Denim is a big business. In 2020 the market value for denim fabric was $21.8 billion, expected to increase to over $26 billion by 2026. The sale of blue jeans is by far the most valuable area of the denim industry, with the industry valued at $110 billion in 2020.
But denim’s impact on people and the planet is also huge. Denim requires multiple manufacturing processes, and therefore a lot of workers in the supply chain, and these processes can use huge amounts of toxic chemicals, water and energy.
The documentary Riverblue is a good place to learn more about denim’s woes in depth, but here’s a brief rundown.
Denim is made from cotton; one of the most common fibres in the world, which also happens to be one of the thirstiest. It can take an average 22,500 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. Plus, while 2.4% of global cultivated land is used for cotton, production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Producing denim jeans, in particular, requires a huge amount of water. According to industry figures, conventional jeans production requires 7,000 litres of water to create one pair, which is a vast amount of resources.
Fortunately, many sustainable brands now use multiple technologies to reduce water consumption, including laser, ozone and e-flow technology, which reduce water and energy consumption, alongside waste and emissions. With these technologies and water recycling jeans can be made with just 11 litres of water.
Toxic chemicals & pollution
Beyond chemicals in the growing stage, conventional denim manufacturing uses indigo dyeing. Indigo arrives at factories in powder form, leaving workers exposed to dangerous levels of analine through inhalation. Denim is then dipped in the diluted mixture, containing up to 3,000 litres of water and dye, six to eight times. Even if this isn’t the method of choice, synthetic indigo also contains toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde.
Distressing or bleaching jeans can also be extremely harmful to the environment and workers. Processes using hypochlorite and potassium permanganate create toxic fumes; sandblasting can lead to silicosis, a deadly lung disease, and lung cancer; and distressing with power tools can create dust containing dyes and chemicals applied to the denim, which workers inhale.
The pollution from these processes is astronomical. In particular, water waste containing toxic chemicals, pesticides and coloured dyes cause extreme damage if they enter local waterways, with rivers near denim mills turning blue/black from pollution. Approximately 1.7 million tonnes of chemicals go into producing 2 billion pairs of jeans each year. If wastewater isn’t treated properly these chemicals destroy local ecosystems. It’s estimated that 70% of Asia’s rivers and lakes are contaminated by 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry, causing disproportionate harm to local communities who rely on these waters.
Moving towards sustainability
Luckily, better options are available. As well as new manufacturing technologies and approaches to cleaning up wastewater, circular economy proponents, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, created The Jeans Redesign project. Specifically targeting denim manufacturing, their guidelines include minimum requirements for durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability. Many brands now actively partner with the foundation or follow these guidelines.
So here’s what you need to consider if you’re buying jeans.
What to avoid:
- Does this brand have a transparent and ethical supply chain? Has it been criticised for labour abuses?
- Are they toxic? Uncertified cotton, synthetic materials, and conventional dyes are all recipes for pollution.
And what to look for:
- Secondhand: this is always the best place to start when shopping!
- Organic or recycled materials: look for certified organic cotton, as well as fabrics such as hemp; a sustainable fibre requiring minimal land and water, and no harmful chemicals. Brands can also use a combination of recycled denim and organic materials. Avoid jeans made in Asia from untraceable cotton, as it’s likely the denim was made with forced Uighur labor.
- Non-toxic dyes: Look for brands that use natural, non-toxic dyeing processes to protect workers and planet. Look for GOTS, OEKO-TEX and Bluesign certification.
- Durability and circularity: Purchase from somewhere that prioritises longevity, especially through offering free repairs or a return and recycle scheme.
- Transparency: Look for brands that give detailed information on their entire supply chain, processes, and how workers are treated. Look for certifications like Fair Trade and Fair Wear Foundation.
- Real, sustainable denim: non-denim items that look like jeans but are made from synthetics will be toxic (including microfibre shedding), likely created with toxic chemicals, and won’t last.
- Made in a technologically advanced, sustainable denim mill: Look for names like Candiani or Saitex. Look for technology from Jeanologia.
- Sustainable packaging: Buy from brands that use recycled, recyclable, FSC certified or compostable packaging materials.
- DIY distressing: Consider getting a pair of real, raw denim jeans, breaking them in and distressing them yourself over time.
