The Quest for Zero Waste Jeans

Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability writer

Denim jeans are one of the most enduring fashion staples and a beloved item in the wardrobes of millions of people. Originally made to withstand tough conditions, denims have literally endured the test of time. Now the blue pants stand before another challenge: to answer the call for sustainability. 

Clothes made from denim come to consumers at a heavy cost to the environment. Many companies, notably the famous denim brand Levi, have introduced steps to alleviate denim’s negative impacts, but is such a thing as zero waste jeans really achievable? If jeans could be produced sustainably, it would have a significant impact on the environmental burden of the fashion industry as a whole because it’s such a sought-after clothing item. Ironically, it’s the very popularity of denims that contribute to their negative environmental impact.

Understanding denim’s current relationship with the environment is the first step to redressing the problem.

Jeans and sand

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

  • Water usage
  • We all know that growing cotton requires huge volumes of water, and more water is used during the dying process, but those words don’t create a mental picture that will make consumers pause when shopping for jeans. Deutsche Welle has found the right words to illustrate the problem: ‘’Every time you buy a new pair of jeans, it's like turning on your shower and letting the water run down the drain for 21 hours.’’ Think about that for a moment.

    And it’s not as if we have an abundance of water. According to UNICEF, four billion people experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year. It’s inexcusable that water that could be available for drinking, food preparation, and sanitation is being appropriated by the fashion industry.

  • Water pollution
  • Not only does denim manufacturing use too much water, it pollutes the water it uses and the streams and rivers the water comes from. Denim’s famous blue colour is created using synthetic indigo dye in combination with toxic chemicals. The resulting toxic sludge gets discharged in local streams and rivers, killing aquatic life and infiltrating local farmland soil. 

    According to some estimates, 70% of Asia’s rivers and lakes are contaminated as a result of wastewater produced by the textile industry.

    A 2020 study in Canada found that the most damaging stage of a denim jean’s life cycle is when regularly worn and washed. This is when microfibres escape into the air and into the water supplies ending up in rivers, lakes and oceans. The study found that around 50,000 microfibres escape from the surface of jeans every time they’re washed.

    The study detected traces of denim microfibres in the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada, the suburban lakes of Ontario and even the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

  • Sandblasting
  • Used to achieve the popular “distressed” look, sandblasting is devastating for factory workers. The process involved shooting abrasive sand onto denim jeans using high pressure to give jeans a distressed and pre-worn look. Inhaling the resulting polluted air causes silicosis, which is an incurable lung disease. While many brands and countries have stopped the practice and have opted for laser treatment instead, there is no way to ascertain if the practice has been completely terminated.

  • Large-scale ripping
  • Another hugely popular fashion look is ripped jeans. If you are tearing your old jeans to get the desired ripped look, the microfibres that escape into the air may not be a big deal. However, ripping thousands of jeans simultaneously and in place can cause a veritable micro-fiber cloud, which slowly falls to the ground and eventually ends up in the soil and local waterways.

  • Stretched jeans
  • Stretched jeans are very popular as they tend to be more comfortable than regular jeans, but from an eco-friendly point of view, they are not the best choice. The fabric for stretchy jeans is made by weaving cotton with fossil fuel-based elastic fibres like polyester, which is not biodegradable and makes the fabric hard to recycle.

  • Mountains of leftover fabric on cutting room floors
  • Clothing manufacturers are drowning in off-cuts. These odd-shaped pieces of fabric are the 15% fabric that the garment industry wastes. These mountains of fabric are crying out for someone to use them or avoid creating them altogether. 

    In terms of cutting method, a zero-waste pair of jeans would be one that leaves literally no leftover pieces of fabric once it’s cut. That is a cut-out pair of jeans that uses 100% of the fabric. This is only possible if the pattern pieces fit precisely within the confines of the selvages – that is the edge of the fabric that doesn’t fray when it’s cut. The fashion industry, including denim brands, has not found a way to limit cutting table waste.

