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How Eco-Friendly Is Sustainable Denim, Really?

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)
·10-min read

As we prepare to emerge from our quarantine bubbles, many are looking for ways to make the most of their newfound freedom. And not just in the form of big moves, like finally taking that dream vacation or pivoting jobs to do something they love, but in smaller ways as well, like replacing non-green habits with more eco-friendly ones. For instance, according to global shopping platform Lyst, searches for sustainably-made clothing and accessories are generally on the rise, but there’s one item in particular that shoppers are really invested in finding: sustainable denim.

Sustainability-related keywords like “recycled” and “organic” have increased by 229 and 119 percent, respectively, in the past month alone, and shoppers are also looking to buy jeans secondhand from resale sites like Poshmark and ThredUp. But here’s the thing: Cotton, which is used to make denim, is notoriously environmentally un-friendly, meaning buying new jeans is already iffy, even before you add in questions of shipping methods, working conditions or recyclable/compostable packaging. That said, the idea of eliminating denim from our wardrobes all together in the name of sustainability is pretty drastic (and unrealistic for most). So what’s a gal to do? Well, reading up on the best sustainable technologies, learning which eco-certifications mean what and noting what various brands are doing to green their processes is a phenomenal place to start. So we reached out to the experts from four leading sustainable denim brands—Reformation, Ética, Boyish and Kut from the Kloth—to get advice on how to improve our shopping habits. Read on to learn more about how to make your next denim purchase a more sustainable one, without sacrificing an ounce of style.

RELATED: Nordstrom Just Made It So Much Easier to Shop for Eco-Friendly...Everything

Just how environmentally un-friendly is denim in the first place?

“Unfortunately, traditional denim-making methods make it pretty much the worst clothing for the environment,” says Kathleen Talbot, chief sustainability officer and VP operations at Reformation. “Producing denim requires a large amount of water (typically 1,500 gallons per the average pair), and utilizes pesticides in farming cotton and toxic chemicals in dyeing and finishing. In addition to the water and energy used in home laundering, this results in a significant environmental impact.” Indeed, water pollution is one of the biggest (and perhaps most surprising) negative side effects of making jeans. And it all starts with the cotton plants themselves, which require immense amounts of water to grow. But as Jordan Nodarse, founder of Boyish, adds “It’s not that cotton is completely bad, it's just not regulated very well. Cotton is a thirsty crop that requires a lot of water to grow. This can create big issues with the health of the land and for the people working the farms and living in the regions where cotton is grown.” After that, of course, there are concerns about the toxicity of dyes used to achieve that perfect deep blue hue or sun-washed bleach effect and how those chemicals are disposed of. And stretch denim is often even worse. As Michelle Marsh, creative director at Ética, explains, “Stretch denim typically has an oil-based synthetic component to it, which is basically plastic that never breaks down.” So while the cotton of your jeans will eventually decompose, organic or not, the elastic parts that allow your skinny jeans to hug your curves like a glove are here to stay, and not in a good way.

What can brands do to improve the sustainability of their products?

Making eco-friendly denim isn’t as easy as simply switching to organic cotton or vowing to use less water. “No clothing will ever be 100-percent sustainable,” admits Marsh. “But by taking a holistic approach to denim, we can drastically reduce both our consumption and our impact.” This means switching to organic cotton, using non-chlorine-based bleaches and bio-based natural indigo, recycling fibers and employing all these methods when producing labels, hangtags and packaging in addition to the denim itself. Brands can also work with Oeko-Tex Standard 100 materials (which ensures that both the methods used to make clothing and the actual clothes themselves are safe for humans) and look for manufacturing partners, factories and farms that are equally committed to sustainability—with the certifications to back it up. There are a ton of different ways to adjust traditional denim-making processes to make them more eco-friendly, but that also means there are a ton of ways that brands can market themselves as sustainable without necessarily creating a meaningful impact.

It's not hard, but it is sophisticated,” says Nodarse. “I know many people in this industry who still barely understand sustainability and think recycled polyester is sustainable.” Being more environmentally conscious as a business is complicated—there are so many points and procedures to consider, and it takes a lot of consideration, attention and time to really nail down the most eco-friendly way to produce a pair of jeans from start to finish. “Making sustainable denim requires brands to innovate when it comes to sourcing better materials, like organic and regenerative fibers,” adds Talbot, “and cleaning up the supply chain all the way down to farm and fiber levels.” It doesn’t help that less than one percent of the cotton grown in the world is organic, and going green often comes with a premium. Hopefully this will change as more existing companies seek to improve their eco-friendly efforts and as new sustainably-minded companies are formed, but for now it remains a hurdle for even well-established brands.

What should shoppers look for when searching for eco-friendly denim to know it’s the real deal and not just ‘greenwashing?’

‘Greenwashing’ is when a company promotes its products as environmentally friendly when in reality, whatever green practices the brand has adopted don’t have any kind of meaningful impact. “Lots of big companies love to make about 5 percent sustainable products and then market those products heavily,” explains Nodarse. While every little bit counts, sometimes a sustainable slogan or label is really just that—a bit.

