THE SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL GUIDEBOOK - PART 4:
THE LOW DOWN ON DENIM
By Talitha Ward
An incredibly resource-heavy fabric, denim is possibly just as popular as it is thirsty. Expanding on our cotton piece, this instalment explores everything denim – from its shocking human rights reputation to deathly finishing methods. Most importantly, we answer the question – how do you buy your AW pair more sustainably?
Dating way back to 1873 with the first Levi Strauss patent, denim has a long and not all too pleasant history. Made purely from cotton in those days, it’s inextricable reliance on slavery is an aspect of denim that is not mentioned as often as its other misgivings. Going further than simply its composition, denim was a uniform often worn by field slaves and, even deeper and darker still, indigo was used as a currency for slave trade. Weaving into current issues of fast fashion and forced labour in Uzbekistan, it is important to bear in mind that human rights violations are not as far gone as one may think.
Rising from its origins in the American South, denim quickly spread far and wide. Nowadays, it would be a shock for a wardrobe not to contain at least a few pairs of jeans. Considering a single pair takes up to 7,000 liters of water to produce and 1 in 9 people don’t have access to clean drinking water, we would hate to add up the amount of water sitting in our wardrobe. These statistics are worse enough on their own but are elevated even further when you note that a large portion of cotton is sourced from water-starved countries. For a closer look at cotton specifically, take a look at our Organic Cotton article that breaks down the environmental and social impacts of conventional cotton.
Once cotton has been sourced, it goes through numerous processes to become the iconic fabric that we know and love. The traditional methods used to achieve popular denim aesthetics are unbelievably damaging to workers and nearby communities. To get the full low down, we’ll need to rewind back to the beginning of the process. What exactly is denim? Denim is identified by its diagonal weaving method which uses a combination of dyed and undyed cotton fibers to achieve a tight and durable material. This process results in what is known as cotton twill. Throughout the years, it has become commonplace to see cotton blended with other synthetic fibers as manufacturers look to adapt stretch and fit as well as attempting to cut costs. However, these cotton blend garments are not only that much harder to recycle but are considerably less hardy than the pure alternative.
When it comes to denim it appears as though we are never fully satisfied. There is always a new style peaking on the trend curve – from high rise mom jeans to straight leg to low-rise Y2K cuts, just to name a few. Considering our seemingly unsatiable wardrobes, maybe it is not that shocking to hear that more than 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced annually. The relentless trends and constant pressure to stay on top of ‘what’s hot’ may seem exhausting as a consumer but what about the hands that blast and chemical-wash your clothing to get the perfect gradient and just the right amount of distressing?
SHOP SUSTAINABLE DENIM
Sandblasting. The word itself may not be familiar to you but you would be surprised how much of your wardrobe is a result of it. It is pretty much exactly what the name suggests. Workers, using a hose and an air compressor, literally blast denim, be it a jacket or a pair of jeans, with sand to get that highly sought after ‘lived-in’ look. This technique is one of the cheapest and most popular practices used by mass-manufacturers and, as with most cost-cutting methods, done at the expense of the worker. Sandblasting is a known cause of multiple diseases, some incurable – from emphysema and lung fibrosis to silicosis, where sand dust literally embeds itself within the lungs of workers. All of this just for the next trendy pair of denim that will probably be worn not even a handful of times – shocking, we know.
What if I told you that same pair of high street jeans is ‘poisonous’? Yup, you heard me. Those trending denim trousers contaminate water sources as well as the atmosphere and are detrimental to the health of workers and nearby communities. In an Asian town renowned for its denim production, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper were found in the outflows of dyeing and finishing facilities. The methods responsible for the release of these toxic chemicals are most commonly rope and slasher dyeing. They are both intensive processes involving enormous amounts of water, synthetic indigo and a plethora of chemical agents. The rigorous method of dye, rinse, repeat, in combination with non-biodegradable dyes, is incredibly harmful to both people and planet.
So, is sustainable denim possible? Well, you would be surprised to know there are actually numerous alternatives to the traditional and toxic denim finishing methods. In dyeing, there has been a wealth of innovation – from foam washing to natural dyes, the possibilities are endless. Distressing can be achieved using lasers, water jets, and even ozone-washing. While a bit more costly and not yet widely adopted, these methods are slowly but surely beginning to be adopted by leaders in the denim industry.
Zero impact consumerism is a feat, and one not very easily achieved. Luckily, we live in a time filled with innovators, activists and industry leaders looking to make a change. Reducing your environmental impact is only getting easier and making small conscious choices is the way to do it. Arguably, the most fail-safe method is to shop denim second-hand. Check out your local charity shops, browse online consignment stores and resale sites – with Brits donating an average of 700,000 tonnes of clothing each year, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Whether producing from sustainable fabrics, recycled materials or using methods that conserve energy and water – the denim industry is heading towards a much-needed revival, and we are all for it.
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