Feature Stories

Ana Toepel, March 2018

Denim is Dirty, but Sustainability Leaders Make Strides to Clean It Up

Jeans are undeniably a favorite fashion item. Who doesn’t love a good-looking pair of jeans? But they might not seem so stylish when we consider all their environmental impacts. Harmful chemicals, toxic waste, and excessive water use are some of the harsh realities that exist in the making of a typical pair of jeans.

As reported recently in a Forbes article, genetically modified cotton, toxic indigo dyes, and nearly 7,000 liters of water are what’s commonly used to make a pair of jeans—and the waste water containing the toxic dyes is released into the world’s waterways. An EcoWatch report entitled How Fast Fashion is Killing Rivers Worldwide shares the example of China, where most of the world’s jeans are produced, and its infamous blue rivers “devastated by a toxic brew of chemical waste from the denim industry.” It also notes that chemicals used to dye and distress jeans have caused major health issues for workers and communities, in addition to killing rivers, and that these problems aren’t limited to China, but exist in India, Bangladesh, and other places where denim is produced.

An article in the international science journal Nature explains why denim dyes are so harmful and polluting, describing the process in which a petro-chemically derived, synthetic form of the blue dye, indigo, is fixed using a potent bleaching agent so it’s able to penetrate cloth fibers. It also reveals how widespread the use of this process is, with 50,000 tons of synthetic indigo being created and four billion denim garments being produced each year.

In terms of the excessive use of water associated with denim jeans, it appears that the production process is not the only culprit. Consumer behavior contributes to the problem as well. When Levi Strauss & Co. conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) on a pair of their 501 jeans, consumer care habits were the factor having the second highest impact on water consumption, accounting for 23% of the water used in their life cycle. When people wash jeans after wearing them, they make the item’s water footprint a lot bigger.

Sustainability Stars Offer Solutions to the Denim Industry

Since the scale of denim production is so large and consumers purchase over a billion pairs of denim jeans each year, it’s clear that efforts to make the process of producing jeans more sustainable are much needed and will have major benefits for the environment and affected communities. Fortunately, several denim industry leaders and organizations are stepping up these sustainability efforts in innovative ways.

G-Star RAW, a Dutch denim label, has been a leader in embedding sustainability into their business, with organic and recycled denim lines, yarn made from plastic waste from the ocean, and strict anti-animal cruelty standards. The Forbes article cited above notes that G-Star aims to use only sustainable fabrics and have zero hazardous discharge by 2020. And they are on their way with their recent launch of “the most sustainable denim ever,” which begins with organic cotton and employs “sustainable washing techniques and the cleanest indigo dyes in the business” that will “significantly reduce, if not eliminate in some aspects,” the environmental impacts of producing jeans. Specifically, the new indigo technology uses 70% less chemicals, and the washing process uses 98% recycled and re-used water, curbing both water use and wastewater discharge.

This innovation has earned G-Star Gold level certification (the second highest possible) from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and they are the only denim brand that has achieved this to date. Cradle to Cradle is a design approach that takes into account the entire life cycle of a product and eliminates the concept of waste by selecting materials that can be reused or recovered. The institute grew out of this approach, developing the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program, which gives designers and manufacturers criteria for making and continuously improving sustainable products. Their product standard is holistic and comprehensive, in that it considers a product’s materials; how its materials can be safely reused, recycled, or composted at the product’s end of life; renewable energy for manufacturing; water stewardship; and social fairness.

Along with G-Star jeans, a group of fashion industry leaders is utilizing the Cradle to Cradle Product Standard to build a movement called Fashion Positive that aims to “make fashion the world’s cleanest industry.” The Fashion Positive movement has the potential to transform the denim industry, as it has a growing membership that is re-inventing the materials that go into the products—fibers, dyes, fasteners, zippers—to make them safe, water- and energy-efficient, and less harmful to the earth. These materials are all assessed and certified at the Cradle to Cradle Gold level and are “open-access,” to be shared with companies so they can more readily create cleaner products. This year they have a call out to suppliers and manufacturers to submit indigo dyes for certification and inclusion in their materials collection. Fashion Positive is aligned with organizations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Fashion for Good, increasing their power to affect change.

A mainstay of the denim industry, Levi Strauss & Co., is also leading industry efforts to make a cleaner, more sustainable pair of jeans, offering sustainability solutions focused on reducing water use in the production and use of their products. After conducting the industry’s first comprehensive LCA, the company discovered that a pair of its 501 jeans uses 3,781 liters of water in its full lifecycle—more than half of that for growing cotton. Since then, Levi Strauss & Co. has set some ambitious goals to meet by 2020, including to: use 100% sustainable cotton, make 80% of its products with Water
These efforts to decrease its water footprint are one of the reasons Fast Company suggests that Levi Strauss & Co. is radically redefining sustainability. It seems the company is also redefining what a clean pair of jeans is; a recent post on its blog, Unzipped, shares, “We encourage you to wash less, if ever.” It explains how CEO Chip Bergh received global attention for proclaiming that he doesn’t wash his jeans unless absolutely necessary, spurring a debate on social media over the pro’s and con’s of washing. As reported in another blog post, washing less can have a big impact; if American consumers wear jeans 10 times before washing, they can reduce their water and climate change impact by 77 percent.

What You Can Do to ‘Clean Up’ Your Jeans

  • If you buy new jeans, choose sustainably-minded brands like G-Star or Levi’s. Check Fashion Positive’s list of members for additional options.
  • Consider buying gently used jeans instead of new ones. Keep the denim production numbers from rising by purchasing a pair already out there at one of San Francisco’s many consignment stores.
  • Join Levi Strauss & Co.’s CEO Chip Bergh to only wash jeans if necessary, saving precious water resources and extending the life of your jeans. Make “To wash or not to wash?” a daily question in your home.
  • Recycle your unwanted jeans and other clothing and textiles. If you are a San Francisco resident, you can do this with Recology, San Francisco’s waste reduction champion. Find out how here.
  • Learn more and share with others about the impacts of the denim industry. Consider hosting a film night with your community to watch RiverBlue, a comprehensive documentary on the topic.