Updated: Jul 21, 2021
[Since this is a long article, I've provided links to relevant section so that the readers may move to the relevant sections with ease.]
"Jeans and a top" replied the 14-year-old niece of our building caretaker when I asked her what birthday gift she demanded from her aunt.
Jeans have become a wardrobe staple for most people irrespective of class, gender, age, or religion, throughout the world. They add to the style statement without much accessorization in addition to being comfortable and hassle-free. Denim jeans are also one of the most long-lasting fashion trends that have been in existence for over a century. To understand this long-standing fashion trend of denim, we need to understand its history.
The Denim, as we know today, was first produced in Nîmes, France. It is a strong cotton fabric made using a twill weave (French term 'Serge') which gives its characteristic diagonal ribbing pattern. This twill fabric is termed Serge in French and hence the denim fabric that originated from Nîmes was called Serge de Nimes (Twill fabric from Nimes). The word 'Denim' was thus contracted from the French phrase Serge 'de Nim'es (from Nimes).
Blue jeans were initially made to be a utilitarian and sturdy garment for the working class with a simple and uncomplicated design that was cheap and easy to make much before the riveted jeans came into the market. Since these garments were made for rough use by miners and other labourers, the pocket corners and other stressed-out parts were found to wear out and tear prematurely. To address this problem, a tailor of Latvian descent named
Jacob W. Davis hammered copper rivets onto the pocket corners and the base of the fly where jeans would often tear. Davis wanted to patent his design but did not have the amount required to pay for the patent application. So he approached his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss from San Francisco, in 1872. And thus Levi Strauss & Co. was born on receipt of the patent on May 20, 1873. [For more elaborate and pictorial year-wise account of Levi Strauss & Co. growth and achievements, you may visit https://www.levi.in/about-us.html]
Over time, as various design improvements were made to the denim, and as more and more companies came into manufacturing of the same, the denim took a leap forward from work-wear to fashion wear, leisurewear, travel wear, youth icon, etc.
The blue colour came from indigo dyes extracted from Indigofera tinctoria, the indigo plant. In 1865, the synthesised version of indigo was discovered by a German chemist, Adolf von Baeyer, which was later introduced as Pure Indigo by the German chemical producer, BASF, in 1897. Today, almost all pieces of denim are dyed with this synthetic indigo.
Life cycle of Denim and environmental impacts in each phase
As per a release by the American Chemical Society, more than 2500 gallons (approx. 9500 litres) of water are required to produce one pair of jeans. If about 2 billion jeans are produced worldwide every year, it is not difficult to fathom the amount of water required in the jeans' overall manufacture.
Let's take a look at the life cycle of denim from the cradle to its grave.
1. Cotton production
Cotton production requires water
About 1.5 lbs (approx. 680 gms) of cotton is required to produce 1 pair of jeans on average. And it takes 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton. If 2 billion jeans are produced worldwide every year, then accordingly 1.36 billion kilogram of cotton is required for jeans production only, which means 13,600 billion litres of water is required annually.
How does it impact us? And we have 4 billion people (i.e. 2/3rds of the world population) who experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year as per UNICEF. Even a mere 100 litre per head per day is not available to them.
Cotton production made a sea nearly disappear in what is termed as the planet's worst environmental disaster. One of the 4th largest lake/inland sea in the world, the Aral sea, is now virtually gone (pic below). You can also watch the video here .
Cotton production often is associated with inappropriate use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Cotton production may lead to inappropriate and extensive use of petroleum based fertilizers and chemical pesticides, when sustainable growing practices are not applied. Cotton uses up 10% of world's all agricultural chemicals such as those in pesticides and fertilisers.
How does it impact us? Serious pollution of water sources
Decrease in soil fertility
Harmful effects on human health, poisoning of fish and other aquatic organisms and loss of biodiversity
Fertiliser production and use can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Fabric production
The denim fabric production involves several steps which has been broadly sub-divided into 3 categories as given below.
1. Yarn production (including spinning and warping) for weaving into denim fabric
How does it impact us? Yarn production leads to huge cotton dusts and also other wastes from cotton. The cotton dusts cause air pollution. This leads to burdening of landfills and water resources with varied wastes.
2. Warp yarn dyeing (including dyestuff and auxiliaries production and use).
The Warp yarn is indigo dyed to give denim its characteristic blue colour. The conventional denim (indigo) dyeing employs up to 15 dyeing vats with potentially harmful chemicals. Other processes such as sizing, bleaching and denim washing consume huge amounts of water.
