Dirty Denim: The Environmental Impact of an American Classic - Public Goods

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Dirty Denim: The Environmental Impact of an American Classic

Have you ever bought a pair of jeans just to get home and get a waft of a chemical cocktail?

denim blue jeans
Photo by Uwe Jelting on Unsplash

Denim is one of the dirtiest secrets of the fashion industry, and its manufacturing is laden with toxic chemicals, water pollution and fossil fuel emissions. Let’s get into the details of dirty denim and how you can find clean alternatives.

Traditional Denim: Toxic and Textured

Denim is made of cotton, which, in addition to being one of the most profitable crops, also happens to be one of the thirstiest. It takes 1,500 gallons of water to make a traditional pair of jeans, which is almost six years worth of drinking water for one person. A plethora of pesticides and fertilizers are sowed on cotton fields, degrading the quality of waterways downstream from factories and threatening the health of local communities.

Once picked, the cotton is spun into thread, dyed and woven into your new favorite pair of jeans. Denim then undergoes a rigorous washing and chemically intensive process to create a classic textured look. This manufacturing wreaks havoc on the environment.

Xintang, China produces 300 million denim products a year and serves as “the denim capital of the world”. Despite local government intervention, factories continue to dispose of wastewater from the washing process directly into the river.

“If it didn’t rain for a few days, you would find that the river turned dark blue”, said local resident Dong Yaoming (using a pseudonym).

Unsurprisingly, when Greenpeace conducted a study in 2010, levels of heavy metals exceeded environmental standards. In “The RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet?,” conservationist Mark Angelo traveled to rivers that are riddled with toxic chemical waste as a result of the fashion industry. He spoke with community members who use the rivers for daily life, but consequently suffer from cancer and skin issues.

It can be easy to “other” this trauma to the planet, but rivers are not stagnant. The chemicals persisting in Xintang wind their way through channels and into our shared oceans.

Harmful chemicals are not isolated to the manufacturing process. If you’ve seen blue dye on your legs or socks after wearing a new pair of jeans, it’s likely azo dye. When it makes contact with skin, the dye releases aromatic amines, some of which are known to be carcinogenic. The EU and other countries have banned azo dyes. These ingredients now fall under California’s Proposition 65, so that consumers are aware of potential health effects.

Clean It Up

Albeit a traditionally dirty manufacturing process, many brands and organizations are rallying around cleaner denim. One changemaker called bluesign®️ helps clean up supply chains by identifying and removing 900+ potentially dangerous chemicals from manufacturing. For a garment to be bluesign®️-certified, the factory must meet standards for pollution control, consumer safety and resource consumption.

Photo by Uwe Jelting on Unsplash

The cleanest denim factory, Saitex, follows safe chemical practices in addition to its rigorous commitment to a minimal environmental impact. They air-dry their jeans instead of using driers. In total they have reduced their CO2 emissions by 80%. All denim factories create a nasty toxic byproduct called sludge, but at Saitex the sludge is sent to a brick factory and mixed with concrete to trap these toxins and make bricks that build affordable housing.

A growing number of certifications are now proudly displayed on jeans, but be sure you know what you’re getting next time something looks sustainable. Cradle to Cradle and Fair Trade also focus on securing fair wages for workers and lessening the environmental impact of denim.

Stand Up to Dirty Denim

Dirty denim can only survive as long as consumers support it. While it’s cheap, the cost is paid by factory workers and innocent communities in economically disadvantaged areas around the world. Next time you think about a new pair of jeans or a denim jacket, consider spending your dollars elsewhere.

Support brands that have ethics aligned with your own and research their practices. Everlane has a history of putting sustainability and equity ahead of profit. Companies like Warp+Weft and Outerknown share this ethos, and their commitment to sustainable style is evident in their branding. Reformation commits to sustainability down to the thread by breaking down each pair of jeans with percentages of recycled cotton, organically grown cotton and TENCEL™, a less intensive crop than cotton. Patagonia is committed to carbon neutrality by 2025, and even the classic Levi’s is reimagining their role in the climate movement by taking steps to design less resource-intensive clothing with technology such as laser dyeing.

Thrifting for the perfect pair of jeans might seem impossible, but with online shops like ThredUp, you can let your search engine do the work.

Turning them in as another sustainable option. Many stores now accept old jeans to recycle in exchange for a discount on your next purchase. Madewell has a partnership with Blue Jeans Go Green, who turns your old pair of cutoffs into housing insulation. H&M collects all old clothing and organizes textile recycling.

Whether it’s at the beginning or end of the product lifecycle, there are many ways you can mitigate the impact of the dirty denim industry. After all, isn’t protecting the environment and your fellow man more important than buying cheap, fast fashion jeans?

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

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