The search for the perfect pair of jeans is a quest that many of us began in our mid-teens and are still pursuing many years later. Wrestling in and out of piles of denim in a cramped fitting room to find the right wash, cut, length and shade is only made more painful by glaring changing-room lights and unflattering mirrors.
But before you continue your pursuit, it is worth considering the environmental and human impact of producing just a single pair of jeans. “Denim is made primarily from cotton, which consumes 6% of all agricultural chemicals and 16% of all insecticides produced globally,” Sarah Ditty, Policy Director at Fashion Revolution, explains. “Farmers in India have taken on huge debts to be able to buy these inputs. Unable to repay debtors, over 315,000 farmers have taken their own lives in India’s cotton growing belt since 1995. Meanwhile, cotton is a very thirsty crop, requiring over 7,000 litres to produce just one pair of jeans.” Approximately 70 per cent of lakes and rivers across Asia are polluted by the toxic chemicals and waste water produced by the continent’s textile industry.
In addition to the vast amounts of water – billions of gallons a year – that are required for denim production, many brands then artificially treat the textile and use sandblasting processes to make it appear distressed. That well-worn denim look you love? It could be fatal. Sandblasting, which was banned in 2009 but is still being carried out, has been linked to lung disease.
The horrifying truth doesn’t mean you have to give up denim entirely, it’s just about making more socially conscious choices. “When shopping for jeans with sustainability credentials, you need to consider both the production process and also how well your garment is made and the quality of materials – and therefore how long you will have it,” Erin Fridja, founder of cult east London denim store, Bad Denim, explains. “Fast fashion disposable jeans that wear out quickly and are too flimsy or not worthwhile to repair are by far the worst for the environment, adding to our massive waste problem.”
“Most premium denim brands have some sort of initiative and awareness of circularity or at least reducing the amount of consumption and waste,” Fridja continues. “Producing a pair of new jeans has a massive impact on the environment with the space and chemicals required to grow cotton and also in the dying and washing production processes. In my mind the most ecologically aware brands are those that reuse and reimagine jeans, not just shredding and remaking but repurposing the actual jean.”
Rather than reaching for a new pair of jeans on your next shopping trip, choose upcycled, recycled and organic options instead. Not sure where to start? Below are some of the best sustainable denim brands to browse now.
In 2017, the cult LA brand, adored for its floaty print dresses and Instagram-approved blouses, officially branched out into denim. Offering a range of flattering styles and washes made using deadstock and sustainably sourced fibres, Ref Jeans are available in a variety of sizes, from a US 4 to 22.
Founded in 2014, Re/Done began as a premium jeans site which repurposed vintage Levi’s, but more recently, the LA-based brand expanded to create its own denim line based on bestselling styles from a mid-rise modern skinny fit to a borrowed-from-the-boys relaxed shape. Get excited about an upcoming collaboration with Vogue favourite, The Attico, inspired by ’70s and ’80s LA.
E.L.V. (East London Vintage) takes discarded denim and reworks it into new covetable styles from straight cuts to flared jeans. All designed and manufactured in east London, the brand prioritises minimising waste, water and energy footprints. Stylist and founder Anna Foster explains, “the essence of my brand is that I take what is rejected by others and turn it into something super-modern, sophisticated and with an incredible fit.”
Founded in Gothenburg in 2001, Swedish denim company Nudie Jeans’s unisex collections are made from 100% organic cotton. The transparent company offers free repair services, resells second hand products and also recycles worn out products.
DL1961 is a New York-based brand creating denim wear for women, men and children, all with premium materials and innovative, water-efficient fibres, meaning they’ll last and won’t lose shape. Every pair is made from ethically-sourced cotton, while solar panels power factory operations and the natural indigo dyes used are derived from plants.