The Sustainability Of Denim
From the catwalk to the countryside, from varied ranges of prices, from pants to skirts to jackets, denim is ubiquitous and as versatile as it is trendy. Traditionally made from cotton, non-stretchable, and designed to be heavy duty as workwear, jeans go way back. The word “denim” comes from a twill fabric called “Serge de Nîmes ”, first woven in Nîmes, France. But with over 2 billion pairs produced worldwide each year, not all production practices for this material are sustainable. This week, at Scarlet Destiny, we’re diving deep into a guide to this material and some of the brands that have found better ways to make it and incorporating it into today’s ethical fashion landscape.
While the original jean was made from 100% cotton, these days “stretch denim” is increasingly popular and it incorporates a percentage of elastane and stretch polyesters like spandex. This addition may bring comfort for certain styles, but it also changes the fibre composition in a way that impacts the sustainability and recyclability of the final product.
Nowadays, some more responsible brands are opting for comfort being imparted through the use of soft fibres such as TENCEL™ Lyocell and TENCEL™ Modal, which are man-made cellulosic fibres. On top of that, there has been a shift towards the use of fabrics such as organic cotton, recycled cotton, recycled polyester, man-made cellulosic fibres, recycled elastane and hemp as the main material for denim production.
The impact of a pair of jeans
The environmental impact of denim production is also another aspect to take into consideration when talking about how sustainable this material can be. First of all, 1,800 gallons of water, which means more than 8000 litres of drinking water, are used just to produce one pair of jeans. This represents a great amount of water being wasted when you consider how many pairs of jeans are produced per year.
Secondly, while natural indigo dye has its benefits it is also an expensive and labour intensive crop. Farming it to meet the current denim demands would be devastating to the environment. On the other hand, synthetic dyes aren’t much better for the environment. While the chemical properties are nearly identical as the natural dyes, synthetic indigo requires the use of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, which can be harmful to the environment and a risk to worker health and safety.
The finishing of jeans can also be one of the most dangerous segments for workers. It is often labour intensive, with many of the processes posing health hazards. For example, sandblasting, a method of creating the worn look, often causes silicosis, an incurable disease that affects approximately 2.3 million workers in the United States alone.
Yet, the biggest environmental impact in denim's unsustainability is the quantity produced each year. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide and because of the rise in casual wear, it is unfortunately still an ever growing market.
The search for sustainable denim
Many entities are working hard trying to create solutions for a more sustainable denim fabric. While none are perfect, each brand is choosing specific items on which to focus, such as factories that manufacture denim using less water, or producers that are versed in the latest and most sustainable finishing methods. Levi’s Strauss, for example, is using hemp blended with cotton to decrease the carbon footprint of its jeans and one denim manufacturer in Bangladesh, Shasha, has produced nearly 1.5 million yards of denim from post-consumer waste.
Our advice when it comes to purchasing sustainable denim, is to research the brand you’re buying from and look for at least one of these specific must-haves:
- Materials like recycled or organic cotton or hemp, or denim made from upcycled denim post-consumer denim.
- For the best chance of recyclability at the end of life, go for jeans made from 98% cellulosic fibres such as cotton, hemo, viscose, lyocell, modal or linen.
- Research into brands using laser technology as a finishing method. This technology is being used as a substitute for sandblasting and hand sanding and it is a dry method, meaning no water is wasted during this process.
- Shop sturdy second hand or pre-loved jeans to extend their life
- Opt for high-quality jeans designed for longevity in both durability and style that you will wear for years to come
It appears that denim is headed towards a more sustainable future and we’ve put together a small guide to our favourite sustainable denim brands that you can check out on our Instagram account. However, the denim industry is still rapidly growing, and to really improve overall sustainability, the enormous amount of denim produced each year must decline.
[ Info sourced on goodonyou.eco and treehugger.com
Featured image sourced on canva.com
Photo 1 by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
Photo 2 by lan deng on Unsplash
Photo 3 by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash]