Is Denim a Sustainable Fabric?

The history and impact of denim production clashes with sustainability efforts.

multiple pairs of different denim jeans in different washes stacked on top of each other

Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick

Denim has a rich history in the United States. In addition to defining the iconically American blue jeans and other apparel, this fabric has been used as a tent canvas, in upholstery, and in accessories. Even the sails of Columbus’s ships were made of denim.

Made from cotton or cotton blends, this fabric is created via a distinct the weaving method, which contributes to its durability and long-lasting quality. Denim's uniquely dyed threads and particular way of fading are among its defining characteristics — but whether denim can be classified as a sustainable fabric is a little less obvious.

History of Denim

Stories of denim in America often begin with Levi Strauss, the founder of the first company to manufacture denim jeans. However, denim and its precursors had been around for much longer than that.

It is believed that denim fabric originated in France. The word denim is a colloquialism for serge de Nimes, the name of the sturdy fabric. This original fabric was very similar to the Italian fabric jean fustian; both were cotton twill weaves. The only difference was that denim was made with one colored thread and one white thread, whereas jean was made with two threads of the same color. How and why the fabric denim came to be called "jeans" is unknown since, originally, these were two different fabrics.

However, the fabric Levi Strauss sold during the Gold Rush in the mid 1800s was created by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. This fabric had been sold to Jacob Davis, a tailor. Attempting to meet the needs of a customer wanting more durable work pants for her husband, Davis added rivets to the most vulnerable points. With the addition of a second decorative stitch to his pants, he was able to create a unique brand.  It was the patent of the rivets design in 1873 that created what we know today as jeans. 

Denim and Slavery

Denim is the product of two cash crops that relied heavily on slavery. While much of the world is familiar with the connection of American slavery and cotton, not many know that indigo was an even more popular and greatly coveted commodity. It was also used as a currency for trading enslaved people. Without the knowledge and skills of enslaved Africans, the indigo crop would not have flourished as greatly as it did.

Yet, the inequities of denim don’t end there. Because the fabric was so sturdy, it was often worn by laborers, field workers, and enslaved people — a part of denim's story that is often glossed over.

The Rise of Denim in American Culture

While Strauss and Davis are touted for creating the modern denim jean, they were mostly worn as work wear. It wasn’t until denim pants hit the big screen via Hollywood that they started to be looked at as fashion. Even then, it took movies featuring James Dean and Marlon Brando to push the denim look into the limelight.

After its cinematic debut, denim became a symbol of rebellion to teens — to such an extent that jeans were actually banned in schools for possibly encouraging boys to evade rules and undermine authority.

In the 1960s, though, the clout really increased. Activists wore denim clothing as part of protests, with the objective of bringing attention to the plight of Black communities and show that not much had changed since the end of slavery. With the splashing of Civil Rights protests across the front pages of newspapers, many students on college campuses began wearing denim as a message of solidarity. At this time in history, denim was front and center in the lives of the American people and would stay that way.

How Is Denim Made?

Chinese Worker Examines Denim Fabric in a Factory
Sitting in front a large machine that spools denim at a high speed, a Chinese factory worker examines the fabric as it spins by. Bobby Brill / Getty Images

Denim is a specific type of cotton twill, which is defined by a particular weaving method with closely packed fibers that results in a diagonal pattern. This allows for a more durable fabric. The characteristic look of denim comes from the two-toned weaving process; this involves using dyed thread in the warp (lengthwise) thread and natural or white yarn in the weft (horizontal) position.

Since indigo dye only coats the thread and does not penetrate it, denim has a distinctive fading quality. This unique property is used to create various finishes. Methods such as enzyme washes, sandblasting, or bleaching soften the material and create the appearance of worn fabric. Denim that is not manipulated in this manner is considered raw denim.

Environmental Impact

It is well known in the sustainable fashion community that cotton is a water-intensive crop and one of the leading users of pesticides. The 700 gallons of water it takes to produce a T-shirt is often referenced when discussing the water-waste in manufacturing clothing. What is not often talked about is the 2,900 gallons it takes to produce a pair of jeans.

The massive amount of water needed to manufacture denim makes it one of the most environmentally taxing fabrics. Natural indigo dye has its benefits but it is also an expensive and labor intensive crop. Farming it to meet current denim demands would be devastating to the environment. However, synthetic dyes aren’t much better. While the chemical properties are nearly identical, synthetic indigo requires the use of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde.

Yet, the biggest culprit in denim's unsustainability is the quantity produced each year. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide. (For reference, there was about 7.6 billion people in the entire world in 2018.) Denim is a $93.4 billion industry and, because of the rise in casual wear, it is unfortunately still a growing market.

Denim is not only harmful to the environment; it is also problematic for workers. Since its origin, the production of denim was heavy in exploitation, and even today, each step in production — from the harvesting of cotton to the finishing of jeans — is ripe with hazardous conditions and the ill-treatment of laborers.

Can Denim Be Sustainable?

Many entities are hard at work creating solutions for a more sustainable denim fabric. Recently, Levi's began using hemp blended with cotton to decrease the carbon footprint of its jeans. Countries like Bangladesh and China have been focused on innovative machinery and circularity. One denim manufacturer in Bangladesh, Shasha, has produced nearly 1.5 million yards of denim from post-consumer waste. Mexico has moved to cleaner methods of finishing denim jeans.

Finishing Methods

The finishing of jeans can be one of the most dangerous segments for workers. It is often labor intensive, with many of the processes posing health hazards. For example, sandblasting, a method of creating a worn look, often causes silicosis, an incurable disease that affects approximately 2.3 million workers in the United Stated. Plenty of research has been done to find cleaner and safer alternatives. Laser, ozone, and water jets are a few of these methods.

Laser technology is one of the more expensive methods, but it has been used for awhile in other instances regarding fashion. The CO2 laser has been used as a substitute for sandblasting and hand sanding. The benefits of using laser technology is its precision, previously only achieved with careful hand work. It is also a dry method, which means no water is wasted during the process.

The use of ozone is more environmentally friendly than typical methods of fading jeans. Ozone acts as a bleaching agent, but it is also a sterilizer. This can be done by putting ozone in water or using gas. While not as precise as laser technology, it allows the fabric to keep its integrity and is simple. If water is used, the water can easily be deozonized and reused.

As its name implies, water jet technology is the most intensive method. However, with a water recycling system, there doesn't have to be much waste. The most advantageous reason for using this process is that it is completely chemical free.

Repurposing

old denim jeans are upcycled into new headband on woman

Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick

It appears that denim is headed towards a more sustainable future. Various brands are trying their hand at manufacturing sustainable denim. While none are perfect, each brand chooses specific items on which to focus — such as factories that manufacture denim using less water, or producers that are versed in the latest and most sustainable finishing methods. Most are incorporating fair labor practices into their missions, as well.

However, the denim industry is still rapidly growing, and to really improve overall sustainability, the enormous amount of denim produced each year must decline.

View Article Sources
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