When I think about wardrobe staples, denim is right up at the top of my list, next to a basic tee and a good white button up. Unfortunately, the denim industry is also one of the biggest offenders when it comes to social and environmental impact. From employment of too cheap labor in countries like China and Bangladesh, to using excessive amounts of water, the denim industry leaves MUCH to be desired.
Let’s start at the beginning. The base fabric for most denim is cotton, which has a multitude of problems from high water consumption to high use of pesticides. Next, let’s talk about the alarming amount of water used during denim production. Some have estimated that between growing the cotton to wet processing (dying, treating and washing) the fabric, one pair of jeans requires more than 2,500 gallons of water. Then there are the chemicals used in the dying process (let’s just say they’ve been known to turn rivers in China blue) and the vast amount of energy put into washing, treating and shipping both fabric and finished product. Not to mention the added pollution when tons of (usually cheap) pairs of jeans are discarded.
Long story short, it’s not ideal. But (there’s always a but), there’s a better way. First off, you can always go vintage. I mean, is there really anything better than a good pair of vintage Levi’s? I think not. Beyond that, there are actually tons of companies out there that are trying to change these processes, and the industry while they’re at it. See below for a handful of said companies.
I’ve written about DSTLD before, but they are a great place to find luxury grade denim and essentials without the luxury grade price tag. DSTLD emphasizes simple design and high quality. They also cut out the middle man, so you get premium denim quality without the premium denim prices. They use top of the line, often eco-friendly and fully sustainable fabrics, natural dyes and softening techniques when possible and absolutely no sweatshops.
I’ve written about Levi’s before too, and it may come as a bit of surprise that I’m mentioning them here since they are pretty much the epitome of the traditional denim company (see comment about vintage Levi’s above). But Levi’s is doing a lot of work around sustainability. So much so, in fact, that they have given themselves the lofty goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable apparel company by transforming the way they do business. They have been working to minimize their environmental impact by using quality cotton, less energy, less water and less chemicals. The proof is in the pudding, so they say — check out their Water<Less, Waste<Less and Wellthread collections, or their partnership with Evrnu last May to create the first pair of jeans from post-consumer cotton waste. They’re also pretty committed to bettering their community and the lives of their factory workers.
Speaking of Levi’s, let’s also talk about RE/DONE. RE/DONE doesn’t consider themselves a denim company, they would like to think of themselves as a movement — a movement to restore individuality to the luxury fashion space, a movement to keep heritage brands (ala Levi’s) relevant and a movement to create sustainable fashion. Basically RE/DONE takes the painstaking legwork out of finding that perfect pair of vintage Levi’s. They handpick them for you, take them apart at the seams and repurpose into a more modern, flattering fit. Does it get any better?
Certified B Corpoartion, MUD Jeans, is revolutionizing the way we buy jeans. Revolutionizing in that they don’t want you to buy their jeans. Through their Lease A Jeans model, MUD customers can pay a monthly membership fee (from €7,50) for a pair of jeans. After a year, or when the jeans are worn out, customers send the jeans back for MUD to fully recycle the material and give it new life in another pair of denim.
Bluer Denim is 100% all-American. From sourcing to construction, their product never leaves the U.S. The cotton used for Bluer denim is grown in Battleboro, Georgia; it’s woven in Greensboro, North Carolina; the design comes from Portland, Oregon; and it’s cut, sewn, washed and hand-finished in Los Angeles, California. They use an eco-friendly ozone laundry process and emphasize craftsmanship, so you are getting a quality pair of jeans. But probably most impressive is that Bluer Denim has introduced the “Buy one, give one,” model to the denim industry. For every pair of jeans purchased, Bluer will buy back your used pair for $5 and deliver them to someone who needs them. Great on two fronts — the program is recycling old denim so it’s not adding to the millions of pairs that are discarded every year, but it also provides much needed clothing for those in need.
For more fashion forward denim, look no further than G-Star Raw. The Netherland-based company provides high quality styles that are also ethical. They use organic and recycled cotton as well as recycled water bottles and Tencel®. They are also super transparent about where their products are made, publishing the names and locations of all of their manufacturing partners. They also give back — G-Star started the GSRD Foundation in 2007, which supports projects located in their production countries that are focused on education and entrepreneurship.
DL1961 is another go-to for fashion forward denim. The New York based company offers chic denim styles combined with ethical innovation. Starting with their materials, DL1961 uses eco-friendly fibers that require half the dye, half the water and half the energy of traditional denim. They also combine the newest technologies and innovations with classic, hand-finished craftsmanship, so you get a pair of jeans that are stylish, sustainable and durable.
Kings of Indigo
Kings of Indigo, or K.O.I. makes quality denim in a sustainable way with a Japanese eye for detail. K.O.I was ranked #1 most sustainable denim brand in Europe, with at least 90% of the raw materials used for the K.O.I collections being sustainable. They use recycled or certified organic cotton; they employ innovative and sustainable production methods, such as low impact washes and natural dye techniques; all of their packaging is made from recycled materials; and 40% of the energy at their headquarters is generated by renewable sources. They are also a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, whose mission is to improve labor standards in the clothing industry.
Do you have a favorite sustainable denim brand? Would love to hear about it!