I can hardly think of a more iconic piece in the fashion world than a pair of blue jeans. We all know them, own some – or several – and even wear them every day, yet, only a few of us know their somehow obscure origins. Are your jeans sustainable? In this article, I will outline some reasons why they might not, but also offer hope by explaining some of the innovations that have been taking place in recent years.
Initially created in France, denim fabric and garments made from it began to be mass-produced by Levi Strauss & Co. in the 1870s in San Francisco.
The original intention of denim fabric was to serve the needs of the working class, as it’s a very durable fabric that can withstand the wear and tear of years of intensive usage. That’s the reason why, since the beginning, denim represented the workers, their jobs, and their social standing; over time, it became the utilitarian symbol of hard work and daily struggle.
But it didn’t remain in the worker’s social circle, and later on, denim started to gain popularity among artists, poets, and rebels in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in the 1970s, it was adopted by the hippie movement, bringing in personalization with the addition of paint, embroidery, and symbols.
Usually, the journey of a fashion trend starts at the elite of some fashion house catwalk, and then it finds its way to the lower social classes. With denim, the opposite happened: it has managed to move from niche to mainstream.
Today, everyone wears jeans, from celebrities to ordinary people, from kids to adults.
Jeans have managed to cross all cultural barriers, to go from workwear to becoming ubiquitous.
jeans have become, unquestionably, the unanimous trouser of choice, humanity’s uniform, a symbol of social and political protest, unconventionality and individualism.Orsola de castro – loved clothes last
But as with anything that everybody loves, mass production practices come into place, and suddenly, your blue jeans don’t look that blue.
Why is denim not sustainable?
First and foremost, denim is traditionally made of cotton, and regular cotton agriculture is not sustainable. Growing cotton has a huge negative impact on water: Only 30 percent of the cotton produced is watered from rain; the rest relies on irrigation. The Aral Sea in Central Asia illustrates such impact; it has dried through decades of diverting water to irrigate, mainly cotton farms.
In addition to getting the yarns from cotton, a few other steps need to happen to obtain a lovely denim fabric. One of those steps is dyeing, one of the most polluting parts of denim processing. The iconic indigo blue dye is usually made with toxic chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, and sodamide; 100 kilograms of petroleum, 1000 liters of water, and 10 kg of other substances are needed to produce 1 kg of dye.
Traditionally, the dyeing process consists of dipping the yarn into several tanks filled with indigo dye and water – lots of water. The textile requires multiple exposures (between 6 to 15) to the dye to fully absorb the indigo molecules. Each pair of completed jeans uses about 11,000 liters of water during production.
Then, any remaining chemicals introduced during the yarn preparation and excess indigo need to be removed. The result is an insane amount of blue water contaminated with sulfites and aniline. The latter is hazardous and has started to appear on the restricted substances list of some clothing brands.
All of the above describes the process of creating denim fabric. Then, it comes the time to build the garments and give them a finish, so they end up with the desired tone of blue and the worn-out, vintage look that we love. The finishing process involves, essentially, bleaching and distressing the garments.
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During the bleaching process, the yarn is selectively discolored to achieve the desired color hue. It will be no surprise by now that this process involves water and chemicals, normally sodium hypochlorite or potassium permanganate.
To give your jeans that distinctive distressed look, a set of abrasive and fraying processes are typically done to them. These include causing damage to the fabric by chemical or physical means. One of those methods, which has been generally banned by now, was called sandblasting, and it’s know to have caused deadly illness silicosis to several denim manufacturing workers.
Each of the steps involved in creating a nice pair of jeans damages the environment and the people, in a way or another. But several companies are committed to making the process better and contributing to producing the perfect pair of sustainable blue jeans one day.
In the section below, you will see several areas of improvement, some of them already applied to the market and available for consumers.
Innovation in denim
TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ technology
This technology by the company LENZING combines the usage of a sustainable lyocell fabric, TENCEL™, with their recycling technology REFIBRA™, creating the most environmentally-friendly combination, which has become broadly requested among brands for sustainable denim garments.
In short, REFIBRA™ technology involves upcycling cotton scraps to create a cotton pulp mixed with wood pulp to create a new raw material to produce an enhanced TENCEL™ lyocell fabric.
If you want to know more about lyocell fibers, check out this article, where I explain all you need to know.
COREVA™ stretch technology
Jeans elasticity is generally achieved by a blend with elastane, which is a synthetic and petrochemical-based material. The fact that elastane can take several hundred years to degrade in landfills poses a problem for circularity.
COREVA™ an innovative, custom-engineered natural rubber developed and patented by Candiani Denim in 2019, made from organic cotton wrapped around a natural rubber core. The result is a yarn that is entirely plastic-free and biodegradable.
Hemp denim is an excellent alternative to traditional denim made of cotton because it offers a few essential advantages in terms of sustainability:
- Growing hemp doesn’t require pesticides, like cotton
- Hemp grows faster (3-4 months) compared to cotton (8-9 months)
- Hemp crops are less thirsty, consuming 70% less water than cotton
- The fiber-per-acre ratio is optimized
Additionally, hemp has increased wicking properties and better temperature management than cotton, making it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. It also blends well with other fibers to enhance their strength and durability.