Denim mills to know
Beyond supporting brands that pay and care for garment workers properly, many denim brands don’t weave the fabric and sew jeans themselves. Denim is produced in fabric mills that sell on to the brands. This means there are certain names you can look out for.
Pakistan based Crescent Bahümán Limited are Cradle to Cradle Certified. As well as sustainable fabrics, all other processes including weaving, dying, power plants, water treatment, and housing is eco-friendly. Their dyeing process is patented, and they preserve almost 80% of water used in the fabric-wash stage, which is then reused for power generation.
Saitex is based in Viet Nam, and is certified by B Corp, OEKO-TEX Standard 100, Fair Trade, and Bluesign.
They use only 1.5 litres of water for rinsing instead of the standard 80, saving 430 million litres per year. They also recycle 98% of their water and air dry their denim to reduce energy use by 85%. Jeans are distressed using a laser system, reducing water use and toxic processes while only taking 90 seconds. Waste is also upcycled into building blocks and tiles for low-income housing projects.
Italian family-run business Candiani is ISO 1400, SA8000, GRS, GOTS, and OEKO-TEX certified. They have exclusive use of Kitotex® and SaveTheWater® technology which uses 30% less energy, 50% less water, and 70% fewer chemicals. They also make more sustainable stretch denim, utilising naturally sourced rubber.
USA-based Cone Denim Mills create Sustainblue™ collections made from pre and post-consumer recycled cotton, tencel blends, and recycled polyester. They partner with Jeanologia and are certified OEKO-TEX Standard 100, Recycled 100, Higgs Index, ZDHC, Better Cotton Initiative, and Cotton Leads. They dye using USDA-certified natural indigo and distilled indigo, which is analine-free.
When we have sustainability and longevity in mind, how we care for our items matters too. Here are some top tips:
- Wash less: according to Levi’s 2015 lifecycle analysis, 23% of the water use and 37% of the impact of a pair of jeans is caused by consumers washing and drying them. But jeans don’t need to be washed after every wear. Hang them up for a few hours after wearing them before folding, air them outside, or pop them in the freezer overnight to kill bacteria. Spot clean stains and, once they are dirty, wash inside out at low temperatures, and hang them up to air dry, especially if they have stretch.
- Have a repair plan for your jeans. Many sustainable brands offer repairs, you can seek out local tailors, visit a repair cafe, or repair yourself. If you need a patch, try a denim repair kit, which can help you to sew holes, apply patches, and more.
- If your jeans reach the end of their life, and can’t be sold on or gifted to someone, some brands also welcome old jeans for recycling, many of them are included on this list!
Sustainable brands to support
If you’re shopping new, here are some of the best brands making sustainable and ethical denim.
MUD Jeans use organic cotton and recycled denim. Their jeans are currently made with 40% recycled denim, utilising circular principles and reducing resource use. They use ozone and laser processes to reduce water use, and labels are printed directly onto the jeans, making everything vegan-friendly.
When you’re finished with your pair of jeans Mud will take them back for recycling. Plus, their Lease A Jeans model means that you can lease a pair for 12 months.
Nudies use 100% organic cotton, and their website provides interactive maps to describe the manufacturing processes of items, including detailed information on suppliers, certifications, audits and employee conditions. All designs are unisex, and Nudie will tailor jeans to you in-store and offer free repairs for life.
All gender-neutral E.L.V. Denim products are upcycled from unwanted post-consumer waste denim. As a brand,they are zero waste and vegan-friendly, with a low carbon footprint as they produce in East London at Blackhorse Lane Atelier, an atelier with a proven social sustainability policy. They only use 7 litres of water to wash the post-consumer denim waste. They also offer a made to order/made to measure service.
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Kings of Indigo
Kings of Indigo are GOTS, GRS and organic certified. They mainly use recycled cotton, organic cotton, hemp and tencel. They work with BSCI and SMETA to ensure ethical and fair working conditions for all in the supply chain, and have a restricted substance list to monitor chemical usage. They don’t use sandblasting and utilise laser processes in distressing, and they also use recycled packaging materials.
Fair Trade fashion staple People Tree has a collection of denim made from certified organic cotton, saving up to 90% of water during the production process. Their patches are made from washable paper, making the jeans vegan friendly. They are GOTS certified, Soil Association certified, and Fair Trade certified. They use GOTS certified and azo-free dyes, treat wastewater, use rainwater harvesting and water recycling, and support organic farming.
