close up of armedangels jeans
12 Aug
close up of armedangels jeans

Material Guide: How Ethical and Sustainable Is Denim?

Denim is one of the most popular fabrics worldwide, traditionally cotton-based and used in everything from the ubiquitous jeans to stylish jackets and accessories. Unfortunately denim isn’t sustainable by default—but there are better ways to make it, and better brands responsibly incorporating it. Let’s take a look.

The denim blues

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. Traditionally made from cotton, non-stretchable, and designed to be heavy duty owing to its workwear heritage, jeans have a rugged history. But with over 2 billion pairs produced worldwide each year, just how ethical and sustainable is our beloved blue fabric in the modern day? We’ve traced its journey from the field to your favourite pair of high-waisted shorts to find out, and curated a list of brands doing it better.

How denim is made

Conventionally, denim is made from twill weave cotton fabric. Cotton fibres are harvested and spun into yarn, then the yarns are dyed. Jeans are often indigo-dyed, making them the classic blue colour for denim. Cotton denim is then woven either on a shuttle loom or a projectile loom, creating a sturdier or more delicate result respectively.

While the original jean was made from 100% cotton, these days “stretch denim” is increasingly popular. Stretch denim incorporates a percentage of elastane and stretch polyesters like spandex, more suitable for the flexibility desired in skinny jeans, for example. While this addition may be comfier for certain styles, changing the fibre composition in such a way impacts the sustainability and recyclability of the final product.

A move towards better materials

Some more responsible brands are opting for comfort being imparted through the use of soft fibres such as TENCEL™ Lyocell and TENCEL™ Modal (man-made cellulosic fibres). There is also a move towards more sustainable materials in the industry in general—BCI cotton, organic cotton, recycled cotton, recycled polyester, man-made cellulosic fibres, recycled elastane, and hemp are good examples. However, it’s worth noting the move towards organic cotton is not straightforward as there is not yet enough organic cotton available globally to meet demand.

The impact of a pair of jeans

To keep it simple, let’s look at the impact of a conventional cotton pair of jeans on the environment and workers.

Water

A study by Levi Strauss & Co found that producing one pair of Levi jeans requires a staggering 3781 litres of water, a number that varies across the industry. Over 10% of the world’s population is currently deprived of access to clean water, a staggering statistic that 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.

Today, there is a strong focus on water usage for denim brands. Several have started using tools such as Higg Facility Environment Module or Jeaonologia’s EIM to record water consumption and measure environmental impact in the supply chain.

Chemicals

Water consumption isn’t the only ethical concern with denim. While cotton only takes up 2.5% of agricultural land, it accounts for large quantities of insecticides. These 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, the harsh chemicals 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.

“Even traditional indigo dyeing is typically water intensive, and requires various chemistries to ‘reduce’ the indigo dye, thereby ensuring it will fix to the yarn,” according to our resident materials expert and ratings analyst, Kate Hobson.

Hobson tells us some moves are being made towards less water intensive dyeing processes, such as foam dyeing (as used by Wrangler). It is also possible to use “spun dyed” cellulosic or synthetic yarns (where colour is added before the fibre is spun, thereby eliminating the need for garment dyeing). Lenzing, the company behind TENCEL™ Lyocell and Modal fibres, offers examples of this.

Look for brands that use certified eco-friendly or natural dyes to avoid funding these toxic processes.

Sandblasting

Ever wondered how your favourite 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 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, that are committed to people and the planet. If you’re on the market for denim, here are some of the best ways to reduce the footprint of your purchase:

  • look for jeans made from better materials like recycled or organic cotton or hemp
  • opt for high-quality jeans designed for longevity in both durability and style that you will wear for years to come
  • shop sturdy second hand or pre-loved jeans to extend their life
  • for the best chance of recyclability at end of life, go for jeans made from 98% cellulosic fibres such as cotton, hemp, viscose, lyocell, modal, or linen

You can discover responsible denim brands in our directory, or simply read on to see some of our favourites.