How does it impact us? Effluents containing indigo dye and other dye types make water toxic and unfit for human and animal consumption, and cause an imbalance in different aquatic ecosystem food chains. Water pollution: dyeing and finishing effluent discharge in water bodies Air pollution: cotton dust, abrasives and chemicals found in air. Solid waste (sludge) The presence of organic pollutants, colour (dye), dissolved solids, suspended solids, toxic (heavy) metals and residual chlorine in the effluent results in a high oxygen demand. Both these lead to loss of dissolved oxygen concentration, loss of nutrients for aquatic life and ultimately killing of aquatic life.
Again, often as per consumers' demands various shades of blue denim is often manufactured. The lighter the blue colour, the more washing processes it has been through and the more water it has used.
'Five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper) were found in
17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from throughout Xintang and Gurao in
China. In one sample, cadmium exceeded China’s national limits by 128 times. Workers and residents have reported rashes, lesions, and, some locals believe, infertility has also risen due to this. There’s a "joke" that makes rounds in the textile industry that, if you want to know what colours are trending next season, just look at the colour of the rivers in China.'
As discussed in the previous section, denim fabric has a special weave known as the twill weave, which produces a compact and hardy weave and the distinct diagonal ribbed pattern. The warp threads are indigo-dyed while the weft threads are kept white, which gives the denims the characteristic whiter shade in the insides. Most of the Denim fabric construction is either 2/1 or 3/1 construction of either left or right handed twill.
With the recent fashion trends of slim fit and skinny jeans, stretch denim fabric is used more often than pure cotton.
How does it impact us? This stretch denim weaves spandex or another elastic component to give the fabric some added give and flexibility. Spandex or any other synthetic elastic component is made of plastic. Hence, over time they start shedding microplastics.
3. Garment Manufacturing
1. Cutting and sewing (garment manufacturing).
How does it impact us? Often child labour is employed in garment-cutting, thread cutting which leads to various occupational diseases and hazards. Byssinosis, also called ‘brown lung disease’ or ‘Monday fever’, is an occupational lung disease caused by exposure to cotton dust in inadequately ventilated working environments.
2. Garment washing/finishing (including the production and use of chemicals, auxiliaries, enzymes, etc.).
The methods of processing/finishing denim have changed over time according to fashion changes and customer demands. Washing of denim is done to bring in the faded effect or distressed effects or various other effects. Usually, this processing or washing is applied on already sewn garments. Depending on the treatment or wash given, the denim is classified into different categories.
Categories of Denim:
Raw Denim - Raw or dry denim is the denim fabric that has not been washed after it is dyed. This creates a rougher and stiffer texture.
How does it impact us? Raw denim hasn't been washed or treated with chemicals multiple times, hence it has lesser negative impact on the environment compared to other processed denims.
Sanforized denim - Sanforized denim is washed denim so that the denim to stabilize it and reduce the amount of shrink and distortion the fabric will experience when it is first washed.
How does it impact us? Huge amount of water wastage, energy usage and release of chemicals that have been used in the manufacturing of the fabric.
Worn Look, Faded Jeans, Distressed Denim - Various types of washing are applied to denims to bring out the worn look or faded look.
Stonewash - To bring the 'broken-in' faded look in a denim that has been frequently washed and worn, stonewashing using pumice stones are done. As such, these denims are often termed as 'stonewashed denims'. The wash machine is loaded with water, denim garments, pumice stone, bleaching powder, and soda ash and processed for about 20–40 min. After this, the denim garments are further washed in repeated cycles to remove the pumice stone dusts and other chemicals.
Acid and Mineral wash - The acid wash process usually involves tumbling the garments with pumice stones or other abrasive agents which have been soaked in a bleaching agent. The mineral wash process includes a foam block sprayed with a bleaching agent. Both these methods produce a contrast-fading, mottled look on the denim.
How does it impact us? Water wastage: A huge amount of water is required for repeated washing cycles to remove the deposited pumice or acids or other minerals from the denim. Environmental Pollution: The effluent from repeated washes containing acids, minerals and/or pumice dust lead to environmental pollution.
Enzyme wash - Cellulase enzymes are used that break down the cellulose in cotton fibers on the surface of the garment and also remove some of the indigo dye to give the worn look on the denim.
How does it impact us? Enzyme wash is an eco-friendly alternative to acid wash or mineral wash due to the natural origin of the enzymes.
Sandblasted denim - Sandblasting is done to lighten specific areas of the denim garment by spraying sand onto garments at high pressure to get the worn and faded look.
How does it impact us? The powdery silica dust easily floats in the air and poses serious respiratory disease such as silicosis. At just 15, Bego Demir worked in a denim sandblasting factory in Turkey where he knew over 120 people who died from silicosis. "After 8 years of working in sandblasting, half of my lungs don't work anymore," he mentions.
