Material Guide: How Ethical is Denim? - Good On You
close up of armedangels jeans
28 Feb
close up of armedangels jeans

Material Guide: How Ethical is Denim?

From the catwalk to the countryside, ranging in price from $10 to over $500, from pants to skirts to jackets, denim is as versatile as it is hardy and trendy. But with over 2 billion pairs of jeans produced worldwide each year, just how sustainable is our beloved blue fabric? We’ve traced its journey from the humble cotton seed to your favourite pair of high-waisted shorts to find out.


A study by Levi Strauss & Co found that producing one pair of Levi jeans requires a staggering 3781 litres of water. Over 10% of the world’s population is currently deprived of access to clean water, a staggering statistic which puts an alarming perspective on our thirsty denim purchases. Unfortunately, it tends to be the driest countries that shoulder the burden of creating the water-intensive goods that we crave. Pakistan, for example, has a large cotton industry but has been in the midst of a water crisis for years.


Water consumption isn’t the only ethical concern with denim. While cotton only takes up 2.5% of agricultural land, it accounts for 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide. Pesticides can be highly toxic and create a hazardous working environment for cotton farmers. Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation each year. Furthermore, pesticides can pollute nearby soil and water systems, threatening food supplies and creating health risks!


In addition to the pesticides used in cotton production, harmful chemicals may also be used extensively in denim’s dyeing process. Azo dyes, for example, can sometimes release carcinogenic amines. Such chemicals can be harmful to the environment and a risk to worker health and safety. Look for brands which use natural dyes and organic cotton, that way you can avoid funding these toxic processes.


Ever wondered how your favorite pair of ‘distressed’ jeans got to look so weathered? It’s not because they were hung out for months and exposed to the elements before they hit the shelves. The look is achieved through a controversial technique called sandblasting. As the name suggests, jeans are literally blasted with sand to soften the fabric and wear them down. The process poses significant health risks to workers as the fine dust particles can lodge themselves in people’s lungs. There are other ways to create the distressed look such as stone-washing, sandpapering, brushing, or using lasers. While more costly than sandblasting, these methods achieve similar results.

A significant problem is that many companies don’t have as much control over or knowledge of their supply chain as they should. In March 2015, for example, an undercover Al Jazeera investigation discovered Chinese workers sandblasting jeans for popular labels including Hollister and American Eagle, apparently unbeknown to the brands. Yikes.


From its roots in the slave trade to current issues with child and forced labour in Uzbekistan and India, exploitation is woven into the history of cotton production. As we’ve seen above, many steps in the denim manufacturing process pose significant risks to workers’ safety. There are also issues in countries such as West and Central Africa and Brazil where farmers are unable to compete with the cost of US-subsidised cotton.

The verdict?

Denim production can have serious social and environmental consequences. However, this is not the way it has to be. There are denim brands, both big and small, who are committed to people and the planet. The best way to reduce the footprint of your denim purchase is to look for jeans made from certified organic cotton, or buy secondhand! Most brands will proudly promote this on their websites.

You can discover great denim brands in our Directory right here – or simply read on to see some of our favourites!


Rated: Great
woman wearing armedangels boyfriend jeans

Affordable, ethical and on-trend. Germany’s Armedangels gets a ‘Great’ rating overall from us. The brand covers all the basics for women, men and kids. Armedangels quality and long-lasting pieces are made from eco-friendly and certified materials, like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton. The brand also adopted the Fair Wear Foundation Code of Conduct to protect its workers abroad. One of the brand’s most innovative achievements is the #DetoxDenim campaign!

See the rating.

Shop Armedangels.

MUD Jeans

Rated: Great
woman wearing mud jeans boyfriend jeans

Dutch denim brand MUD Jeans is all about sustainability. Not only does it offer a repair service, but it also provides a rental service where you can lease a pair of jeans for up to a year! MUD Jeans uses a combination of GOTS certified organic cotton and post-consumer recycled cotton.

See the rating.

Shop MUD Jeans.


Rated: Great
close up of kuyichi jeans

Established in 2001, Kuyichi was the first organic denim brand. With ‘Great’ labour and environmental ratings, the brand designs ethical and durable, yet trendy and modern pieces that never go out of style.

See the rating.

Shop Kuyichi.

Outland Denim

Rated: Great
woman wearing outland denim blue jacket

Outland Denim makes premium denim jeans and offers ethical employment opportunities for women rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia. The B Corporation certified brand rates ‘Great’ on all fronts. Plus, we spoke to founder James Bartle earlier this year about all the great work they do.

See the rating.

Shop Outland Denim.


Rated: Good
close up of outerknown jeans

Founded by surf champion Kelly Slater, Outerknown is a sustainable brand that aims to blend style and function with the protection of natural resources. The brand is Bluesign certified and has partnered with the Fair Labour Association. Be sure to check out its range of organic cotton and recycled polyester jeans!

See the rating.

Shop Outerknown.

Nobody Denim

Rated: Good
woman wearing wide legged nobody denim jeans

Nobody Denim has a longstanding commitment to ethical manufacturing principles and offers a unique vision of responsible design. It traces its supply chain, ensures a living wage for workers, and is accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia.

See the rating.

Shop Nobody Denim @ Farfetch.


Rated: Good
woman wearing blue sustainable jeans by boyish

Love the & Other Stories vibe, but hate their fast fashion business model? Boyish has all the quality, fit, and authentic washes that you could want without the harmful practices. Yes, please!

See the rating.

Shop Boyish @ Reve en Vert.

Shop Boyish.


Rated: Good
sustainable denim fringe jacket by ethical brand Triarchy

Triarchy creates eco-friendly jeans, skirts, jumpsuits and jackets using a Tencel cotton blend. The brand’s production system uses 85% recycled water by consistently reusing the ‘thick indigo laden sludge’ that unmonitored factories dump into water systems.

See the rating.

Shop Triarchy.

E.L.V. Denim

Rated: Good

E.L.V. Denim takes stocks of old discarded denim and transforms them into modern, sophisticated jeans.

See the rating.

Shop E.L.V. Denim @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop E.L.V. Denim.


Rated: Good
woman wearing dark blue ethical jeans by Unspun

unspun is creating a denim world that reduces global carbon emissions by 1% through a zero-inventory and low waste process.

See the rating.

Shop unspun.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world's most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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