This post contains some affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, EcoCult receives a small percentage of the sale price. Some brands may have paid a small fee to be featured. We only recommend brands that we truly believe in. Support our editorial work by supporting them!
I am guilty of the happy dance – the one we make in the full length mirror when a pair of jeans fit just right. Now, imagine denim that is sourced sustainably, crafted eco-consciously, and upholds social responsibility. I bet your happy dance has spun into a remix.
The production of jeans takes place mostly outside the U.S., in Xintang, China, where the waterways are an unatural blue from the hazardous denim dyes and chemicals – mercury, cadmium, and lead, to name a few – that have leached out during the various stages of making a pair of the iconic American fashion statement. A 2010 Greenpeace survey found the water in Xintang to have a pH level at 11.95 (drinking water should be between 6-8.5) and cadmium levels 128 times the health limit. Sandblasting a pair of jeans gives a distressed look, but at the cost silicosis and lung cancer for employees, as they blast around 500 jeans per day. Unfair wages for employees and long hours are are the norm in these corporations.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! Let this be your Sustainable Denim Guide to brands that represent the highest standards of environmentalism in a fast fashion world.
First, let me outline a few terms that will help you navigate the world of sustainable denim, and this guide:
Fair Trade: A nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, aiming to reduce the imbalance of world trade and improve the life of farmers that are supplying goods. For example, paying fair and stable minimum prices for cotton to ensure health, housing, education, decent living wages for the supplier/farmer.
Fair Wear Foundation: An international, independent non-profit organization that works with brands, factories, trade unions, governments, and non-governmental organizations to focus on and improve workplace conditions.
GOTS: Global Organic Textile Standard. The worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. It’s been around for 12 years, and version 5.0 was published on March 1st of this year, three years after the Version 4.0 was introduced.
TENCEL and Modal: These fabrics, when manufactured by the Austrian company Lenzing, are considered the softest fibers in the world and are sourced from sustainable forests with trees that regrow on their own naturally, such as bamboo, beach, and pine.
TerraPass: A leader in carbon offsetting products for individuals and businesses, a company that becomes a member uses their purchases to help fund greenhouse gas reduction products and can complete a complex carbon footprint analysis.
Frank and Oak didn’t start out as a sustainable company, but it has gradually been implementing more eco-conscious practices and materials into its process over the last several years. Now, at least 50% of its materials are lower impact (so make sure to double-check materials before you buy!), such as recycled polyester, wool, hemp, natural cotton, cruelty-free insulation, and non-toxic dyes. It’s a certified B Corp that uses recycled and recyclable packaging, as well as other waste-reducing processes whenever possible. For its denim, you can shop by Fadeproof (which goes through a double-dyeing process), Circular Denim (made out of post-consumer recycled waste), Good Cotton (organic), or hydro-less (less water-intensive).
We have all felt the pure frustration of trying on pair after pair of jeans, only to leave the store with empty hands because nothing will fit right. Enter: LASSO. LASSO’s denim is totally different because it’s completely custom, but also affordable. You choose your style and color, then provide your measurements (it’s super easy with the helpful video they provide). Then, you get a pair of jeans on your doorstep within 7 to 9 business days that is a significantly better fit than anything you’d find off the rack. Plus, LASSO sources fabrics from Candiani and Global Denim, suppliers that are equally committed to sustainability (certified Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX and Cotton LEADS by the USDA). To top it all off, thr brand’s cute packaging is made from 100% recycled and recyclable materials. About 11 metric tons of greenhouse gasses are averted for every pair of LASSOs sold, and everything is made transparently in Los Angeles.
AMENDI believes in being “ultra” transparent so its customers can make a truly informed choice. Every pair of AMENDI jeans are traceable and come with a Fabrication Facts tag which outlines details of that specific jean, such as what each part is made of, amount of water used in production, certifications, a cost breakdown, and even how many people worked on them. All AMENDI jeans are made from 100% GOTS certified organic cotton, which ensures the health of the soul, local biosphere, and farmworkers. All of AMENDI’s cotton is grown, harvested, woven into denim, and sewn into jeans in the same country—Turkey. The brand works closely with its suppliers throughout the supply chain in order to keep an eye on both conduct and quality. By keeping its supply chain in one place, AMENDI is able to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and increase the quality of the product. Plus, the brand never uses harsh chemicals on its jeans and takes full advantage of the latest eco-friendly technologies. Learn more about its transparency initiatives here.
RevTown calls its denim “Decade Denim” because it’s meant to be durable enough to last a decade. The brand partners with the “greenest mill in the world” to make sure everything is produced under strict standards, and 100% of all waste is recycled into denim yarn or insulation for local housing. For color, its jeans are dyed using shrimp shells, orange peels, and nut shells. This process uses 30% less energy, 50% less water, and 70% fewer chemicals than traditional dying techniques across the industry. Not only that, but Revtown’s denim is made from Better Cotton, an initiative aimed at creating a cleaner, sustainable cotton production process. It ensures water is used efficiently, regulates the cotton’s soil health to meet high standards, and protects rights for farmers.
Despite the fact that Everlane has been facing growing criticism about how ethical they really are, I’ve actually visited their denim factory, and it’s legit! It uses the Saitex factory, which is a denim manufacturer that is LEED-certified, recycles 98% of its water, relies on alternative energy sources, and repurposes byproducts to create premium jeans (minus the waste). You can find out more here. Everlane has a wide selection of styles for both men and women, so you can find the fit you love most.