    Stacked jeans

    Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

  • Overproduction
  • The huge demand for denims has led to widespread overproduction. Some 6 billion jeans are produced, of which 30% are never worn. About 2 billion pairs of jeans are sold worldwide each year – that is a whopping 60 pairs per second! The abundance and generally low prices mean consumers have multiple pairs; in the case of the US, seven pairs per person. 

    We need another mental image to drive the problem home. Let’s look at one manufacturer in Bangladesh and do the measurements in kilometres instead of metres: The Ha-Meem Group in Bangladesh produces 4,000 kilometres of denim fabric per month.

    Admittedly, the Ha-Meem Group is an enormous undertaking with multiple manufacturing facilities, catering to consumer demand for stretch denims.

    Is the tide turning?

    As you can see, there are many facets related to the manufacturing and use of denims that call the ultimate sustainability of jeans into question. In the meantime, things are starting to change.

    Several brands are introducing sustainability practices, using recycled and organic cotton.

    Sustained change in consumer behaviour will eventually bear fruit. We can all help to stop overproduction by wearing our jeans as long as possible, recycling, upcycling and shopping from sustainable brands. 

    Ethical Australian brands that produce eco-friendly denim jeans 

    Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

    Afends

    Afends is based in Byron Bay. The brand combines hemp and cotton to create its eco-friendly materials and uses renewable energy in its supply chain to reduce its carbon footprint. The company is able to limit its use of chemicals and water during production, thus reducing wastewater.

    Nobody Denim

    Nobody Denim is an Australian premium denim brand based in Melbourne. The company uses 100% cotton and focuses on improving energy efficiency and water use in production and minimising waste by reusing off-cuts. The Nobody Denim factory is certified by Ethical Clothing Australia, ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions for staff. In addition, the company can trace most of its supply chain. 

    Pure Pod

    Based in Canberra, Pure Pod was started way back in 2007 when few people had heard of ethical fashion. The brand was founded on three pillars: people, planet and passion.

    Pure Pod produces a large range of clothing and accessories made from all kinds of eco-friendly materials, including organic cotton, hemp, silk, bamboo, merino wool, soya bean textiles, naturally dyed and hand-printed. The brand only does small scale manufacturing, depends on traditional artisanal skills, and uses low waste processes while aiming for transparent and traceable manufacturing and sourcing practices.

    Outland Denim

    This Australian fashion brand has been in the business of ethical and sustainable practices for the last ten years. At the core of this brand is its commitment to producing an ethical clothing range. The team collaborates with at-risk women in Cambodia to produce its collections.

    Outland Denim is an ethical brand that provides living wages and learning opportunities to its more than 750 workers. The brand has also opened an onsite Outland Denim Health Clinic & Education Centre in Cambodia.

    In 2020, Outland Denim used 57% less energy during production and 93% organic raw materials. Using Laser, Ozone, and E-Flow technology, the brand creates denim garments with significantly limited chemical usage. It is one of the few brands that use natural indigo dye in production.

    The brand’s stature as a premium ethical brand is confirmed by its year on year Outland Denim Sustainability Reports, which include the company’s research data.

    Embody Women

    Embody Women calls itself Australia’s leading designer, size-inclusive fashion label. The founder and former plus-size model, Natalie Wakeling, believes that size doesn’t define style and that women of all sizes should be able to find jeans that fit them perfectly.

    Embody Women is a sustainable fashion brand that manufactures jeans for women to buy as investment pieces that they can wear for many years. The Embody Women range is manufactured in Australia in clean working conditions, with workers earning Australian award rates. To avoid the damaging effects of poisonous dyes, Embody Denim garments are washed in an industrial family-run laundry and dye house in Sydney, complying with Australian rules and regulations for the disposal of chemicals.

    Denimsmith

    With its studio and factory in Melbourne, a team of veteran Australian designers and makers are creating high quality and ethical denim clothing from premium Japanese denim.

    Denimsmith specialises in classic denims, bringing more than two decades of denim expertise to the creation of each piece. The brand focuses on creating sturdy pieces that its customers will love and wear for many years. The brand is accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia.

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