How Sustainable is Denim?


I don’t know about you, but my vegan journey has been much more than just not eating animal products. It opened a lot of questions about our impact on the planet as individuals, about sustainability and environmental issues. For me, sustainability is something I keep in mind in everything I do — from making more eco-conscious choices for LELE’S (like getting rid of our avocado toast) to the clothes I’m wearing.

Looking up sustainable clothing can be overwhelming. What makes something not sustainable? What can I do about it? Do I actually have any power over big brand’s choices? It can get tough to navigate through all these questions and figure out what’s the right choice to make.

I love jeans — I literally wear them every single day in the kitchen. They’re comfortable, easy to put on in the morning and let’s face it: everyone can look good in the right pair of jeans! So, when it came to making more ethical choices, I asked myself ‘Is denim sustainable?’ It turns out, the answer is way more complicated than I thought.

I thought I’d share with you a few facts I found interesting, some brands I think are doing some good and what to be aware of. I’m not intending to tell anyone what to do — just to add my two cents in the conversation and hoping to give advice to people in similar situations.

First of all, what’s so bad about denim? You may have watched the documentary RiverBlue which is what everyone recommends when you start digging into the denim industry. Denim is made of dyed cotton to get different types of washing. It’s mainly produced in Asia and ‘it is estimated that 70 percent of Asia's rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater’. That sounded to me such an unnecessary waste just to look pretty.

The knowledge of so much damage caused by the denim industry made me think about all the high street brands showing off their ‘made with sustainable cotton’ campaigns written everywhere in giant green letters. Recognising the signs of greenwashing have become difficult — although I think every little counts, there’s still a big difference between supporting companies who pretend to care from those who are really changing the game.

According to this article published last year, one of the biggest fast fashion companies doesn’t disclose a specific strategy to make denim more sustainable. Instead, their ‘policies cover all our products and production processes, as well as for denim’. Looking further into it, it seems many fast fashion brands have started using Jeanologia's tool Environmental Impact Measurement to reduce the amount of water during the dyeing process.

Reducing water consumption, or recycling it like they do over at Triarchy, is not the only way to lessen the impact of denim production. It turns out, there are different ways in which a company can bring change — like using organic cotton. ArmedAngels has been using organic cotton for the past 12 years and has founded the ARMEDANGELS Organic Farmers Association ‘helping 366 small farmers in India to switch from conventional cotton to organic cotton’. Most recently, they have launched the new collection #DETOXDENIM (finally a detox I can get behind) — promising jeans without toxic substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, solvents or bleaches.

Through my research, I figured out that what’s truly important to me is the transparency of the company I’m thinking of buying from and a clear statement. Instead of broad claims, I want facts and numbers.

For example, I reached out to Sézane, a brand I love, which is re-launching their whole denim collection with a new sustainability plan, including GOTS certified organic cotton. They claim that with their new denim versions they're going to use 2 times less water than needed in regular production and 83% less use on chemical products.

Boyish also disclosed with me their action-plan to lessen their denim’s impact on the planet. Compared to a typical denim brand, Boyish claims they're using only a third of the typical amount of water necessary for denim production and all of the water is recycled to avoid pollution. They also openly discuss the techniques used, like the TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ technology which ‘involves up-cycling a substantial proportion of cotton scraps’.

Finally, I found out about a completely different approach taken by Kings of Indigo— all of their denims are made out of raw materials, which means no water or chemicals used in the process. They call it ‘the most sustainable choice; as it doesn’t produce any water waste or pollution.

To answer my initial questions, fast fashion denim is a highly unsustainable choice when it comes to buying jeans. What I can do about it is try as much as I can to support smaller brands which make their sustainable statements very clear and easy to understand. And that’s where my power lays — the conscious consumer choice. What fast fashion brands are doing is mirroring a demand for sustainability and although it might not still be enough, it’s a progress. Putting my money where my mouth is, even if it might require some sacrifices from time to time, is an effective way of making demand.

Hope you are all well and healthy in this difficult time.

Vxx

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Pictures by Holly Pickering

Kim Burrows