Practical, fashionable and timeless, denim jeans have been become a staple in our wardrobe. Yet we tend to overlook the environmental consequences the denim industry is responsible for. The average American owns 7 pairs of denim jeans, and each denim cycle is responsible for numerous greenhouse gas emissions and a ton of wasted water. Fortunately, some denim brands are becoming more accountable in their manufacturing practices and are attempting to use less water to limit the environmental impact of this harmful industry.
In 2010, Greenpeace published a report denouncing the pollution caused by the denim industry. Most jeans are made of 100 percent cotton and conventional cotton production is one of the most toxic industries. However, that isn’t even the worst part of the denim cycle. The trendy denim washed jeans you might wear are actually the result of a several chemical-intensive washes. Fabric printing and the dyeing process involves heavy toxic metals such as cadmium, lead, copper and mercury.
The Pearl river on the banks of the Chinese town Xintang, also known as the Blue Jean capital of the world, has turned blue and black with a large portion of denim production waste being discarded into the river. “The denim is made here by traditional dyeing methods where cotton yarns are being dyed by dipping them into small and hot indigo baths. This kind of cottage dyeing produces more indigo waste and the small dyeing units are not equipped with the requisite water treatment facilities.”
Moreover, to give the fabrics the right worn look, sandblasting is used. Sandblasting has the risk of causing tuberculosis or silicosis in workers. Turkey is one of the countries most affected by the sandblasting process. According to SETEM (NGO) more than 5,000 workers in the textile industry have been stricken with silicosis. Of those, 46 people are known to have died due to this. Although most companies are aware of the consequences of this technique, they “prefer to be deaf,” says the organization.
Nevertheless other companies such as Levi-Strauss, Inditex, C & A and H & M have committed to abolish this process from their own production. In fact, Levi’s is one of the companies heavily involved in the development of a greener technique for denim production.
In January 2011, the defining denim brand launched an environmentally friendly version of their timeless line; Water‹Less jeans. These green jeans cost the same, but use 28% less water in the finishing process, approximately 33 liters per pair. Levi’s estimated that they saved over 16 million liters of water for the past Spring/Summer collection.
In addition, Levi’s evaluated the carbon footprint of its products. A pair 501 jeans would consume around 3,480 liters of water during its “life.” Cotton production and consumer washing account for the majority of the water consumption, 45% from washing.
In regards to greenhouse gas emissions, the consumer is mainly responsible for the ecologic impact. 58% of the climate change impact comes from private washing due to the use of hot water and the dryer. This is why Levi’s advises to wash jeans with cold water and to dry denim on a clothes line.
These efforts are praiseworthy, however we still have a ways to go to reduce the environmental impact of the denim industry.
We must be aware that wearing jeans may be cool for us but not very cool for the Earth!