18 Oct

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. 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.

Water

A study by Levi Strauss & Co found that producing one pair of Levi jeans requires a staggering 3781 litres of water. With 10% of the world’s population currently deprived of access to clean water, these statistics put an alarming perspective on our 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 is currently in the midst of a severe water crisis. Some good news is that big brand Levi’s is leading the way by taking action to reduce their water consumption via their Water<Less™ program.

Pesticides

Water consumption isn’t the only ethical concern with denim. While cotton takes up 2.4% agricultural land, it accounts for more than 11% of global pesticide use. 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.

Dyes

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 processes.

Sandblasting

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.

Labour

From its roots in the slave trade to current issues with child and forced labor 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 planet. The best way to reduce the footprint of your denim purchase is to look for jeans made from certified organic cotton. Most brands will proudly promote this on their websites and tags. You can discover great jeans brands in the Good On You app – simply tap Browse by Category on the homepage and select Jeans.

Editor's note: Feature image via Unsplash.

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