Last updated on January 21st, 2024 at 11:35 pm
Denim is probably the most popular fabric. But denim’s eco-credentials have sparked considerable debate. Is denim a sustainable fabric? And what are the emerging sustainable alternatives and practices in the denim industry?
This post explores the environmental impact of denim production and highlights sustainable alternatives to traditional denim.
Denim Through History
The origin of denim can be traced back to France, where a fabric called “serge de Nimes” was produced in the city of Nimes. This fabric was a cotton twill weave with a blue warp and a white weft, which gave it a distinctive appearance. The name “denim” is derived from “de Nimes”, meaning “from Nimes”.
Denim was exported to other countries, especially Italy, where it was popular among sailors and workers. The word “jeans” comes from “Gênes”, the French name for Genoa, a port city in Italy where denim trousers were worn.
In the 19th century, denim crossed the Atlantic and reached the United States, where it was used for making durable workwear. The first pair of rivet-reinforced denim pants was created by Jacob W. Davis, a tailor from Nevada, who partnered with Levi Strauss, a dry goods wholesaler who supplied him with denim fabric. Together, they patented the design of Levi’s jeans, which became a success among miners, cowboys, and farmers.
In the 20th century, denim jeans became a symbol of youth culture and rebellion, thanks to movies, music, and celebrities. Denim also diversified into different styles, colors, and washes, and was used for making jackets, shirts, skirts, dresses, and more. Today, denim is one of the most popular and versatile fabrics in the world, worn by people of all ages, backgrounds, and tastes.
Denim and Slavery
Denim is a fabric that has a long and complex history, intertwined with the history of slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. Denim is made from cotton, a crop that was cultivated by enslaved people in America and other parts of the world, under brutal conditions and for the profit of plantation owners. Denim is also dyed with indigo, a plant that was also grown and processed by enslaved Africans, who had the knowledge and skills to produce the coveted blue dye. Indigo was so valuable that it was used as a currency for trading enslaved people.
Denim, therefore, is not just a material for clothing, but also a symbol of oppression, resistance, and solidarity. Denim was worn by enslaved people as workwear, and later by civil rights activists as a way of expressing their identity and challenging the status quo. Denim also became a popular fashion choice for young people, artists, musicians, and rebels, who wanted to break away from the norms and expectations of society.
Today, denim is still a versatile and durable fabric that can be worn by anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or background. However, we should also be aware of the environmental and social impact of denim production, which can involve water pollution, chemical waste, deforestation, and exploitation of workers. We should also remember the history of denim and how it connects us to the struggles and achievements of those who came before us.
How Is Denim Made?
Denim is usually made from cotton yarns that are dyed with indigo or other colors. Denim is woven in a way that creates a diagonal ribbing pattern on the surface of the fabric, and is commonly used to make jeans, jackets, shirts, and other garments.
Here are the steps (briefly) of denim manufacturing:
- Cotton fibers are harvested from the cotton plant and cleaned to remove any dirt, seeds, or impurities.
- The cotton fibers are spun into yarns using a machine that twists them together. The yarns are then wound onto spools or bobbins.
- The yarns are dyed with indigo or other colors using a vat dyeing process. Indigo is a natural dye that comes from a plant and gives denim its characteristic blue color. The yarns are dipped into the dye bath several times to achieve the desired shade.
- The dyed yarns are woven into denim fabric using either a shuttle loom or a projectile loom. A shuttle loom produces a continuous weft thread that passes through the warp threads, creating a smooth and sturdy edge. A projectile loom produces a separate weft thread for each row, creating a more delicate edge. The warp threads are usually dyed, while the weft threads are usually white or undyed, giving denim its distinctive appearance.
- The denim fabric is then finished to improve its quality and appearance. Finishing processes may include brushing, sanforizing, mercerizing, bleaching, washing, and distressing. These processes can affect the texture, softness, shrinkage, color, and durability of the denim fabric.
- The finished denim fabric is then cut and sewn into garments by garment manufacturers. The garments may undergo further treatments such as stone washing, sanding, lasering, or embroidering to create different styles and effects.
Environmental Impact of Denim Production
Denim is one of the most popular fabrics in the world, but it also has a huge environmental impact. From growing cotton to dyeing and finishing, denim production consumes a lot of water, energy, and chemicals, and generates a lot of pollution and waste.
According to some estimates, producing one pair of jeans requires up to 7,660 gallons of water and releases around 33.4 kg of CO2. That’s equivalent to driving about 80 miles in a car. In addition, denim production uses harmful chemicals like bleach, indigo dye, and pesticides, which can contaminate water sources and harm human health.
Chemical Pollution in Denim Production
The synthetic indigo used to color jeans is extremely poisonous and can still be found in the environment. Additionally, the finishing agents used in denim production may contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, which can pose risks to the health of employees.
Waste production is another issue in denim manufacturing. Studies have shown that up to 20% of the fabric used to make denim clothes is wasted, with a significant amount of this waste being burned or dumped in landfills. This not only contributes to greenhouse gas emissions but also leads to environmental harm.
Furthermore, the production of denim results in the generation of millions of liters of wastewater that contains dangerous chemicals and dyes. This wastewater, tainted with toxic chemicals, is often dumped into the environment, contaminating soil and waterways. This contamination negatively impacts both people and wildlife in the surrounding areas.
