How Ethical Are Your Under-$100 Jeans?

How Ethical Are Your Under-$100 Jeans?

Do you know how many jean items you own? Five, maybe six, or even more if you count all the pants, skirts, jackets and shorts. Now multiply that by 10,000. Ten thousand liters is the amount of water consumed during the production of one single pair of jeans.

So why are jeans so costly in terms of water? Why are they so unsustainable? The reason these numbers are so impressive is because water is used throughout the process of manufacturing denim. Cotton plantation requires irrigation, then factories have to wash the tons of cotton and to finish the jeans, workers dye them, which then consumes even more water. Besides the enormous amount of water consumed by cotton plantations, jeans also require many pesticides and throughout the production chain, more chemicals are added to the denim.  According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 1 million people die per year from accidental poisoning by chemicals fertilizers, such as benzidine and sodium hydroxide. The agricultural workers are the most affected people in the supply chain due to these chemicals.

“Besides the enormous amount of water consumed by cotton plantations, they also require many pesticides and throughout the production chain, more chemicals are added to the denim.”

tbm how much should you pay for sustainable jeans

And yet, the cotton plantation is only one stage in jean production that impacts the environment. The dyes, the packs thrown out in the garbage, the energy consumed to transport jeans over the globe, the CO2 emitted and the detergent and water that consumers waste by washing the denim at home are some other negatives effects.

A study from University of Vermont on Levi’s showed that cheap denim dye is sulfur-based, which contaminates water and people exposed to it. Indigo is the natural dye that gives the denim it’s blue color. As years have gone by, the natural substances used to dye the fabric was substituted for synthetics and another derivatives from Petroil. With the objective of giving jeans that ‘worn-in’ look, chemicals like ammonia and caustic soda are added to the material, even though these substances are pollutants and exceptionally harmful.

The River Blue documentary shows Greenpeace activists taking samples of water from a river in Xintang, the chinese city known as the “capital of jeans”, where 260 millions of pairs of denim are produced in a year. 17 out of 21 of those samples reveals the presence of  five different types of heavy metals . In one of them, the amount of cadmium exceed in 128 times the Chinese national limits. They also find out many others metals that are neurotoxic and carcinogenic.

The thing is, your cheap jeans represent a lot of hidden disasters. Cheap jeans are the fruit of the chemicals that factories pollute, cheap labour and toxic practises.

If a pair of jeans came cheaply to you, it means someone else paid, indirectly, for them:


So the next time you buy denim, invest in more expensive ones, from brands that doesn’t use chemicals , doesn’t waste that hole lot of water, pay their employments right and is concerned with the effect their factories has on the environment.

how much should you pay for ethical jeans

With this news in mind, many fashion brands have already adopted sustainable approaches when making their jeans. One way to do that is by using organic cotton, or by adopting the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). This new system covers the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic.

My home country of Brazil is ranked as the largest source of Better Cotton worldwide and Osklen is one of the greatest examples when it comes to eco style. For the past ten years, the Brazilian brand broke the record for using over one and a half million PET bottles in the fabrication of their outfits. Oskar Metsavaht, the Osklen founder, created the “e-brigade” movement, with the purpose of uniting ecologists, professors, sociologists and environmental organizations in the textile industry. E-brigade clothing, also known as e-fabrics, use materials from recycled, organic, natural and handmade origins, developed by communities, cooperatives or by industrial groups.

So is investing in a  new pair of jeans, even expensive ones, the most sustainable option? Not really, repairing and purchasing second hand jeans is the most sustainable option when searching for high quality, durable and sustainable jean items. The Stockholm based company “Green Strategy Consultancy Firm”, by Anna Brismar, shared several options for clients that want to keep a sustainable wardrobe, such as repairing ripped jeans, bespoke tailoring, “DIY”, investing in high-quality pieces, and buying from fair and ethical companies.

by Catarina Ayres, edited by Abigail Jones

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