Armedangels

Rated: Great
woman wearing armedangels boyfriend jeans

Germany’s Armedangels covers all the basics for women, men, and kids. Armedangels’ quality and long-lasting pieces are made from more 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. Armedangels’ products are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Armedangels.

Shop Armedangels @ Veneka.

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. MUD Jeans are available in a range of sizes, usually from W25 L30-W33 L32 for women and W28 L34-W36 L34 for men.

See the rating.

Shop MUD Jeans.

Shop MUD Jeans @ Labell-D.

Afends

Rated: Good
Hemp and organic cotton baggy men's jeans by Afends.

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Black and white shot of the BROCCOLI Magazine and Afends fashion collaboration.

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Afends is an Australia-based fashion brand leading the way in organic hemp fashion, using renewable energy in its supply chain to reduce its climate impact. Its range of trendy jeans can be found in organic cotton or organic cotton and hemp blends. You can find the full range in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Afends.

Kuyichi

Rated: Great
close up of kuyichi jeans

Established in 2001, Kuyichi was the first organic denim brand. With top scoring labour and environmental ratings, the brand designs ethical and durable, yet trendy and modern pieces that never go out of style in sizes XS-L.

See the rating.

Shop Kuyichi.

Shop Kuyichi @ Staiy.

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 highly on all fronts. Plus, we spoke to founder James Bartle about all the great work they do. Find most of the brand’s range in US sizes 22-34.

See the rating.

Shop Outland Denim.

Outerknown

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, available in sizes XS-2XL.

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. Find most of the jeans in sizes 23-32.

See the rating.

Shop Nobody Denim @ Farfetch.

Triarchy

Rated: Great
sustainable denim fringe jacket by ethical brand Triarchy

Triarchy creates eco-friendly jeans, skirts, shorts, jumpsuits, and jackets. The brand’s production system uses 85% recycled water by consistently reusing the "thick indigo laden sludge" that unmonitored factories dump into water systems. Find most of the jeans in US sizes 24-32.

See the rating.

Shop Triarchy.

E.L.V. Denim

Rated: Good

E.L.V. Denim transforms old discarded denim into modern, sophisticated, and even made-to-measure jean jackets, pants, and accessories. Find most jeans in UK sizes 24-32.

See the rating.

Shop E.L.V. Denim @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop E.L.V. Denim.

unspun

Rated: Great
woman wearing dark blue ethical jeans by Unspun

unspun is an American brand, creating a denim world that reduces global carbon emissions by 1% through a zero-inventory and low waste process. Its product sizing is totally customisable to ensure you always find the perfect fit.

See the rating.

Shop unspun.

Whimsy + Row

Rated: Good
woman wearing ethical denim jacket by whimsy and row

Whimsy + Row is an eco-conscious lifestyle brand born out of a love for quality goods and sustainable practices. Since 2014, its mission has been to provide ease and elegance for the modern, sustainable woman. By limiting each garment to short runs, Whimsy + Row utilises deadstock fabric, reduces packaging waste, and takes care of precious water resources. Find most products in XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Whimsy + Row.

Levi’s (Pre-Owned)

Rated: It's A Start

Levi's is committed to producing quality, hard-wearing products, and it continues to make strides with regards to environmentally sustainable production methods. This includes its Waste<Less range, made from 20 percent post-consumer waste.

See the rating.

Shop Levi's Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

G-Star Raw (Pre-Owned)

Rated: It's A Start

Second-Hand Denim – Ships internationally

G-Star Raw has been setting some good worker empowerment initiatives in its supply chain in the past few years. It’s a member of the Better Cotton Initiative and it has a Code of Conduct that covers all of the ILO Four Fundamental Freedoms principles!

See the rating.

Shop G-Star Raw Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials

Editor's note

Feature image via Armedangels, 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 thousands of rated brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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