#TipTuesday: Navigating the Dirty Denim Industry

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The denim industry is causing health risks for workers, damaging ecosystems and ruining rivers.

No pair of jeans is worth the harm we outline below, but the good news is that some companies are doing their part and we will show you what you can do too.


Denim overview:

Our jeans are traditionally made from cotton, which uses 2.4% of the world’s crop land and 24% of the insecticides. Up to 2,000 gallons of water (enough to fill 20 bathtubs) are used to make an average pair of jeans and about half that amount is used to grow the cotton. Each year, 300 million pairs of jeans are made to keep up with consumer demand, so there is an astronomical amount of water, cotton and insecticides that are used to keep up with our denim craze.


Denim is ruining ecosystems and the environment:

The traditional denim look comes from weaving indigo dyed cotton yarn with white cotton. The indigo fabric was originally made from the indiogera tinctoria plant, but has been synthesized following the late 1800s. Since then, 50,000 tons of indigo dye are made annually and an average pair of jeans can take up to half an ounce of dye. These dyes are extremely toxic and companies flush out runoff in nearby rivers and water sources (see image below).

 
Chemical dyes and runoff from nearby factories pollutes nearby rivers in Guangzhou.   Image from Greenpeace .

Chemical dyes and runoff from nearby factories pollutes nearby rivers in Guangzhou.
Image from Greenpeace.

 

"The water is discharged from the dyeing factories upstream. Sometimes it smells really awful. And every time the color of the water is different - I've seen every color imaginable," said Ren Shan, a migrant worker from Guizhou.

Source: Greenpeace Article

Towns in China, Bangladesh and India that manufacture our denim brew toxic chemicals and dedicate hundreds of gallons of water to dye and finish our jeans. In 2010, Greenpeace tested the outflows near denim dying and finishing facilities in China and discovered five heavy metals: cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper. Toxic campaigners in China also found manganese, which is associated with brain damage in the rivers. And if that’s not heartbreaking or concerning enough, the harmful environmental impacts are not limited to those cities. These toxic chemicals can be transported to North American oceans, the general atmosphere, or enter our food chain.

More recently, the harmful impact of our denim obsession on the world’s rivers and ecosystems is outlined in a documentary called The RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet? We included the trailer below so you can see firsthand what is happening because of the denim industry.

 
 

DENIM IS CAUSING SIGNIFICANT HEALTH risks:

For residents that live in the heavily polluted denim producing cities, they cannot use their river or water sources, unless they want to suffer severe health complications.

Villagers nearby say that the dirty, fetid river is no longer fit for drinking or laundry. Fish no longer live in the river. People living near the river complain that they must frequently endure the stench from the wastewater, and when the river overflows, their yards and homes are flooded by wastewater.

Source: Greenpeace Article

The denim workers also suffer additional health complications. For example, to get the distressed jeans look, a common practice called sandblasting is used, in which the denim is hit with sand to soften and wear down the fabric. In this process, fine dust/sand particles can lodge in workers’ lungs, cause silicosis and lead to death. Workers in the toxic indigo dyeing and washing process also experience severe impacts, as outlined in the quote below.

“Everyone says that people who work in dyeing and washing have reproductive and fertility problems. My cousin once worked in a dyeing plant. He died of pleurisy," said Lin Zhixin, a migrant worker from Sichuan who works in jeans sewing.

Source: Greenpeace Article


WHAT COMPANIES ARE DOING:

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The good news is that it’s not all bad. There’s some companies doing their part to right the dirty denim industry and we outline a few below.

Jeanologia is an innovative company that uses machines to distress jeans, instead of the harmful sandblasting practice. The machines engrave images on the fabrics with lasers (light and air) and eliminates water without increasing the cost. This means an average pair of jeans only needs a glass of water, when it used to require 300 litres. Jeanologia now works with brands like Levi Strauss, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and others. Three years ago, ~16% of the jeans in the world were made in a sustainable way. Now 35% of jeans are made more sustainably!

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Levis Strauss & Co.’s Water‹Less™ Denim Line is the company’s way of doing their part in the harmful industry. Levis knows that water is essential for agriculture and many other industries, besides apparel. Therefore, the brand aims to limit water from their stone washes and combines multiple wet cycle processes - both of which can significantly reduce water usage (up to 96% for some styles!) Since launching the process in 2011, the brand has saved more than 1 billion litres of water. By 2020, Levis targets to make 80% of its products using Water‹Less™ techniques.

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Everlane recently created one of the cleanest denim factories. The company uses an unique closed system that recycles 98% of the used water, and when water comes out the other side, the brand claims it’s clean enough to drink. The factory also uses renewable energy resources like solar power to reduce CO2 emissions and air dries 85% of its jeans to avoid unnecessary electricity. Lastly, the toxic byproducts created by denim called sludge, are extracted and shipped to a nearby brick factory to build houses (when the toxic materials are mixed with concrete, they can no longer leech into the environment).


WHAT YOU CAN DO:

1. Limit washing your jeans. Besides the crazy amounts of water it takes to create our jeans, a lot of the water is dedicated to washing our denim. The average consumer typically washes their jeans after 2 wears, so think about how you can limit the amount of times you wash your denim. Articles suggest freezing your denim to kill the bacteria, or hand washing/spot washing when necessary. In our opinion, wash your jeans as infrequent as possible (for you germaphobes, this experiment showed that there was no harmful bacteria after wearing jeans for 15 months without washing them). If your jeans start to smell (no judgement lol), you can hand wash or machine wash it.

2. Buy less denim. The average Canadian purchases 4 pairs of jeans each year. If we curb our jean purchases to one pair a year (or even challenge yourself not to buy denim this year), that would significantly reduce the amount of denim that needs to be produced.

3. Purchase jeans from sustainable brands. When you absolutely need new denim, we recommend buying from the following companies (btw #NotSponsored):
- For you Levis fans, get the Levis Strauss & Co.’s Water‹Less™ Denim Line
- Everlane’s Denim Line
- Nudie Jeans - 100% Organic Cotton
- Patagonia’s 100% Organic Cotton Denim Line
- Neuw Jeans

4. Ethically dispose your denim. Jeans are typically not bought at donation centres or consignment stores due to different sizing, denim fads, etc. So when you’re done with your denim, try to see if your family members or friends want it/fit it. If not, research local methods to recycle your jeans. You can search for local textile recycle centres, or depending on the brand you got the jeans from, they might have a take back program (eg: Levi encourages consumers to recycle their denim by sending it back).


Let us know if you try any of our tips!

Together, let’s turn the awful denim industry around.