Most of us consider jeans a wardrobe staple, and it’s not hard to see why. They look effortlessly cool, can be super comfortable if you find your perfect fit and tend to outlast other flimsier items in our wardrobe, making them a worthy style investment. The only downfall to denim? Its unsustainable manufacturing processes can have serious repercussions on the environment and human health.
“The fashion industry is a major contributor to pollution, emissions and water waste, and denim is one of the worst offenders,” says Michelle Marsh, creative director of Ética Denim, a sustainable denim company. She explains that denim is typically made from cotton, “a thirsty plant” that requires massive amounts of water, pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation. Deborah Lindquist, a sustainable fashion expert, eco-fashion designer and celebrity stylist, explains that the cotton used in the denim manufacturing process is grown with pesticides and herbicides linked to cancer, destruction of the microbiome, neurological disease, birth defects and sterilization of the soil.
If said denim has stretch, Marsh says those fibers operate as plastics sourced from the likes of oil and toxic chemicals, which shed microfibers when washed and end up in our drinking water, soil and oceans.
Unfortunately, the denim damage doesn’t stop there. Marsh says “the second wave of damage” from denim occurs when your sewn jeans are then treated to remove some of that deep indigo color for an authentic wash effect. “Normally, this process can use up to 2,000 gallons of water per load, plus toxic chemicals like potassium permanganate, bleach, caustic soda and chemical softeners, which is another round of pollution that seeps into soil and waterways.”
What’s more is that denim also contributes to the demise of our forests. Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canopy, a sustainability nonprofit, explains that denim often uses viscose, a semi-synthetic type of rayon fabric typically made from wood pulp, which results in the logging of over 300 million trees every year, “many from the most biodiversity rich and carbon-critical forests on the planet,” she says.
If it sounds as though a pair of jeans’ deleterious effects on the planet cease once it’s discarded, that’s not quite the case. “When denim clothing is disposed of in landfills, it can take decades or centuries to decompose and it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” says Rycroft.
Beyond its environmental impact, the denim production industry has a documented history of human labor violations. Lindquist says the production of volume brands by certain sweatshops in third-world countries is connected to forced labor and human trafficking, and it doesn’t stop there. “There are abuses at every step of the supply chain, from farming to fabric production and manufacturing that need to be addressed as well,” says Marsh.
If this all is about to detract you from ever investing in another pair of jeans again, there’s actually lots you can do to ensure you find a sustainable pair. Ebru Debbag, a sustainable fashion expert and executive director of global sales and marketing at Soorty Enterprises, says to first ask yourself whether you truly need a new pair of jeans. “If the answer is yes, ask yourself how long you would like your jeans to last. If you choose to buy a new pair, it’s important to consider how authentic the brand is in their communication and offer of sustainable options,” she says. Singled-out products and capsule collections, for example, might not reflect the overall impact the brand is committed to. “A brief research will suffice to understand if the brand presents a genuine interest in becoming circular,” Debbag says.
Next, look for brands using organic materials, which should include organic cotton or hemp, sustainable dyes and finishing methods and non-sweatshop production methods that are fair trade, says Lindquist. She adds that hemp makes for a solid sustainable alternative to cotton because it’s naturally pest-resistant (omitting the need for harmful pesticides), only requires water to break down and turn into usable fiber and requires far less water to grow than cotton. Marsh also recommends other plant-based fibers like Tencel or Refibra. “Starting here can save up to 1,800 liters of water and toxins from the very start,” she says. While blends are common and might contribute to the overall comfort of your denim, Rycroft recommends staying away since they tend to be more difficult to recycle at the end of their life.
For that added stamp of approval, Debbag suggests keeping an eye out for certifications like Cradle to Cradle Certified since it assesses both environmental and social impact of your denim from product circularity to labor fairness.
Finally, Rycroft recommends considering the longevity of your jeans. “Choose well-made, durable jeans that can be repaired if needed and that will last a long time,” she says. “This will help reduce the overall environmental impact of clothing production and consumption.” For bonus points, she says to buy pre-loved jeans — that worn-in look and feel takes care of any uncomfortable rigid break-in periods commonly associated with a new pair of jeans.
Here, the best sustainable jeans you can feel good about adding to your wardrobe.
“Levi[‘s] creates jeans and other pieces made partially with recycled viscose,” says Rycroft. “Last year they made the iconic 501s with Circulose, a recycled-textile viscose from Renewcell, the world’s first commercial-scale textile-to-textile mill. Renewcell takes clothing and fabric scraps and turns them into next season’s clothing.”
“DL1961 recycles post-consumer textiles and creates new fabric out of it to produce their jeans,” says Lindquist.
“Nudie Jeans has a focus on sustainable raw materials and they also offer repair options for your jeans,” says Debbag.
With its commitment to halving its carbon footprint by 2027, its use of organic cotton in its jeans and its newly appointed B Corp certification, Ganni earns Rycroft's recommendation for an upscale designer denim brand to shop.
For its on-trend Western-inspired stirrup detail and use of low-carbon, next-generation fibers built to naturally degrade in under two years, Rycroft recommends Triarchy as a wise addition to your sustainable jean collection.
Lindquist recommends checking out luxury denim brand Amendi for its sustainability efforts ranging from repurposing discarded “deadstock” fabrics from luxury fashion houses to using naturally biodegradable wood pulp-derived lyocell.
“Mud Jeans is the first ever jeans brand offering a leasing option, which extends the lifecycle and the use of a product and ensures circularity,” says Debbag. The Dutch brand ships globally for €45 and is available in the US via Ooloop.
“Outland Denim, which is Certified B Corp, teams up with at-risk women in Cambodia to produce its ethical denim collection,” says Debbag. “In 2020 alone, the brand employed over 750 staff and used 57% less energy in production.”
“Everlane offers a jean for every body type and is committed to producing with factories that use recycled water and renewable energy,” says Debbag.