But making denim from hemp also poses some challenges that make it difficult for manufacturers, and therefore brands, to scale their production. First, hemp cannot be grown everywhere globally, given its relationship with Cannabis; thus, importing the fabric adds to the price tag of the final product. Additionally, processing hemp into denim requires extra steps compared to cotton, which also adds to the final cost.
Despite the challenges, big brands such as Levi’s see the benefit in innovating denim by blending cotton with hemp. The label has recently presented a full sustainable clothing line made from cottonized hemp. According to their website, “The introduction of cottonized hemp is huge. Not just for this collection but the entire industry.”
If you would like to learn more about hemp as a textile, check out my article about plant-based sustainable fabrics.
Finishing process innovation
Laser technology offers a sustainable solution to create a distressed look in jeans and other denim garments. No water, stones, or sand is involved in the process.
Given that a computer controls laser technology, the precision is higher than with handmade finishing; this means the rejection of garments by the brands is virtually 0% because the pieces meet the requirements set by them, which translates to significantly less waste.
Furthermore, laser technology allows for creating more interesting patterns in the textile, such as dots, lines, and even text, which is a great way to include personalization into the garments.
One of the companies pioneering the usage of laser technologies is – well, the creators on the blue jeans – Levi’s. They have collaborated with Spanish denim laser specialists Jeanologia to digitalize the process of finishing.
As Levi’s states on their website, “We’re constantly reinventing the art of self-expression. Our laser-powered personalization technology lets you customize denim with one-of-a-kind details, from rips to fades, patterns to patches.”
Laser technology is an excellent advancement towards sustainability. However, for small and medium-sized businesses, the initial investment in technology might still be very high.
A better bleaching process has come into the picture in recent years: ozone bleaching, which essentially decreases rinsing cycles, water, and energy consumption.
Ozone is effective when oxidizing organic compounds in water, and it can rapidly decolorize indigo in an aqueous acidic solution. Therefore, ozone does not typically eliminate water usage in the process, but it substantially reduces it.
What’s more, some companies have developed a more advanced ozone technology that is water-less. For example, the company Jenealogia has developed such technology, as it can be read on their website:
“The x-arc generator takes air from the atmosphere and transforms it into ozone, liberating the particles inside the tumbler to produce results such as the elimination of indigo dye excess or the reproduction of the bleaching effect to give garments the real look of outdoor usage. All of this is accomplished in a zero discharge process without water or chemicals and with a considerable reduction in the steps required to produce denim.”
The usage of ozone is also a significant contribution to the field. As the innovations become more mature, we will see more ways to finish our beloved jeans using waterless solutions.
Another way to tackle the bleaching problem is by using biodegradable substances instead of harmful ones. The CHT Group is doing precisely that. They have developed organIQ BLEACH, the first patented purely organic bleaching agent for denim materials. The result is that the water used for the bleaching process is not contaminated with toxic chemicals, and it’s free of heavy metals.
Innovative processes such as foam-dyeing have recently come into the picture to alleviate the massive amounts of water contamination. In essence, the foam-dyeing method consists of passing the yarn through three chambers where the indigo dye is sprayed. The chambers are filled with nitrogen, which helps the thread absorb the dye more efficiently than traditional methods; this saves water and energy.
The company leading this innovation is Wrangler, along with Texas Tech University. They called the novel process “Indigood,” which now helps save 100% of water contaminated from dyeing.
The first textile manufacturing company to host the new method was Tejidos Royo in Valencia, Spain. The company has continued to innovate in the area, along with Gaston systems and Indigo Mill Designs, to create a process called Dry Indigo, which yields 100% less water for dyeing, 89% fewer chemicals, 65% reduce energy usage, and zero water discharge.
The company Karl Mayer has developed a similar technology called GREENDYE. The technology also utilizes the power of nitrogen to reduce the number of dye vats, drastically reducing water pollution.
Greener indigo blue
The company Huue has been successfully developing a “greener indigo blue,” as they call it. According to the company’s website, “Biosynthetic indigo has five times less toxicity potential compared to chemical sources, and our dye is just as effective and easy for jeans makers to implement.”
How can you contribute to denim sustainability as a consumer?
As customers, we have power in our wallets. If we only choose to buy sustainable products, then brands are incentivized to design for them, and manufacturers to produce them. The brands I mentioned in this article have sustainable lines that use modern manufacturing technologies to optimize sustainability.
Also, you can look for organic materials instead of conventional ones. In the case of denim, aim for organic cotton, or hemp.
Another good option is recycled cotton, you can check out my article, which explains the topic of recycled fabrics in detail.
The most sustainable clothing it’s the one that exists in your wardrobe or other people’s wardrobe. Instead of buying brand new clothes, you can opt for purchasing pre-loved items. There are several ways to do this, either by going to your local thrift store or using one of the several apps available for that purpose.
Check out my article, where I list the best apps you can use for thrifting from your mobile.
The history of denim is one of the more fascinating in the fashion industry. Yet, unfortunately, one of the most harmful for the environment as well. Much innovation is being done to achieve sustainability, but there’s still a long way to go as much as it looks promising.
From designers to manufacturers to consumers, we can all contribute to the challenge. The fact that you read this article means a lot already. Now, if you have the possibility, buy second-hand, sustainable, or organic. It’s certainly worth the cost!