Jeans have a dirty reputation when it comes to labor and the environment, and it’s not entirely unearned.
To make a pair of real jeans (not jeggings or other fake denim) traditionally, the denim cotton fabric needs to be dipped up to eight times in a giant vat of indigo. Much of the time, this indigo arrives at factories in powder form, exposing factory workers to dangerous amounts of aniline as they inhale it. In factories with older technology, jeans are put in belly washers, which can waste up to 1,500 liters of water per pair of jeans. If the wastewater isn’t properly treated before getting dumped in the local waterway, as in the denim manufacturing area in China called Xintang, it can lead to dangerous levels of lead, copper, cadmium, and water with such a high pH it’s equivalent to ammonia.
If jeans are distressed or bleached, that process can also be toxic and dangerous for workers. Sandblasting can lead to silicosis and lung cancer. Bleaching and fading jeans using hypochlorite and potassium permanganate creates toxic fumes. Even hand-distressing jeans using power tools can create dust containing all the dyes and chemicals applied to the jeans.
But the good news is that the denim industry is one of the most innovative segments of the fashion industry, and it is possible to get a pair of jeans that are incredibly sustainable and untainted by the above issues.
Real cotton denim. To find high-quality jeans, look for a pair that are made predominantly with cotton, with no more than a little bit of synthetic for stretch if you need it. Real denim is close to 100% cotton fabric that is blue on the front (where the indigo-dyed warp yarns show) and white on the back (where the undyed weft yarns show). This real denim is dyed using non-toxic synthetic indigo (which is chemically identical to natural indigo) or sulfur black, which is considered a dye of little concern to human health. Avoid non-denim pants that look like jeans but are made of synthetic fabrics, which can be dyed with toxic or reactive dyes. They also don’t last as long as real denim, falling apart instead of breaking in.
Traceable cotton. Brands should know where their cotton is coming from (what’s called traceable cotton) whether it’s from the U.S., from smallholder farmers in India, or from big farms in Australia. You want cotton that is sprayed with few to no pesticides, and farms that use natural instead of synthetic fertilizers.
Famously sustainable factories. Sustainable brands like to brag about the suppliers they source from and the technology they use. You’ll hear the name of the mills Candiani in Italy, Saitex in Vietnam, or Denim Expert in Bangladesh. In these facilities, there are front-loading washers from Tonello or Jeanologia, which can cut water use by 70 to 80%. When you add in other efficient technologies and water recycling, a pair of jeans can be made with just 11 liters of water, and a reputable mill will carefully treat this water to make it completely clean before releasing it. There are lasers, robots, and enzymatic processes that can safely and quickly distress and fade jeans. There is foam dyeing technology, and dying technology that uses electricity to impregnate the yarns—both of these technologies avoid using powder indigo and use a fraction of the water that traditional dye boxes use.
Ethically made. Denim isn’t just about sustainability, though. It’s about those who put in a hard day’s work to make them. Look for certifications like Fair Trade, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that ensures the payment of fair and stable minimum prices for cotton to ensure health, housing, education, and decent living wages for the supplier/farmer. We also recommend keeping an eye out for Fair Wear Foundation, an international non-profit organization that works with brands, factories, trade unions, governments, and non-governmental organizations to focus on and improve workplace conditions. Also, avoid jeans that are made in Asia from cotton without provenance—there’s a good chance the denim was made with forced Uighur labor in China.
Low maintenance. Part of the beauty of denim is that you can have a direct impact on how sustainable they are. According to Levi’s 2015 lifecycle analysis, 23% of the water use and 37% of the climate impact of a pair of jeans throughout its lifetime is caused by consumers washing and drying their jeans. But jeans don’t need to be washed after every wear. (Unlike synthetic fashion!) Hang them by the belt loop when you take them off for a few hours before you fold them up and put them away. You can go for as long as your jeans are stain-free—we promise they won’t get gross, science says so. Once they are dirty, wash them in cool water and hang them to dry, especially if they have any stretch.
Sustainable packaging. And last but not least, make sure that your jeans show up in parcels that aren’t doomed to the landfill. Buy from brands that use packaging that contains recyclable or biodegradable materials, like recycled cardboard or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper.
If you’re on the hunt for a new pair of jeans, here are our favorite sustainable and ethical jeans: here
Original article: here