The lifecycle of your jeans will be explained starting with an interactive map on Nudie Jeans’ website. You can click around to find out where products are manufactured, all the way down to the subcontractors. Nudie Jeans are made with 100% organic cotton primarily in Tunisia and Italy. Each supplier is written about in detail, with certifications, a downloadable PDF of their last audit, how often it’s audited, when the next one will be, the number of employees, and its website. Nudie offers a free repair service for its jeans, and they’ll even give you 20% off of a new pair when you send an old one back. This earns them the “Good Environmental Choice” Swedish eco label.
Just a note: they’re unisex! Read more about that here.
Warp + Weft creates a large collection of size-inclusive denim in a variety of colors and fits. This brand optimizes every step of the denim creation process, from spinning yarn to final detailing, so its manufacturing process uses 95% less water and only 1kWh of energy. It also recycles 98% of water used.
Urban Outfitters does sell a lot of fast fashion, but with its Urban Renewal collection, it began to shift its focus towards sustainability. Made in the USA, the company takes vintage pieces where no two are alike and upcycles them into fresh, new pieces for retail. There is a plethora of jean styles from boyfriend, to skinny, to “mom jean,” and a large portion of them are curated from Levi’s.
People Tree has been a pioneer in the eco and ethical apparel space for decades. Their newest collection of denim is made from GOTS certified organic cotton and uses 87.2% less water to produce than conventional cotton.
AG Jeans uses sustainable fibers such as TENCEL and Modal to manufacture its jeans, which you can shop for by fit on its website. “Ozone Technology” enables the brand to reduce its water consumption by 50% and excess fabric scraps are collected for recycling weekly. This estimated 1300 to 1400 pounds per week is then repurposed for car or home insulation. It’s also implemented heat-saving equipment to recycle heat from commercial dryers which reduces its laundry energy consumption by up to 46%.
Yes, Madewell and J. Crew finally have a line of fair trade jeans! This denim is Certified by Fair Trade USA, and “for every piece, a premium is paid into a Community Development Fund run by the people who make the clothes, helping them improve their lives in countless ways.” Additionally, the garments are dyed using natural ingredients instead of toxic chemicals in a factory that uses 75% less water and it committed to reducing their energy consumptions by 13M kilowatts of power per year.
In making their denim, ÉTICA reduces water usage by 90%, energy consumption by 63%, and chemical usage by 70% compared to industry standards. On a mission to help local communities, ÉTICA recycles its water for local farmland, compresses used wash stones into bricks for low-income housing, and partners with organizations committed to workers’ rights and environmental initiatives around the world.
On May 20th, 1873 Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis patented the “blue jean.” Levi’s has been a transcendent leader in the denim industry ever since, and it is no surprise that this continues in the sustainability sphere today. Through its trademarked Water<Less innovations, the brand has saved more than 1.8 billion liters and recycled more than 129 million liters of water. (You can filter your denim search on their website to show the 40% of products that use this innovation.) It implements a Screened Chemistry standard in which it eliminates harmful chemicals from its supply chain, with a 2020 goal of 100% compliance. To avoid jeans going to the landfill, the brand has two options for you: the first includes its partnership with Give Back Box, where you pack up your old jeans and print a free shipping label, then drop it in the mail where it is sent to charity. The second option is to go vintage with Re/Done.
Outland Denim jeans are made in Cambodia where their team oversees the holistic care of their staff through wage, training, and personal development initiatives. The brand is committed to sourcing the most ethically and environmentally sound raw materials, from organic cotton pocket linings to recycled packaging, and endeavors to verify its entire supply chain in alignment with the world’s best practices. It is also Australia’s first Certified B Corp denim brand!
DL1961 aims to take every initiative possible in order to decrease its environmental impact throughout the manufacturing process. It uses ethically sourced cotton and natural indigo dyes derived from plants, is powered by solar energy and its own in-house power generation plant, and uses less than 10 gallons of water (98 percent of which is recycled) instead of the 1,500 gallons that’s typically used to make a traditional pair of jeans. Not only that, but the brand uses state of the art machinery combined with an Environmental Impact Measurement (EIM) software that monitors every piece of denim made, tracking its water consumption and dye usage. DL1961 also gives all of its excess fabric to FABSCRAP, a non-profit that upcycles commercial textiles. Lastly, its packaging consists of a fully recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable kraft paper.
The Dutch brand Kings of Indigo mainly uses TENCEL, a man-made fiber from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees, to make its jeans. Its denim is supplied from Italy, Turkey, or Japan, put together in Tunisia, and washed and finished in both Italy and Tunisia. Its Red Light Denim collection contains 21% recycled cotton made from old jeans worn and recollected in Amsterdam. The remainder is 7% hemp and 72% GOTS-certified organic cotton. When you make a purchase from Kings of Indigo’s online store, your shipment will arrive in recycled or biodegradable packaging. And at its headquarters in the Netherlands, 40% of the energy generated is through solar panels.
Of course, shopping secondhand is also an excellent option when it comes to both sustainability and affordability. Check out this post for our recommendations for where to look for secondhand and vintage denim!