“Start by looking for certifications and labels that explain the product,” advises Evelyn Ober, creative director of Kut from the Kloth. “Educate yourself about the green language that is used.” Even if you don’t memorize the intimate details of what it means for a brand to be B Corp or Bluesign certified, simply knowing those names (and the gist of what they stand for) can help you determine whether a company’s green claims are legit. “Look for how much true transparency the company has on their website,” advises Nordarse. “Do they have a sustainability report? Do they publish certifications and transaction receipts for the sustainable products and materials they make or purchase? Are they using harmful plastic-based fibers such as polyamide, polyester, polyurethane or acrylic? Do they have transparency into where their fibers are being made (not the mill or factory, but the fiber itself)?” And if they don’t, don’t be afraid to ask. You can always email, DM or tweet at your most beloved brands to ask them whatever questions you have about their production methods if you’re not finding what you need. They may or may not give you the answers you’re looking for, but these are always good things to know.

“It’s important to understand the different areas of impact in order to evaluate a brand,” advises Marsh. “No brand is perfect, but consider the sourcing, the processing, the packaging and, most importantly, the human aspect.” It’s incredibly difficult to make a fashion brand that is carbon negative or eliminates 100 percent of toxic chemicals used or that’s both eco-conscious and affordable. A good rule of thumb is to think about what is most important to you as a shopper—use of natural organic fibers vs. sustainable synthetics, paying workers livable wages, committing to worker safety, giving back to the communities where products are manufactured—and creating standards for yourself as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

What about the end of the road? Is there a “best” way to dispose of our beloved jeans once they’ve reached the end of their life (aka the holes in the thighs are far too big to be subtly patched up)?

Manufacturing denim is one thing, but we also can’t ignore the other end of the line. For denim that’s still in fine condition but that no longer fits quite right or isn’t really your style anymore, Ober suggests donating them to Goodwill or selling them to vintage or secondhand consignment shops. She and Talbot are also both fans of resale sites like ThredUp to give your jeans a second life. As for denim that’s been worn to shreds or is beyond repair, there are some companies that will accept old materials to be recycled. You can also order your own Terracycle Zero Waste box or look for one nearby. And both Boyish and Reformation are working on ways to “close the loop.” As Talbots tells us, “The Reformation teams are currently working in partnership with the Jeans Redesign project by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative to work toward designing with circularity in mind, specifically when it comes to durability, material health and recyclability in order to eliminate waste.” And Boyish is hoping to have an upcycling program for old denim up and running within the next two years.

But really the best thing to do is to shop more mindfully and invest in pieces that will last rather than ones that will wear out or go out of style in a matter of months. “I would start with buying what you love, and keeping it for a long time,” says Marsh. “Denim is meant to improve with every wear, so take care of your jeans, let them age, embrace the rips. That’s the best part!” You don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to refresh your jeans drawer with more sustainable denim, you just need to be willing to do a little research first.

Shop our favorite sustainable denim pieces:

1. Reformation Liza High Rise Straight Jeans

Buy it ($118)

Available in sizes 23 to 31

2. Ética Tyler High Rise Vintage Straight Jeans

Buy it ($178)

Available in sizes 24 to 32

3. Kut from the Kloth Ronna High-Rise Ankle Skinny Jeans

Buy it ($98)

Available in sizes 10W to 26W

4. Boyish Toby Relaxed Jeans

Buy it ($168)

Available in sizes 22 to 30

5. Outerknown Iconoclast High-Rise Skinny Jeans

Buy it ($248)

Available in sizes 24 to 32

6. Warp + Weft Mia High-Rise Flair Jeans

Buy it ($98)

Available in sizes 14 to 24

7. RE/DONE High-Rise Loose Jeans

Buy it ($250)

Available in sizes 23 to 32

8. DL1961 Mara Straight Jeans

Buy it ($189)

Available in sizes 23 to 34

9. ABLE Tori Trouser Jeans

Buy it ($85)

Available in sizes 24 to 32

10. Kut from the Kloth Connie High-Rise Slim-Fit Ankle Skinny Jeans

Buy it ($89)

Available in sizes 00 to 18

11. Reformation Cynthia Tie-Dye High-Rise Straight-Leg jeans

Buy it ($198)

Available in sizes 23 to 31

12. Boyish The Zachary

Buy it ($158)

Available in sizes 22 to 32

13. Ética Sasha High Waist Flare Jeans

Buy it ($178)

Available in sizes 24 to 30

14. ELV Light Blue Match Straight Leg Jean

Buy it ($336)

Available in sizes 26 to 29

15. Mud Jeans Relax Rose Undyed Jeans

Buy it ($163)

Available in sizes 25 to 33

RELATED: Sustainable Swimwear You’ll Actually Want to Wear This Summer

PureWow may receive a portion of sales from products purchased from this article, which was created independently from PureWow's editorial and sales departments.