Organic Basics use organic and recycled cotton, with no synthetic blends so their denim can be fully recycled. They’re committed to fair wages, ethical working conditions, zero-waste production and the most sustainable manufacturing processes possible. They list all factories online and are GOTS certified.
Neems made-to-order jeans avoid overproduction and waste. Simply input your measurements, choose the style and colour, and they’ll make and send them straight to you. They use exclusive deadstock denim, and source our from the highest-rated mills in the world, such as Candiani. Each mill has different certifications ranging from OEKO-TEX100 to Cotton LEADS to GOTS and GRS. Items are then ethically made in LA with good wages and working conditions. Packaging is also recycled and recyclable.
A certified B Corp, Outland Denim offer employment opportunities to individuals from vulnerable backgrounds. They own their manufacturing facility, where the team oversees holistic care of staff and ensures living wages and fair treatment. They use GOTS certified organic cotton, list all suppliers online, don’t use harmful chemicals, and utilise laser, ozone and e-flow technologies to use up to 86% less water and up to 57% less energy.
Armed Angels uses sustainable materials such as organic cotton, organic linen, recycled cotton, and tencel. Since 2011, the brand has been GOTS certified, Fair Wear and Fair Trade certified. They use nontoxic dyes and laser and ozone technologies to reduce water use by 40% and emissions by 64%.
Boyish use materials such as certified organic cotton, GRS certified recycled cotton, deadstock fabrics, and recycled hardware and tags. They use non-toxic plantbased dyes, laser, ozone and e-flow technologies, and recycle all cutting waste. All laundries and mills are GOTS certified, and they work with ethical factories.
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Hiut Denim Co
Hiut’s jeans are ethically handmade in Cardigan, Wales, offering free repairs for life. They use a mix of recycled cotton and standard (though not always organic, so check individual products for the GOTS certification) and list the mills where denim is sourced. Many of these mills use ozone, laser and other eco-friendly technology options, which are listed on the website. You cou can also contact them to switch to a vegan patch.
Warp + Weft
Warp + Weft use less than 10 gallons of water per pair of jeans, treat and recycle 98% of water used, and use ozone technology. They source their cotton from the USA, use eco-friendly dyes, and are committed to ethical practices and fair wages.
Finisterre’s items are designed for durability, comfort and classic fits. They only use organic cotton in their jeans, while their factory partners separate dyestuff and bake it into bricks for building projects, as well as recycling 100% of their water. Finisterre also offer various repair services and are a certified B Corp.
Lucy & Yak
All Lucy & Yak suppliers pay fair wages. They list their factories online, most of which are GOTS certified. 98% of their fabrics are GOTS certified organic or recycled, and all items are dyes responsible to GOTS and OEKO-TEX standards.
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ÉTICA source from mills that are OEKO-TEX, WRAP, Cradle to Cradle and GOTS certified. 70% of their sourced cotton is organic, alongside materials like tencel and deadstock fabrics. All fabrics are Bluesign certified and microplastic free, including dyes. They use ozone and e-flow technology, and products are produced in an ethical factory in Mexico that is certified by WRAP and SEDEX.
Monkee Genes are made in ethical factories with materials such as GOTS certified organic cotton and recycled materials. They use non-toxic dyes, are vegan-friendly and source Fair Trade wherever possible.
Howies ethically produce their clothes with certified organic, recycled and natural fabrics. All their dyes are OEKO-TEX certified, and they maintain close relationships with factories to ensure fair wages and conditions. They’re also reinforced at key stress points for extra durability.
Kowtow garments are certified by Fair Trade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) and made in a traceable supply chain, which works with Fair Trade-certified farmers and manufacturers from seed to garment. All garments are made from 100% organic cotton and dyed with GOTS-certified low-impact dyes. They have a free repair service, a take-back programme for any items that reach the end of their life, and all packaging is plastic-free and recyclable.
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RevTown creates durable denim designed to last a decade. They partner 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. Jeans are dyed with natural materials, using 30% less energy, 50% less water, and 70% fewer chemicals.
(please note: dyes aren’t vegan friendly)
BAM: Bamboo Clothing
BAM use organic cotton and bamboo, requiring 74% less water. They’re designed to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Jeans Redesign principles, making them fully recyclable, and are Fair Wair foundation members to guarantee ethical manufacturing.
