The Truth About Denim
Denim. Chances are it’s a staple in your wardrobe (as I type this, I’m wearing a denim shirt and black denim jeans!). From jeans to jackets, denim is a major commodity in the US and worldwide. We often lean towards denim because it’s easy, comfortable, practical, and affordable. What’s not to love?
With conscious consumption becoming a prevalent part of our lives, consumers want to know more about where and how products are made to better understand not only where their money goes, but the impact production has on the environment. Have you thought about what goes into the making of your favorite pair of jeans? Outside of knowing that they’re made of cotton I must admit that I was clueless. It wasn’t until researching the latest efforts in ethical fashion that I learned denim is not as eco-friendly as I’d hoped.
Around 1.5 pounds of cotton is needed to produce one pair of jeans. While that volume doesn’t sound alarming, what does is the fact that 1500 gallons of water are needed to grow that 1.5 pounds of cotton. Yes, you read that correctly…1500 GALLONS for a single pair of jeans. Wow. Keep in mind that over 450 million pairs of jeans are sold annually in the U.S. We’re not even counting other denim popular countries like Canada and others in Europe.
Aside from using copious amounts of water, the textile industry has been known to endanger water supplies in the making of products. Manufacturers are known for dumping waste water and harmful chemicals into nearby waterways. Unfortunately, chemicals used to create denim are some of the most destructive. Chemicals such as cadmium, mercury, and lead find their way into water sources—and these same chemicals are used to make your favorite pair of jeans. With access to clean water being a severe global matter, this presents serious consequences. Countries like China and India who produce the highest quantity of textiles are finding even greater difficulty obtaining clean drinking water in areas where the supply was already compromised.
Tehuca, Mexico, also known as the “heartland of Mexico’s denim industry”, is known for housing dozens of industrial laundries where they complete the finishing touches of denim jeans. The laundering process includes the use of bleach, dye, and detergents all of which are dumped into the areas rivers which then finds itself being used to irrigate corn fields. This dumping practice, in a country where the contamination is not being managed, has resulted in Mexican rivers literally being dyed blue. This leads to some serious questions as to the impact the textile industry is having in other developing nations.
If you’re panicking and asking yourself “what am I to do without my beloved denim?” don’t worry. Luckily the rise in ethical consumption has pushed many companies to reconsider their production methods to find better practices. Environmental awareness and the desire to do what we can to slow down negative effects is something consumers and producers alike have embraced. Denim giants like Levi’s, AG Jeans, and G-Star have all taken steps to produce lines using less water and more eco-conscious fibers in addition to partnering with organizations to bring clean water into developing nations. Let’s take a deeper look at how:
The most well known US denim brand, dressing us since 1853, Levi’s initiated their Water<Less® program which has allowed them to create new finishes using more than 20 water-saving finish techniques during production. So far they’ve saved more than 1.8 billion liters and have recycled more than 129 million liters of water. As of today, more than 40% of all Levi’s products are made with Water<Less® techniques. By 2020 their goal is for 80% of all Levi’s products to be made using these innovations.
Water isn’t the only area where they’re transforming their practices. Under the Better Cotton Initiative which trains farmers to use less water, pesticides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers when growing cotton plants, Levi’s has worked to have more than 20% of the company’s cotton qualify as better cotton. By 2020 their goal is for 100% of their cotton come from sustainable sources. Lastly, they're using the best-in-class chemistries in their supply chain to eliminate harmful chemicals and identify better alternatives.
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US based AG jeans, designed in Los Angeles, takes pride in their stance on corporate and environmental responsibility. AG jeans are made in their own integrated facilities giving them the unique ability to monitor and control their production process. These facilities utilize Ozone Technology, which cuts water consumption by 50% while minimizing the use of chemicals and energy.
AG’s textiles incorporate sustainable fibers like Tencel and Modal which are entirely natural and biodegradable. To reduce waste, AG cuts their patterns in a way that maximizes fabric yardage and keeps the amount of leftover materials at a minimum. Excess scraps are collected for recycling and are repurposed as home and car insulation.
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To boost the use of sustainable materials G-Star started the RAW Sustainable program in 2010. The products in this program are entirely made of innovative sustainable materials and consist of three lines, each with its own recognizable label:
RAW Nettle: combining organic cotton with nettle plant fibers, which require less water and chemicals, to create sustainable denim with a reduced environmental footprint.
RAW Recycled: blends post-cosumer denim with organic cotton to give a second life to the material.
RAW Organic: made of organic cotton that is cultivated without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, making it a great alternative to conventional cotton.
Seeing the positive impact from these initiatives, in 2012 G-Star changed their focus to using sustainable materials throughout their entire collection and best selling styles. RAW Sustainable is the name for all items in their collection made with sustainable materials and are recognizable by a RAW Sustainable label in store and online.
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The truth about denim is that the industry is improving. With most companies committing themselves to being more environmentally responsible, we now have more options to make better choices. Take the time to learn more about the companies you buy from. Shop smart!
Written by: Tiffany Walker