From the catwalk to the countryside, from cheap to there goes my budget, from pants to skirts to jackets, denim is as versatile as it is hardy. But with over 2 billion pairs of jeans produced worldwide each year, just how ethical is denim? We’ve traced its journey from the humble cotton seed to your favorite pair of high-waisted shorts to find out.
“Denim is one of the world’s oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young” – American Fabrics (1969)
A study by Levi Strauss & Co found that producing one pair of Levi jeans requires a staggering 999 gallons of water. With 10% of the world’s population deprived access to clean water, these statistics put an alarming perspective on our latest purchases.
Unfortunately, it tends to be the driest countries that shoulder the burden of creating the water-intensive goods we crave. Pakistan, for example, has a large cotton industry but is currently in the midst of a severe water crisis.
But don’t be too disheartened by this data. The fact that a big brand like Levi’s is leading the way, not only by acknowledging the problem but by taking action to lessen their water consumption is promising.
Unfortunately, water consumption isn’t the only ethical concern with denim. While cotton takes up 2.4% agricultural land, it accounts for more than 11% of global pesticide use. Pesticides are highly toxic and create a hazardous working environment for cotton farmers. Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalization each year. Furthermore, they pollute nearby soil and water systems, threatening food supplies and creating health risks.
In addition to the pesticides used in cotton production, harmful chemicals are also used extensively in denim’s dyeing process. Azo dyes, for example, can sometimes release carcinogenic amines. Such chemicals can be harmful to the environment and a risk to worker health and safety. Look for brands using natural dyes and organic cotton to avoid funding these toxic processes.
Organic Cotton Pipe Led Blue Granum by Nudie Jeans | Price: $249 AUD (approx. $191 USD) | Ships Internationally
Ever wondered how your favorite pair of ‘distressed’ jeans got to look so weathered? It’s not because they were hung out months and exposed to the elements before they hit the shelves. The look is achieved through a controversial technique called ‘sandblasting’. As the name suggests, jeans are literally blasted with sand to soften the fabric and wear them down. The process poses significant health risks to workers as fine dust particles can lodge themselves in the lungs. But there are other ways to create the distressed look such as stone-washing, sandpaper, brushing or lasers. While more costly than sandblasting, these methods achieve similar results.
A significant problem is that many companies don’t have as much control over or knowledge of their supply chain as they should. In March 2015, for example, an undercover Al Jazeera investigation discovered Chinese workers sandblasting jeans for popular labels including Hollister and American Eagle, apparently unbeknown to the brands.
From its roots in the slave trade to current issues with child and forced labor in Uzbekistan and India, exploitation is woven into the history of cotton production. As we’ve seen above, many steps in the denim manufacturing process pose significant risks to workers safety. But there are also issues in countries such as West and Central Africa and Brazil, where farmers are unable to compete with the cost of US-subsidized cotton.
So, is denim sustainable? As we’ve seen, denim production can have serious consequences for both the planet and for people. However, this is not the way it has to be. There are denim brands, both big and small, who are committed to people and planet.
Reduce the footprint of your denim purchases by looking for jeans made from certified organic cotton. Most brands will proudly promote this on their websites and tags.