Thought jeans are made from GOTS certified organic cotton and are also OEKO-TEX certified, using 75% less energy and 68% less water. Items are manufactured in ethical factories, with an increasing number becoming Fair Trade certified.
Afends’ hemp denim is a blend of organic cotton and hemp materials. They list suppliers online, and make sure all workers earn a fair wage and each stage of production. Their denim mill is GOTS and GRS certified, while their hemp factory is GOTS, EcoCert Organic and Fair Wear Foundation certified. Plus they use laser, ozone and e-flow technology.
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Kuyichi uses organic and recycled cotton, alongside materials such as hemp, tencel and post-consumer recycled denim. They use laser, ozone and e-flow technologies, use GOTS, GRS and OEKO-TEX 100 chemicals whenever possible, are vegan-friendly, and are members of the Fair Wear Foundation. All factories and certifications are also listed online.
Unspun are a made-to-order brand, allowing you to build jeans to your size and preference. They prioritise a zero-inventory and low waste process, recycling all cutting waste into insulation. They use recycled materials and organic cotton (check individual products) and are working to remove harmful chemicals from their supply chain,
Outerknown are Fair Trade certified, sourcing from suppliers such as Candiani and Saitex. They use materials such as organic and recycled cotton, and aim to be 100% circular by 2030, with a range of resale, repair, and recycling programs.
ISTO. use organic and natural materials, with designs that transcend seasons, and prioritise transparency. They only work with ethical factories and GOTS certified suppliers, as well as using recycled materials. They source from Candiani, and list all factories online.
Citizens of Humanity
Citizens of Humanity is an LA-based premium denim brand. They manufacture jeans in predominantly company-owned facilities, alongside a few select production partners. They cut to order to reduce waste, use organic and recycled cotton, and utilise laser, ozone and e-flow technology alongside other processes to reduce impact.
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Yes And use materials such as GOTS certified organic cotton and tencel, low impact dyes, and fair labour. They also promote regenerative farming techniques and contribute to mangrove reforestation with each purchase (learn more about the importance of mangroves here)
Whimsy + Row
Whimsy + Row uses materials such as deadstock fabric and organic cotton, low impact dyes, recycled water, and recycled materials. They’re also plastic-free and OEKO-TEX certified. They partner with one ethical factory that covers fabric and garment production, limit each garment to short runs to reduce waste and aim to be 100% vegan by 2023.
non’s selvedge denim is made with organic and recycled cotton. All zips, threads and packaging are made from recycled materials, and all jeans are vegan-friendly. Their items are ethically made in an OEKO-TEX certified factory, they use laser and ozone technology and a certified wastewater treatment system, and any offcuts are recycled into new material.
Able’s jeans are dyed with ozone technologies, with all wastewater recycled. Denim scraps are recycled for insulation, and toxic chemicals are replaced with eco-friendly processes wherever possible. They’re also moving towards 100% recyclable packaging and tags. Everyone at ABLE earns a living wage, and they’re working towards extended size inclusivity.
Knowledge Cotton Apparel
Knowledge Cotton Apparel use materials such as GOTS certified cotton, GRS certified recycled materials and tencel. They’re vegan-friendly, use natural dyes, and source from ethical factories certified by GOTS, SA8000, BSCI and Fair Trade.
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Certified B Corp Eileen Fisher uses organic cotton in all denim. They also offer a takeback service for any items that reach the end of their life. They list all suppliers online, work with ethical factories and have introduced several Bluesign approved dyeing systems into their supply chain.
Bassike denim is made from a mix of organic and better cotton initiative (BCI) cotton. It’s handmade by third-generation artisans in Kojima, Japan, utilising non-toxic natural dyes, water management and hand-customisation techniques. Their denim supplier has ISO 14001 environmental management certification and excess indigo is used as natural compost for local rose gardens and organic cotton farms. They also invest in regenerative farming, wind power projects, and The Aboriginal Carbon Foundation.
Seventy + Mochi
Seventy + Mochi create long-lasting denim with GOTS certified organic cotton, hemp and GRS certified recycled materials. Collections are produced in limited quantities in their own facilities, with all workers paid a living wage. They avoid single-use and virgin materials, deliberately designing out waste by using offcuts as wash care labels and recycling any unusable textile waste, and they use laser and ozone technologies to reduce water. They also have a take-back scheme for any of their products that reach the end of their life with you.
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