Jeans are an item of clothing I wear almost every day but have never given a lot of thought to; I should have. The denim jeans market is enormous — currently valued at over $125 billion Australian dollars and projected to hit over $145 billion by 2023. Globally, 6 billion pairs of jeans are made each year and the number of brands manufacturing them falls in the hundreds.
Not surprising when you look at those numbers, denim jeans have a serious environmental impact. First, there is the sheer drain on resources from manufacture at such an intense level; secondly, there is the drain on water and the intensive use of chemicals involved in the growing of cotton and processing of the denim (dying, distressing, finishing); and thirdly, there is the fact that 85% of textile waste ends up in landfill.
Alongside these environmental issues are issues of social justice, with the problems of unfair working conditions, low wage, risk to workers from chemicals, etc. that are often associated with fashion.
While traditionally denim jeans have been made from 100 per cent cotton, which, as a natural fibre, has the advantage of being able to decompose, increasingly, jeans are mixed with polyester to give them stretch and elasticity. The plastic component obviously doesn’t decompose, which adds one more layer to the environmental problem. This Facebook post is a startling demonstration of what is left from a pair of stretchy jeans after the cotton has decomposed.
Many brands (including several Australian brands, like Nobody Denim, Neuw, and Justice) are trying hard to improve the industry, with a focus on manufacturing locally (to lower the carbon footprint) and ensuring safe work environments and living wages for workers. At the top of that list is the brand that is synonymous with the hardwearing cotton trouser: Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi's have recognised the magnitude of the impact of their product and have overhauled their products and processes to address it. They have started by sourcing more sustainable material, including organic cotton and a cottonised hemp, which functions like cotton but grows quicker and requires far less water; minimising their chemical processing of denim; and increasing the recycled content in their products via their ‘Wellthread’ garments.
Levi's also have a “worker wellbeing” initiative which addresses health, equality, sanitation and financial literacy of workers — an initiative that has been suggested may transform the fashion supply chain. On top of this, they give a lifetime guarantee on their products, which are created to last and be reworn/reused and not end up in landfill at all.
So, the take-away? Like all fashion: buy well and buy to last and choose a sustainable manufacturer and product, there are plenty of options. (And maybe don’t buy stretchy.)
Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.