Bleached denim - In this process a strong oxidative bleaching agent such as sodium hypochlorite or KMnO4 is added during the washing with or without stone addition.
How does it impact us? The permanganate or the hypochlorite is harmful to human health and may cause lung damage. It also corrodes the stainless steel drum of the bleaching machine. The effluent contains chlorinated organic substances which cause severe pollution to the environment.
4. Transportation & Distribution
Once the jeans have been finished, they are shipped out to retailers for sale and further distribution.
How does it impact us? The whole logistics of marketing, distribution and sale involves significant greenhouse gas emissions by way of usage of non-renewable energy, which leaves a high carbon footprint.
5. Consumer Use
As the denims are brought into the outlets, they are bought by the customer. After wearing, they are washed by the consumer numerous times in the denim's consumer life-cycle. This phase has one of the highest environmental impacts in the whole life-cycle of denim.
How does it impact us? Each time the denims are washed, they release a plethora of chemicals and microfibres into the environment. Researches have revealed that just one wash could be responsible for the release of 50,000 individual microfibres.
6. End of Life
Once the denims have reached their end of life and has become too torn or too stained to be of further use, they are majorly disposed of. Even, in some cases, an old denim which is still fairly good to use is often disposed of to give way to a new one. As a result, a vast majority of denims end up in landfill, further polluting the planet.
The environmental impact of denim is devastating; it has polluted rivers, destroyed ecosystems and affected the local communities especially in China, India and Bangladesh. This impact is recorded in the documentary "Riverblue", which also depicts the toxic chemicals and immense amount of water used in denim production.
There is no straight forward or easy solution to this problem; also, sustainability in the whole life-cycle cannot be obtained at once. According to a survey conducted by the denim brand Levi Strauss, consumer care and fabric production are the most significant phases for climate change impact and energy. Sustainability in production can only be achieved by reducing the use of water, energy and chemicals which in turn will reduce the environmental impacts.
Some of the global brands have already started making or have made various changes in their production processes as well as during the consumer life-cycle of denims that ultimately has lesser environmental impacts.
The world's leading brand Levi Strauss & Co. has already initiated various sustainable practices since 2010 such as: water<less finishing techniques, shifting to renewable electricity in their facilities, using organic cotton, cottonized hemp, and recycled cotton, committing itself to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals, providing a safe, dignified and healthy environment for its workers around the world, selling refurbished second-hand denims, opening in-store tailor shops at its flagship stores for repair and re-purposing of worn out denims. Not only these, they are also collaborating with other brands to pass on their sustainable innovations so that others may adopt them in the long run and reduce their negative footprint on the environment.
Another leading brand, Jack & Jones introduced its Low Impact Denim to save water and energy and uses laser and ozone to achieve the desired fading effect or other designs.
MUD jeans attempts to manufacture denims in a circular economy using 30% recycled cotton and 70% organic cotton. They have also introduced a lease option wherein a customer can either purchase or lease the denim for 1 year. On completion of 1 year, the consumer can swap the old jeans for new one or lease the same for another year.
The New Denim Project by focuses on a zero waste industrial system by maximizing recycling, waste minimization, proper reuse and repair, and redesigning.
Many other brands are taking various eco-friendly initiatives to reduce their negative environmental footprints. The links to some eco-friendly denim brands are given in the next section.
From consumers point of view, if we are looking to make conscious and sustainable fashion choices we may adopt the following habits:
We may choose to shop more sustainably by buying vintage or second hand or pre-loved clothing. As Whitney Bauck, a sustainability reporter says, “No amount of organic cotton or lower-impact chemical treatments on new jeans can compare to the sustainability factor of just using some of the clothing that already exists on this planet."
If we choose to buy a new one owing to varied reasons of our own, it is always helpful if we can opt for sustainable clothing brands which has lesser impact on the environment. Again, one may say that these sustainable brands are costlier than the regular brands. In that case, we may choose to shift to slow fashion, avoid over-consumption and buy fewer clothes from sustainable brands to help reduce our impact /carbon footprint on the environment.
We may choose to avoid stretch denims.
Avoid washing after every 2 times a product is worn and start washing after 10 times of wear so that it reduces energy use, climate change impact, and water intake by up to 80%.
Repairing, Reusing, Recycling our existing jeans will create lesser waste that goes into the landfills.
Even when buying from sustainable brands, it is easy to think that when a product is sustainable we don’t have to be careful and we can buy as much as we want. But a product is only sustainable if it is used right. The extra pairs that probably we will never wear are still over-consumption.