Some of the worst effects of denim production are seen in places like Xintang, China, where rivers run blue and smell foul from the wastewater dumped by denim factories. Residents and workers suffer from rashes, lesions, and possibly infertility due to exposure to toxic metals like mercury, lead, and copper.
Energy Consumption in Denim Manufacturing
The production of denim fabric requires a considerable amount of energy, contributing to carbon emissions and climate change. More efficient production technologies are available to reduce energy consumption and minimize the environmental impact. However, it is important to note that many smaller denim laundries in manufacturing countries may not have implemented these technologies yet, resulting in higher energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Can Denim Be Sustainable?
There are some ways to make denim more sustainable, such as using organic cotton, natural dyes, recycled materials, and innovative technologies that reduce water and energy consumption.
For example, Patagonia uses a new process known as ‘Advanced Denim’ that can considerably reduce the environmental impacts of denim production (reducing 92% of water consumption, 30% of energy consumption and almost no wastewater while producing a pair of jeans compared to the traditional methods).
Some denim brands are also adopting eco-labeling and environmentally friendly denim production methods, such as using renewable energy, biodegradable packaging, and fair trade practices.
To standardize all the certifications and labels is a tough task. But, organizations such as Jeanologia do just that, and include a self-accreditation tool.
Turkish brand Calik Denim has introduced Washpro Technology, a set of sustainability-driven innovations to, among other goals, reduce denim’s environmental impact throughout its life cycle. There’s also a new dyeing method, using natural indigo.
Methods for finishing jeans, like sandblasting, often leads to silicosis, an incurable disease that affects around 2.3 million workers in the US. Safer alternatives such as laser, ozone, and water jets are being increasingly incorporated into denim manufacturing processes.
Sustainable Alternatives to Traditional Denim
1 / Organic Cotton Denim
Organic cotton is often considered a sustainable alternative to traditional cotton denim. It is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, which reduces the environmental impact of cotton farming. However, it’s important to note that the sustainability of cotton as a whole depends on various factors, such as farming practices and the use of fossil-fuel-based synthetics in denim production.
While organic cotton only makes up a small percentage of the cotton market (1.4%), it can help ensure that farming practices are managed well. Incorporating organic cotton into denim production can contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry.
It’s worth mentioning that stretch denim, which is commonly used in jeans, often incorporates fossil-fuel-based synthetics along with cotton. This can affect the overall sustainability of denim due to the lower quality and shorter lifespan of stretch denim.
2 / Recycled Denim
Recycled denim is a sustainable alternative to traditional denim. By repurposing old denim garments, we can reduce waste and minimize the environmental impact of denim production. Recycled denim is made by breaking down old denim into smaller pieces, which are then woven into new yarn and used to create new jeans. This process not only saves resources but also gives a new life to discarded denim.
Brands such as ELV Denim make their jeans out of 100% upcycled denim.
Also, we do not really need to buy any more brand new denim garments. More than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide in 2018. There are more than enough existing jeans in the world, which can be repurposed into new outfits. Check out some cool online stores for secondhand clothing.
3 / Hemp Denim
Organic hemp is one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics. It’s grown without herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. It’s a natural fabric, bio-based, and biodegradable as well. The hemp plant doesn’t require a lot of water to grow. Hemp clothes that are natural, soft, breathable, lightweight, and durable.
What to look for when you’re looking for sustainable denim:
- Eco-friendly jeans: Jeans that are made from organic cotton, natural dyes, recycled materials, or other environmentally friendly methods.
- Ethical denim: Denim that is produced with respect for the human rights, health, and safety of the workers involved in the manufacturing process.
- Organic denim: Denim that is made from cotton that is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds.
- Recycled denim: Denim that is made from reclaimed or reused denim fabric, yarn, or fibers, reducing the amount of waste and resources needed for new production.
- Upcycled denim: Denim that is creatively transformed from old or unwanted denim garments into new and unique products, such as bags, accessories, or home decor items.
- Advanced denim: Denim that is made using innovative technologies that reduce the water, energy, and chemical consumption during the dyeing and finishing processes.
- Zero water denim: Denim that is made using a process that eliminates the need for water during the production, such as dry dyeing, air washing, or ozone bleaching.
FAQs About Denim Fabric
1 / What is the environmental impact of denim production?
Denim production has a significant environmental impact, including high water usage, chemical pollution, and energy consumption.
2 / What are some sustainable alternatives to traditional denim?
Some sustainable alternatives to traditional denim include organic cotton denim, recycled denim, and hemp denim.
3 / How can denim production be made more sustainable?
Denim production can be made more sustainable by reducing water usage, minimizing chemical pollution, and adopting eco-friendly manufacturing processes.
This post was about the sustainability of denim fabric
The denim industry needs to take urgent action to reduce its environmental impact and become more sustainable. Some possible solutions include recycling denim, using organic cotton, adopting waterless dyeing methods, and encouraging consumers to buy less and wash less.
As consumers, we can also make a difference by choosing eco-friendly denim brands, wearing our jeans longer, washing them less often, and recycling or donating them when we no longer need them. By doing so, we can help protect the environment and our health from the harmful effects of denim production.
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