Chances are that your closet includes at least a few pairs of blue jeans, whether they are skinny or bootcut.
Most people would consider their denim to be a fashion must-have, but they do not spend much time thinking about their impact on the environment.
Is denim eco-friendly?
Unfortunately, denim is not an eco-friendly material. It leads to the pollution of local waterways from the pesticides used to grow cotton and from the dyes used to manufacture the jeans. In addition, it uses an excess of water to produce a single pair of jeans.
How Does Denim Fabric Impact the Environment?
If you have a few pairs of jeans in your dresser drawer, then you should know the type of impact that denim has on the environment.
While it may seem like it could not possibly be that bad for the world around you, you might be surprised to learn all of the ways that the environment is impacted by just a single pair of blue jeans.
First, denim fabric utilizes a lot of water during the manufacturing process. This is only enhanced when the finishing process includes extra steps for visual effects like stone-washing.
The water consumption for denim begins with the fertilization and irrigation of the cotton it comes from and continues through the packaging process.
Unfortunately, the water consumption is the least of the problem. The pollution that results from this water consumption is the main issue at large. The cotton crop used to make the fabric requires a lot of herbicide and chemical pesticides to keep critters at bay.
This naturally gets collected in the soil and can run off into water sources.
Perhaps more harmful is the use of dyes when coloring and distressing denim. There are a lot of chemical dyes at play here, and they sometimes end up running off or being dumped into natural water sources.
This is dangerous for both the people who must consume this water and the wildlife it contains.
Last but not least, the health of the workers should be considered when weighing the impact of denim on the environment. The exposure to the chemicals and color used to dye the fabric can be harmful, as can certain treatments like sandblasting.
What Are the Main Problems With Denim?
The main problems with denim are water consumption and water pollution.
The water consumption problem begins as cotton is growing. Cotton is the primary ingredient in denim fabric, though it is often mingled together with other synthetic fabrics these days. As the crop is growing, it needs to consume a lot of water to be successful.
Making just a couple of pounds of cotton can require close to 8,000 gallons of water.
However, the issue with cotton does not stop there. According to the National Resources Defense Council, 16 percent of all insecticides are used on cotton crops. This poses a health risk to the farm workers and those who live nearby the farm.
More than this, chemical runoff is a possibility, pushing those insecticides directly into nearby waterways.
To dye the jeans that desirable blue color, more water is used. It is often mixed with synthetic dyes and combined with other chemicals to achieve the finishes that are so popular in major department stores today.
It requires an excessive amount of water, and when it is finished, that water is often dumped into the local waterways.
This has proved to be a problem for some areas of China where there is little oversight for these processes.
Manufacturers have been dumping this chemical-laden water into the local waterways unsupervised, leaving local residents to bathe in and drink these chemicals.
What About Organic Denim Fabric?
Most people are used to the idea that organic means something is better.
When it comes to their food, they are encouraged to purchase organic fruits and vegetables that have not been genetically modified or produced using insecticides and pesticides. The question is, what about organic denim fabric? Could it be better for the environment also?
The answer is both yes and no.
Organic denim fabric that has been dyed using a plant-based dye instead of a synthetic one may be easier on the local waterways. It is eco-friendlier, but it can still lead to the pollution of the water.
On the other hand, you have to consider the cotton crop used to grow the denim itself.
Because organic means that you are not using a genetically-modified crop, then you have to understand that the crops will be smaller. They will produce a lower yield, meaning that farmers will have to plant more crops and take up more land to get the same results.
Cotton is a particularly thirsty plant, so they will also have to irrigate that extra land more heavily.
As you can see, growing an organic crop and following through with organic processes to dye your denim fabric might sound good in theory. However, it does not necessarily yield the results that many people expect.
What Are the Worst Types of Fabric for the Environment?
If denim is not necessarily eco-friendly, where should you turn for your material?
The reality is that many of the most popular types of fabric are bad for the environment. If you want to do something beneficial for the world you live in, these are the top five fabrics that you might want to avoid.
Cotton tops the list because it requires so much labor and water to yield a healthy crop. Thousands of gallons of water are required to make just a single t-shirt, much less an entire pair of jeans. It requires a lot of pesticides, water, and actual physical labor to harvest.
This is one fabric that should be avoided!
However, cotton is often mixed with synthetic fabrics that are equally bad for the environment in a different way. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic use less water, but they rely on petrochemical industries for creating their raw material.
Finally, all animal-based fibers like wool and leather are also bad for the environment. They are responsible for a lot of methane outputs, a strong greenhouse gas that is significantly more powerful than plain carbon dioxide.
The livestock responsible for these animal-based fibers is responsible for more than 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
What Are the Eco-Friendliest Types of Fabric?
If you want to wear something eco-friendly, you may have to scour the internet to find it.
Since most of the mainstream fabrics that we are accustomed to are bad for the environment, you will have a hard time finding some of these.
First, hemp is a versatile plant that is great for providing durable fabrics. It does not use a lot of water and produces two to three times more than what cotton can in the same given space. Farmers will love growing hemp because it does not drain the soil of its nutrients.
Plus, it is biodegradable at the end of its lifespan!
If hemp is unavailable, you will probably be able to find linen. Linen is a material made from flax and has been around for literally hundreds of years. It is a lightweight fabric that can keep you cool compared to heavy-duty cotton.
Not to mention, it also requires less water and fewer pesticides or fertilizers!
What is the Most Ethical Choice When it Comes to Jeans?
Unfortunately, there are not many ethical choices when it comes to jeans.
There is no getting around the fact that denim is not particularly good for the environment. Your best option is to look into companies that embody ethical practices.
For many, this starts with the labor involved to make the denim. You want to research companies that pay a fair living wage to their workers instead of producing their jeans in horrible and oppressive conditions.
This should be an important factor whether you are purchasing jeans or any other type of clothing.
Second, you want to make sure they are using quality materials like organic cotton and using sustainable production methods. Look for companies that are committed to using less water, energy, and toxic chemicals.
Of course, the most ethical choice would be to stop wearing denim altogether.
What Are the Eco-Friendliest Denim Brands?
If you want to make sure that you are purchasing eco-friendly denim brands, here are a few that you should be aware of:
This company is committed to sustainability and clean energy.
They recycle more than 98 percent of their water, bringing their total consumption down to just 0.4 liters per pair of jeans.
Most people have already heard of this company, but they didn’t know that they were environmentally-responsible.
They launched the Better Cotton Initiative to help farmers learn how to use less water, pesticides, and insecticides when growing their crops.
They also recycle their water!
J. Crew and Madewell:
Both of these sister brands work with Fair Trade USA to help create better working conditions for their employees.
They have also launched Fair Trade Certified denim collections with less water, fewer chemicals, and less energy than ever before.
Maria is the founder of GoDownsize. While studying architecture in Denmark she became fascinated with designing living spaces for boats, tiny houses, RVs, and other small spaces.
She mainly writes about space optimization, interior design, and downsizing. She’s also in charge of our YouTube channel. Read more about Maria here.