Are jeans sustainable? The History and Makings of denim

Paradigme Mode

After the glo­ri­ous return of the low-rise jeans, fash­ion­istas and influ­encers seem to be more obsessed than ever with den­im. While fash­ion­able, pro­duc­ing the icon­ic blue fab­ric can have a high envi­ron­men­tal impact. What does den­im mean for our plan­et ?

Brief History of Jeans

Offi­cial­ly invent­ed in 1873 by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, jeans actu­al­ly have a his­to­ry slight­ly more com­pli­cat­ed. The ori­gin of the fab­ric itself, den­im, is still up for debate this day — it might come from Nîmes (France) or even Gen­o­va (Italy). Levi Strauss, a ger­man sales­man, brought the fab­ric to the Unit­ed States.

The stur­dy and durable tex­tile was ide­al for hard labour. Jacob Davis, an amer­i­can tai­lor, had the idea to trans­form it into pants for work­ers and min­ers dur­ing the Gold Rush in the Amer­i­can Far-West.

Levi and Jacob then became part­ners and found­ed Levi’s & Co. The attire quick­ly became a neces­si­ty for work­ers all-over the Amer­i­can Far-West — and the jeans entered his­to­ry.

The dark blue called “indi­go” is its most tra­di­tion­al colour, but jeans now come in many shades and hues. From dark to light blue, by way of black and funky colours, it has become a ver­sa­tile piece of cloth­ing, that tran­scends social class.

Pho­to by Abhidev Vaish­nav on Unsplash

The true impact of virgin denim

While this did not seem like a prob­lem back in the late 1800s, mak­ing den­im is an extreme­ly water-inten­sive process. A sim­ple pair of tra­di­tion­al jeans requires more than 3,500 liters of water to make.

Nowa­days, con­sum­ing so many nat­ur­al resources on a sin­gle arti­cle has become care­less. Espe­cial­ly when one knows that jeans are main­ly pro­duced in arid areas, since cot­ton requires warm weath­er. For instance, India is the world’s biggest cot­ton pro­duc­er.

Over 50% of den­im is pro­duced in Asia, main­ly in India, Chi­na, Turkey, Pak­istan, and Bangladesh. You’ve guessed it: jeans are not only made with extrav­a­gant quan­ti­ties of water, they also have to be shipped halfway across the world.

Cot­ton pro­duc­tion also uses a high amount of chem­i­cals and insec­ti­cides, tox­ic for the envi­ron­ment and for local farm­ers.

Dur­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing, chem­i­cal dyes can release a hand­ful of harm­ful chem­i­cals such as car­cino­gens, a tox­in that induces can­cer.

How to make sustainable jeans

The call for sus­tain­able wear gets stronger every­day. The urgency is here and brands are begin­ning to under­stand that. Even Levi’s & Co. has pub­licly com­mit­ted to trans­form their brand and cre­ate more sus­tain­ably.

There are many ways of mak­ing jeans more equi­table :

  • Since it is made from cot­ton, den­im is a total­ly recy­clable fab­ric! It’s a sus­tain­able fiber, as stur­dy as our favourite trousers. It can be bro­ken down, recon­sti­tut­ed and trans­formed as new.
  • Alter­na­tive dyes, made with safer chem­i­cals, can eas­i­ly be used on the fab­ric to avoid con­t­a­m­i­na­tion on pro­duc­tion site.
  • Upcy­cling is also a cre­ative way of giv­ing new life to old den­im. Upcy­cled den­im can come in dif­fer­ent colours and orig­i­nal pat­terns. It com­plete­ly shakes up the sta­tus quo — what could be more fash­ion­able?
  • Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy is slow­ly but sure­ly becom­ing a path to reduc­ing den­im-relat­ed water con­sump­tion. One could dig­i­tal­ly “print out” the cho­sen colours or pat­terns direct­ly on their den­im — with­out using any water at all!

Sustainable denim brands in Europe

Oh, but where to find these mar­velous, plan­et friend­ly jeans you ask? Easy! Here’s a selec­tion of the best sus­tain­able brands in West­ern Europe:

  • Ger­many — Armedan­gels

Their “Detox­Den­im” are time­less cuts — made with organ­ic and recy­cled cot­ton, with a low car­bon foot­print. Armedan­gels’ pieces are cer­ti­fied by GOTS and Fair Wear Foun­da­tion.

  • France — 1083

Known for their local­ly pro­duced car­go and ample cuts, 1083 den­im is also made from GOTS cer­ti­fied fair-cot­ton.

Live in Paris? Shop to your heart’s con­tent in Our Favorite Parisian Vin­tage Shops.

  • Swe­den — Nudie Jeans

True jeans fanat­ics, Nudie Jeans bets on dura­bil­i­ty before any­thing else for their 100 % organ­ic cot­ton den­im made in Italy. Raw mate­ri­als and sec­ond-hand have also become part of their pro­duc­tion. View in detail their sus­tain­able jeans here.

  • Spain — Xiro Atlantic Den­im

A ful­ly trace­able, local and sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion — Xiro Atlantic Denim’s pur­pose shows in their eth­i­cal pro­duc­tion locat­ed in the north­ern region of Gali­cia, as well as in their organ­ic fab­rics and dyes.

And if you want to know more about the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of your favourite fash­ion brands, don’t for­get to check out the Fash­ion Trans­paren­cy Index.

Note: this arti­cle con­tains affil­i­ate links. This con­cerns two (2) pieces pre­sent­ed here, by Nudie Jeans.

Written by Malu Benjamin
November 16, 2022

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