By Corinna Elsäesser
We all have that one pair in our wardrobe. The comfortable, durable, beloved pair of blue jeans which, in an ideal world, we would wear 24/7. No wonder that the global denim market is still growing year on year.
But looking further into the production process of jeans, can denim be considered a sustainable material?
First things first, a little background. It is said that denim fabric originated in Europe. Serge de Nimes - a twill from the city of Nimes - is said to be the origin of the name Denim (de-nimes bring abbreviated to denim), and was a fabric made initially from silk and wool.
However, the denim jeans we have come to love actually made their debut in the United States.
Levi Strauss, an immigrant from Germany, started to sell the durable fabric at the time of the gold rush in America. One of his clients, the tailor Jacob Davis, bought the fabric to make tents and horse blankets. When Davis was commissioned by a gold mining company to create durable workwear, Levis Strauss’ fabrics were already an integral part of his designs and Davis suggested a partnership between the two. To create sturdy work trousers, Davis improved the strength of the fabric by using metal rivets to prevent tearing (in fact you'll still find these rivets on the corners of many pockets and seams today). And just like that the first jeans were born all the way back in the 1890s.
Whilst beginning their life as solely workwear garments, jeans gained increased popularity during the 1950s thanks to the popularity of Western movies with their stars regularly donning a pair of heavy duty denim jeans.
But how are Jeans made today?
Usually Jeans are made of 100% cotton. There are blends available today, and many skinny jeans use elastane to reduce the slouching of the fabric over time, but true blue jeans are still made of 100% cotton.
The cotton is harvested from fields and spun into yarn. Indigo colour, (a natural dye colour that dates back over 6000 years) is applied onto the yarn to make it blue for classic coloured jeans. However, these days most denim brands use a synthetic indigo instead of the natural one. Synthetic Indigo is derived from toxic non-degradable petrochemicals. To create the denim fabric this yarn is then woven into vertical threads (warp) and horizontal threads (weft). This fabric is then cut according to a specific pattern depending on the shape and fit of the products, before each section is pieced and stitched together to create the trousers . The jeans are then finished by adding buttons, zips and the iconic metal rivets.
You would think the process ends here, but that's often not the case. Many jeans these days are distressed or bleached to create a ‘used’ look. Most jeans are also washed several times to stop the indigo from ‘bleeding’ when the customer washes them for the first time at home.
This production process raises two big concerns for the environment. Even though denim is made of cotton and can be dyed with natural colour, the process we are using today still harms the environment.
How, you might ask?
The first main concern in the production process is the usage of water. According to several studies of big denim brands it can take up to 2900 gallons of water to make one single pair of jeans. This is the equivalent of around 70 full bathtubs.
Why so much water? It not only takes a lot of water to grow the cotton, but a huge amount of water is also used for the washing processes that the jeans undergo in order to reach the desired colour.
On top of that pesticides are used in the initial cotton farming. It is also common to use chemicals in the dyeing and distressing process which can end up in our oceans after disposal.
These concerns have been raised by environmental activists over the past years, yet still this process is still the preferred method for many brands. However, there have been some sustainability efforts across the industry.
Some brands moved to use organic cotton for the making of the fabric. To identify these brands you can look out for GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification, usually on the price tag or care label of the garment. Certified organic cotton means that the process of growing it has a low impact on the environment through water reduction and the avoidance of toxic pesticides and fertilisers.
The process of dyeing jeans has also been improved thanks to science - some brands are trialling new dying techniques such as foam application where wastewater can be almost completely eliminated from the process, apart from the small amounts used to clean machinery and mix solutions.
Other brands are beginning to reuse and recycle their waste water during the dyeing and washing processes. Therefore the same amount of water can be used to produce not only one single pair, but a whole production line of the same garment.
So to answer the sustainability question - there is still a long way to go but the industry is heading into the right direction. With more awareness of the issues and improvements to technology, we're beginning to see brands producing jeans with a much lower environmental footprint. But if you want to be 100% sure if the Jeans you’re buying are more sustainable, for the moment you're still better off buying second hand and upcycled vintage denim.