Excessive water use, harmful pesticides, toxic dyes, sandblasting, and exploitative labour. Your humble pair of denim jeans come from less than humble beginnings. Here are 8 denim brands who do it better.
Denim is a staple in pretty much every modern wardrobe. Dress them up, dress them down, a good pair of jeans can take you from casual to a night out. But did you know that denim has a sustainability problem? The process of manufacturing a pair of jeans is carbon intensive, emitting around 33.4 kilograms of carbon—the equivalent of driving 111 kilometres.
Over 2 billion pairs of jeans, made from cotton, are produced worldwide every year, and cotton is a thirsty crop, requiring high levels of irrigation and water intensive processing. On average each pair of jeans—which requires about a kilo of cotton—consumes around 10,000 litres of water according to UN statistics. With over 10% of the world population deprived of access to clean drinking water, this figure is staggering.
While cotton only takes up 2.5% of agricultural land, it also accounts for a disproportionate amount of insecticide (16%) and herbicide (6.8%) used worldwide. These agricultural chemicals have health impacts on workers in the field and on our ecosystems as excess run-off from farms enter the water supply. That iconic indigo blue colour further adds to the toxic brew of chemicals that we’re putting next to our skin, and into the environment, damaging rivers, ecosystems and entire communities in China, Bangladesh and India where the jeans are often manufactured. After agriculture, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of fresh water globally. In fact, it is estimated that 70% of Asia’s rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry which impacts local communities who rely on these rivers for drinking and bathing.
Meanwhile sandblasting of denim—to give jeans a worn or ‘distressed’ look—is still widespread in China, despite most Western brands banning the practice ten years ago. It is linked to silicosis, a deadly lung disease that has already caused the deaths of many garment workers. Clearly the environmental and health impact of an average pair of jeans is just not worth it.
Fortunately, the fashion industry is evolving, and consumers are becoming much more mindful of how and by whom their clothes were made. A number of denim brands have opted for organic, chemical-free cotton; pay fair wages; and ensure transparency of their supply chain. While buying organic cotton may seem extravagant, or unnecessary, a lifecycle analysis comparing organic cotton with conventionally grown cotton made by Textile Exchange in 2014 shows that organic cotton has a 46% reduced global warming potential, 70% less acidification potential, 26% reduced eutrophication potential (soil erosion), 91% reduced blue water consumption and 62% reduced primary energy demand.
The key, like with everything, is to buy once, and buy well. After all, how many pairs of jeans do we really need? If you do happen to need some new (or recycled) denim, here are 8 responsible and sustainable denim brands for you to consider, that are clean, fair and good.
Kuyichi pioneered the way for organic denim, launching way back in 2001. All their jeans are made from organic GOTS certified cotton, and post-consumer recycled denim and recycled polyester by people who are paid and treated fairly. The denim is dyed with natural indigo and to reduce the use of water, power and chemicals it is washed with laser washing techniques. Their sustainability report and supply chain can be accessed online. Kuyichi has also partnered up with Sympany—a textile recycling social enterprise from The Netherlands— to give 10% of the profits to help make the women of Malawi more empowered and self-reliant.
MUD Jeans have created a circular way of producing jeans. This B Corp-certified brand from the Netherlands has eliminated PP spray; they use Cradle2Cradle (C2C) indigo dye; and their factory’s laundry recycles 95% of its water through reverse osmosis. Recycling is central to their denim production, with jeans containing between 23% and 40% post-consumer recycled denim. Repairs are provided for free and the brand also introduced a denim rental system, and every garment that gets returned is recycled. You can also send in your old jeans to get recycled. Their supply chain is short, ensuring they have control and there is transparency, and employees earn above minimum wage. And, they’re also vegan! That’s some hard working denim.
Born in Melbourne, Nobody Denim are accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia, and continue to produce their garments in Melbourne, which creates a shorter supply chain, increased transparency, and reduced carbon footprint. Nobody Denim work closely with global denim mills to source the most sustainable and high quality fabrics and they've reduced water use by 50% in their stone washing and bleaching processes. Their laundry dyes meet REACH standards and they do not use hazardous azo dyes. They offer a full range of styles, including denim skirts and jackets too.
Swedish brand Nudie Jeans has made sustainability part of its DNA. Their denim collection is made entirely of organic, fair trade and recycled cotton, and all buttons, pocket linings and rivets are composed of organic, raw materials. Each pair of Nudie Jeans comes with a lifetime of free repairs—customers can drop off their favourite jeans at a Nudie store and have them repaired. And they collect unwanted Nudie jeans for their Re-Use progamme, saving an estimated 44,000kgs of clothes from being thrown away. Their website also offers transparency of the supply chain. Nudie Jeans have your every denim need covered, from stretch, cropped, straight fit and vintage. And that dreaded leather back patch that most jeans have? Nudie have made theirs vegan.
You know that distressed worn in look you love so much in denim? In most cases it’s achieved with corrosive chemicals that are terribly polluting and toxic for the planet, and not so great on your skin either. Re/Done does away with all of this by repurposing discarded jeans which are recycled and reworked to create unique denim pieces. Everything is sourced and made within 15 miles of the company’s Los Angeles factory.
German based apparel brand, Bleed Clothing, uses recycled materials like EcoNyl from recycled fishing nets, organic cotton and vegan materials for their clothing range. They’ve incorporated action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chains by transporting its products using sea freight. Bleed have adopted the GOTS Code of Conduct and ensures traceability of its supply chain and that suppliers are paid a living wage.
Another Melbourne-born brand, Denimsmith are committed to fair trade and sustainable practices. Materials are either deadstock sourced locally or sourced from an ethically accredited mill, and all jeans are made locally, and dyed with natural indigo.
Australia’s first B Corp certified denim brand, Outland is a sustainable and humanitarian denim brand, offering employment opportunities for women rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia. Their denim is made from ethically sourced and environmentally sound materials like recycled and organic cotton. They are also credited with making the most sustainable vintage wash on the market with their Amy Former jean which uses uses 67% less water, 46% less energy, 83% less chemical, and 77% less worker impact than conventional vintage-wash jeans. Outland share their supply chain, business model, and all processes transparently on their website for the public to see.