come with devastating side effects on the environment and the people making them.

Image by Bruno Nascimento

100% of jeans are made from cotton, the most commonly used fibre of the fashion industry, and one that often comes with a suggested promise of somehow being better for the environment due to being natural. However, despite being a natural fibre, conventional cotton has been changed and genetically modified beyond recognition, and is one of the dirtiest and thirstiest crops we grow today. An astounding 60 billion pounds of cotton are grown each year, with 10,000 litres of water going into growing a single kilo; to process all this cotton requires even more. Pesticides and herbicides are widely used in growing it, depleting the quality of the soil and proving extremely toxic to the natural environment and the people harvesting it.

The use of conventional cotton is not the only issue that makes jeans a sustainability and ethics fashion disaster. Ever wonder where that blue colour comes from? It used to come from natural Indigo; a flowering plant of different varieties originating from East Asia, Japan, and South America. However, as it often is, once demand grew manufacturers moved away from using natural Indigo and looked for alternative cheaper options. Chemical dyes took over the industry and began polluting rivers and towns such as Xintang; the denim capital of the world.

It is horrifying to think that 99.9% of all denim is dyed with synthetic indigo, which includes cyanide, formaldehyde, and aniline, as well as heavy metals such as lead and copper. These hazardous toxins end up in the lungs of textile workers, the waterways, and yes, a lot of it remains embedded in the jeans that we pull onto our bodies almost daily (and no, those chemicals don’t come out in the wash).

I’m personally a huge fan of distressed jeans, however, it turns out that this comes with its own set of problems. In order to achieve that worn look, jeans are often machine washed with pumice stones, requiring huge amounts of energy and water. Further chemicals are also often needed to achieve the acid-washed effect. Additional distressing, such as torn edges and holes, is done by hand with sand paper. More often than not garment workers are exposed to the microfibres that fly off into the air from sanding; without any ventilation or face masks this proves to be detrimental to their health, as well as the health of their local areas which get polluted with denim waste.

Image by Uwe Jelting

It seems that this simple and popular garment is nothing but problems, and it is. However, there is hope. While reading Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes by Dana Thomas (great read, highly recommend), it came to my attention that solutions exist, and they’re not as out of reach as we think they might be. This lead me to research further into innovations regarding cotton growing, natural dyeing, and even the high-tech laser technology being used to safely and efficiently finish jeans.

Firstly, the issue of cotton. Sally Fox, a cotton pioneer if you will, is a woman on a mission to bring back sustainable cotton growing. She grows organic and biodynamic cotton on her farm in Capay Valley in North Carolina, and in the 1990s (pre-globalisation of the fashion industry) ran a $10 million business supplying her sustainable cotton to denim giants such as Levi’s and Espirit. The cotton Fox grows is from a time of pre-Europeans in America, and is naturally coloured (greens, browns, yellows), and pest and mould resistant; it also uses around 88% less water. This way of growing cotton, if widely adopted by the fashion industry, could provide a viable solution to lowering the carbon footprint and the negative effects on the environment, all while being financially profitable (read more about Sally Fox and her sustainable cotton here). Sally Fox has been an example of how you can run a sustainable cotton farm, while being able to make millions in profits a year doing the right thing… I only wonder whether others are willing to follow in her footsteps?

Similarly to Sally Fox, Sarah Bellows from Stony Creek Colours has shown that going back to the roots when it comes to dyeing with natural Indigo is not only necessary, but profitable. She grows, harvests, and converts three species of Indigo into dye before distributing to various manufacturers. Indigo plants are naturally pest resistant due to their bitter taste, and unlike most conventionally farmed crops do not deplete the quality of soil; some varieties of Indigo actually infuse the soil with vital nitrogen. She aims to show that sustainability can be done on a larger scale, and that natural dye processes are not only better for the environment, but are actually not much pricier than chemical dyeing (if you include the cost of fracking and oil spills for the benzene required to make chemical dyes).

Lastly, the issue of denim finishing. In the olden days you had to wear your jeans for months, if not years, to achieve the distressed look. These days however, we don’t want to go through the hard work of wearing in a pair of jeans through manual labour. Thankfully technologies such as Jeanologia (founded in 1994 by Jose Vidal and Enrique Silla) exist, using laser technology to efficiently show signs of wear and distress on denim, as well as utilising microbubble technology to achieve the slightly faded look of well-worn jeans. This ground-breaking technology guarantees zero contamination, reduced use of water and energy, and is much more efficient than sanding holes in denim by hand (read more about Jeanologia’s technology here).

Image by Marianne Krohn

I also deeply believe it’s important to bring the responsibility back to us, the consumer. We possess a lot of power when it comes to voting with our money and choosing not to support certain companies due to their lack of consideration for the environment and garment workers in their supply-chain. Luckily, amazing denim companies exist, such as Nudie Jeans, MUD Jeans, Hiut Denim (as worn by Meghan Markle) and Blue Delta Jean Co. Their circular design (meaning that once the jeans come to the end of their life cycle they can be used again to make something new and avoid becoming textile waste), sustainable materials, and extreme high quality provide a great alternative to the cheaply made, toxic denim sold by fashion retailers.

I can’t wait to get my hands on a pair of Nudie Jeans, but I know ethical and sustainable choices tend to come with a slightly higher price point, and rightfully so. Fast-fashion has given us unrealistic expectations for how cheaply clothing can be made through the likes of slave labour. However, I understand that these days spending upward of £100 on jeans might not be realistic for everyone, myself included.

One way of making the jeans you already own last longer, reducing the need to spend money and buy new, is to stop washing them! It sounds very counterintuitive, however denim experts recommend not washing your jeans, as washing machines really beat up the fabric, reducing the garment lifecycle with each wash. Instead you can air them if they show no visible signs of dirt, and use a wet toothbrush and some gentle washing detergent on any spills. If you really must wash them and can’t do without the washing machine, wash your jeans (or any clothing for that matter) on a gentle cycle in low temperatures.

If you’re really desperate for a new pair of jeans, check out your local charity shops. They’re often filled with rails of denim, and guarantee uniqueness and (from personal experience) often better quality. That way you’re helping to keep clothing in circulation for a prolonged period of time, reducing the amount ending up in landfill, and they’re often cheaper than buying new.

Our love for denim’s effortless look and unmatched ease has become increasingly problematic over the past few decades with the rise of globalisation and offshoring by fashion companies. Luckily, as we grow more aware of the unethical and unsustainable practices, we can see seismic shifts rocking the fashion industry, with wonderful pioneers such as Sally Fox, Sarah Bellos, and Jeanologia at the forefront of positive change.

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