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 of 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:
FairTrade: 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.
DL1961 aims to take every initiative possible in order to decrease their environmental impact throughout the manufacturing process. They use ethically sourced cotton and natural indigo dyes derived from plants, they are powered by solar energy and their own in-house power generation plant, and they use 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 they use 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. They also give all of their excess fabric to FABSCRAP, a non-profit that upcycles commercial textiles and their packaging consists of a fully recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable kraft paper.
Everlane uses the factory, Saitex, 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.
AG Jeans uses sustainable fibers such as Tencel and Modal to manufacture their jeans, which you can shop for by fit on their website. “Ozone Technology” enables them to reduce their 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. They have implemented heat saving equipment to recycle heat from commercial dryers which reduces their laundry energy consumption by up to 46%.
A German-based company, their motto is “Fair Fashion instead of Fast Fashion.” GOTS-certified since 2011, they incorporate organic cotton, organic linen, organic wool, recycled polyester, and Lenzing Tencel and Modal into their jeans. They are a member of the Fair Wear Foundation and are certified Fair Trade.
Warp + Weft creates a large collection of size-inclusive denim in a variety of colors and fits. They optimize every step of the denim creation process, from spinning yarn to final detailing, so their manufacturing process uses 95% less water and only 1kWh of energy. They also recycle 98% of the water used.
This brand focuses more on men’s styles, but the women’s styles they do offer are super affordable for being so sustainable! Bluer products are authentically tailored and crafted to the highest possible standards, right here in the U.S. Designed in Portland, Oregon, these jeans feature cotton grown in Georgia, denim milled at the Cone Mills White Oak facility in North Carolina, and YKK buttons, rivets and zippers forged in Kentucky. Bluer jeans are cut, sewn, washed and hand-finished in Los Angeles using eco-friendly ozone laundry processes.
Quite possibly the most extensive and detailed corporate sustainability commitment for denim comes from G-Star. They have a “Restricted Substances List”, and eliminated APEO’s (Alkyphenol ethoxylates), phthalates, and PFC’s (perfluorinated chemicals) from their supply chain as of 2013, all of which have negative environmental and human health impacts, such as reproductive organ toxicity, endocrine disruption, reduced immune system function, and simply persist longer in the environment than other chemicals. But since they say they cannot currently prevent all hazardous chemicals from entering our waters, you can download year-by-year reports of their Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals commitment – they have a goal of achieving this by 2020 to eliminate the waste of all industrial hazardous chemicals from their products and manufacturing. All of their social auditing is under one public platform, the Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit, which encompasses health and safety, labor standards, and options for the environment and business ethics. G-Star uses this for all of their suppliers, which, if they have done business with for over 2 years, appear on an interactive map. In regards to social and labor conditions, G-Star has joined the Social & Labor Convergence Projects which aims at having one standard throughout the industry. Oh yeah, and their myriad of jean styles are kick-ass too.
H&M recently released their latest Close the Loop Denim campaign, a 6-piece denim collection made partially from post-consumer recycled textiles, straight from H&M’s garment collecting initiatives in store. The collection includes iconic denim pieces, like the updated overall with raw hems and wide leg dungarees with zipper detailing, providing a modern twist to these staples.
90% of Level 99 Jeans contain Tencel and Modal. Through TerraPass, their Forever Black and Forever White Collection purchases enable trees to be planted, as well as fund gas capture projects and renewable energy. They also reduce and recycle water during manufacturing that may otherwise be wasted.
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 their trademarked Water<Less innovations they have 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.) They implement a Screened Chemistry standard in which they eliminate harmful chemicals from their supply chain, with a 2020 goal of 100% compliance. To avoid jeans going to the landfill they have two options for you: the first includes their 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 – more to come on that below.
The Dutch brand Kings of Indigo mainly uses Tencel, a man-made fiber from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees, to make their jeans. Their are transparent with their supply chain: Denim is supplied from Italy, Turkey, or Japan, put together in Tunisia, and washed and finished in both Italy and Tunisia. Their 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 their online store, your shipment will arrive in recycled or biodegradable packaging. And at their headquarters in the Netherlands, 40% of the energy generated is through solar panels.
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.
The lifecycle of your jeans will be explained starting with an interactive map on Nudie Jeans’ website. You can click where products are manufactured, all the way down to their 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 they are audited, when their next one will be, the number of employees, and its website. They offer free repair service for their jeans and if you part ways with a pair and send them to their repair shop not only will they give you 20% off of a new pair of Nudie Jeans, they will also repair your old jeans and put them back in their shop as second-hand articles. This earns them the “Good Environmental Choice” Swedish eco label.
Just a note: they’re unisex! Read more about that here.
Outland Denim jeans are made in Cambodia where their team oversees the holistic care of their staff through wage, training and personal development initiatives. They are committed to sourcing the most ethically and environmentally sound raw materials, from organic cotton pocket linings to recycled packaging, and endeavor to verify their entire supply chain in alignment with the world’s best practices. They are also Australia’s first Certified B Corp denim brand!
“Like a fine wine, the Levi’s Denim only gets better with age.” This company takes old, vintage Levi’s and repurposes them with new fabric for a unique, contemporary jean. Althought they say their supply is limited, you’ll find 26 pages in their women’s section, yielding an array of sizes and colors. Re/Done denim is handmade in downtown Los Angeles using water-conserving methods and no harsh chemicals.
Specifically designed for women, and B Corp certified, Reformation is literally re-forming what it means to be a truly sustainable company from the inside out. They design their new jeans with sustainable fabrics, like Lenzing Tencel and Modal, and also vintage and deadstock, leftover fabrics that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Reformation employs “RefScale” to track their carbon footprint and posts this next to every garment on their website. They also help you with your laundry by breaking down how to lower your own environmental footprint once your jeans are in your hands and headed for the wash. They aim to keep it local and utilize domestic suppliers in the USA (which is about 50% at the moment), manufacture in their 100% wind powered factory in Los Angeles, California, use 100% recycled packaging when shipping – oh, and their shipping is carbon neutral and the tape adhesives are bio-based and non-toxic. If you want to recycle the clothes you are bored with, you can receive pre-paid labels at their stores or online through their “RefRecycling” program. They aren’t quite completely zero waste yet, but 75% of their garbage is composted, recycled, or donated. Clothing in their stores are hung on recycled paper hangers and the storefronts use LED fixtures, rammed earth, and recycled fabric insulation.
Urban Outfitters does sell a lot of fast fashion, but with the launch of Urban Renewal, they began to shift their focus towards sustainability. Made in the USA, they take vintage pieces where no two are alike and upcycle them into fresh, new pieces for retail. There is a plethora or jean styles from boyfriend, skinny, to “mom jean,” and a large portion of them are curated from Levi’s.
Have you tried any of these brands? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.
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