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.

Water

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.

Pesticides

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!

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 toxic 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. Yikes.

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, 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!

Armedangels

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! Armedangels’ products are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Armedangels.

Shop Armedangels @ thegreenlabels.

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.

Organic Basics

Rated: Great
groupe of people wearing organic basics' new denim collection

Organic Basics offers high-quality sustainable fashion basics for men and women in organic materials. It also recently launched its first sustainable denim collection! The Denmark-based brand puts sustainable thinking at the centre of everything—it only chooses fabrics that care for our environment, and only ever partners with factories that care about their impact. Organic Basics clothes are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Organic Basics @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop Organic Basics @ thegreenlabels.

Shop Organic Basics.

Kuyichi

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.

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 ‘Great’ on all fronts. Plus, we spoke to founder James Bartle earlier this year 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!

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.

Boyish

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.

Triarchy

Rated: Good
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: Good
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.

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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 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 2,500 brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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