How Ethical Are Your Jeans? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The fashion industry has received lots of bad press recently both for its unethical supply chains and unsustainable practices which include making low quality, low price fast fashion which has a very short life span before it ends up in landfill and for its toxic effluent which poison rivers. A large proportion of the population in the UK will own at least one pair of jeans and many people practically live in their jeans, making them a significant piece of clothing whose role in driving the sustainable fashion agenda is key. When it comes to ethical jeans, there is now plenty of choice from brands that are varying shades of green.

The denim industry is one that has much history. Jeans were originally designed as hardwearing work wear but over the years; they have evolved to become a fashion staple that is valued for its casual and well worn look. Often the older a pair of jeans looks, the better, even if it is really a brand new pair of jeans. In order to meet this demand for ‘worn look’ jeans, the fashion industry introduced the process of sandblasting which has been proved to cause fatal lung diseases, including silicosis for garment industry workers. Despite this knowledge and calls from campaigning organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, many brands still continue to sell jeans that have been aged using this dangerous process.

Right from the very beginning of its manufacture, denim is causing pollution and environmental impact. Most denim is made using conventional cotton which is grown using a large amount of chemical pesticides. Not only are these pesticides harmful to the flora and fauna in cotton farmed areas but they are dangerous for farmers, workers and those living in areas around cotton fields.

The dyeing of denim uses huge amounts of water can cause significant pollution. In Xintang in China, also known as the blue jeans capital of the world, the water runs blue and black as it is filled with the effluent from small scale dyeing units that are not equipped with any water treatment facilities. The dyes contain and chemicals used to treat denim contain heavy toxic metals such as cadmium, lead, copper and mercury.

But it is not all bad news. By their nature, a pair of jeans actually has the potential to be a great piece of sustainable fashion. Jeans never really go out of fashion and it is generally considered that a good fitting pair of jeans just gets better with age. In fact many people have an almost emotional attachment to their favourite pair of jeans, perhaps because of their comfortable fit and their ability to almost mould themselves to a person’s body shape or perhaps just the memories that are associated with them. The mantra of many people that are working towards a more sustainable future is to reduce, the amount we use, reuse and recycle. Jeans lend themselves well to all three of these actions as they are even valued as second hand and vintage clothing and often upcyled into shorts or skirts even when they are worn out. Jeans are in many ways the antithesis of fast fashion.

Some of the big players in the denim industry are cleaning up their act. In particular Levi’s is heavily involved in developing more sustainable ways of manufacturing jeans by reducing the water usage and carbon footprints of its jeans and abolishing the sand blasting process in the production of its jeans. Levi’s Water Water<Less™ jeans boast up to 96% less water usage and the brand now has 13 million products that are finished using this more eco friendly process. Diesel is also getting involved in ethical fashion with the Only The Brave Foundation, which is a not-for-profit organization founded by Renzo Rosso and supported by his group OTB (the holding company of Diesel). The mission of the organisation is to fight social inequality and to contribute to the sustainable development of less advantaged areas and people throughout the world, 90% of the organisations funds are used on projects in sub Saharan Africa. Diesel has also collaborated with ethical fashion brand EDUN to create a collection of jeans featuring Malian textile prints, embroidery details reference traditional Zulu weaving patterns and Kenyan metal work with the aim of gaining a global audience to create awareness of the creative and sustainable trade opportunities in Africa through fashion.

As mentioned previously the vintage and second hand market for jeans is a healthy one with iconic brands like Levis holding significant value. There is now even an option to rent or lease a pair of jeans from Dutch company, Mud Jeans. The customer pays an upfront fee followed by a monthly charge, at the end of the year they are given the option to send the jeans back, get a new pair or keep the jeans. The jeans are made from high-end organic cotton from Turkey. Once they are returned they are washed, repaired and reused or they are shredded and returned to the factory.

The choice of jeans brands that are both sustainable and ethical to their core is now on the increase and there is now a good choice of classic and on trend styles, fits and colours of sustainable jeans available. Monkee Genes make certified organic and bamboo jeans. They are a good example of an ethical and sustainable fashion brand that is successfully bridging the gap between sustainable and mainstream fashion with a dedicated following that goes well beyond the usual eco aware crowd. Nudie Jeans now use 100% organic cotton and are also a member of the Fair Wear Foundation which helps to ensure ethical manufacture. Kuyichi is another denim brand that places a high priority on sustainability and ethical manufacture. In fact Kuyichi are generally considered one of the earlier pioneering ethical fashion brands after been set up when their founders became disillusioned by the big players in the denim industries reluctance to use organic cotton. The brand continues to innovate and experiment with fabrics including recycled polyester, Tencel®, spare denim and hemp. Huit Jeans have revived the UK denim industry by manufacturing their jeans in a factory in Cardigan, West Wales. Not only are the jeans made from high quality organic denim and ethically produced but each one has an online history tag with which customers can record memories, experiences and pictures. The great thing about the history tag is that they increase the value of each pair of jeans, even if the jeans get handed down or end up in a second hand shop; the memories will still remain with them.

So there you have it. When it comes to sustainability and ethics, all jeans are not created equal. By spending a little time and thought when choosing your next pair of jeans, not only will you be having a positive impact on the world around you but also securing yourself a piece of clothing that you can wear and treasure for many years to come along with the memories of when you wore them.

matheus

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