Jeans, a fashion staple but an environmental headache

23.09.2022Alberto Bailin, Co-founder of LienzoPhoto by Divazus Fabric Store

Case study on circularity in the denim industry and a dig into Levis, the most well-known jeans worldwide.

Denim is undeniably one of the most popular fabrics worldwide. We all have a pair of jeans that we wear when we don't really know what to wear, or even when we want to wear some of our best clothes. Traditionally cotton based, denim is used in everything from ubiquitous jeans to jackets and accessories. Unfortunately, denim is not a sustainable fabric by default. Denim production affects the environment in three primary ways: soil biodiversity, water pollution and use and denim disposal.

Conventionally grown cotton is known as one of the most environmentally damaging crops. Its cultivation accounts for one sixth of global pesticide usage, thus contaminating soil and harming its biodiversity. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, soil biodiversity “reduces the impacts of extreme droughts and floods, which are becoming more common as the climate changes.”

Denim doesn't just use a lot of water, it's a damaging pollutant too. Levi's estimates that a pair of their jeans emits 33.4 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere, the equivalent of driving more than 1,000 kilometers in a car. In other terms, every time we buy a new pair of jeans, it is like turning on the shower and letting the water run down the drain for 21 hours. Moreover, denim’s trademark blue color is mainly achieved by using synthetic indigo dyes, which are linked with toxic chemicals such as cyanide, commonly known for its use as a poison. All this, combined with the fact that around two billion pairs of jeans are bought each year clearly poses a huge problem for our planet.

Denim disposal is also a risk to the future of our planet. The use of synthetic materials in denim means denim doesn’t break down as easily as other textiles. Trends like stretchy jeans are making things worse, as stretchy denim is made with synthetic fibers that don’t decompose and can’t be recycled either. Synthetic dyes also pose a big problem since they are slow to decompose. Some of these products take more than 200 years to degrade and break down in landfills…

Fashion companies all over the world have identified the damage the traditional denim industry has on the environment and are therefore coming up with alternative ways of producing and using their denim products. In the following paragraphs, we are going to study some of these alternatives, how to shift from linear to circular fashion. Circularity is about making a product so it can be reused and reincorporated over and over again. Furthermore, by the end of this case study we will dig deeper into Levis, the most famous denim brand worldwide to see what are the actions they have been taking with regards to making denim more sustainable.

MUD Sustainability Report

I. Moving towards better materials

Some responsible brands are opting for jeans made from better materials like recycled or organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester, man-made cellulosic fibers or recycled elastane. Yet, even if at Lienzo we applaud these efforts, this move towards more sustainable materials is not as straightforward as it might seem as there is not yet enough organic cotton available globally to meet the demand the denim industry faces.

II. Opting for high-quality jeans

Another alternative we have identified relies on buying a pair of jeans that we know will last for years. In other words, instead of buying 5 pairs per year in the fast-fashion well-known brands, we can instead buy 1, even if the price of this one alone is going to be similar to the other 5 combined. Yet, opting for high quality denim jeans designed for longevity ensures durability and style.

III. Second hand is always an option to consider

The environmental benefits of buying second-hand clothes, particularly second-hand vintage jeans, are wide and varied – from reduced carbon emissions to saving up to 2,000 gallons of water per pair of jeans. Garments bought through the used market significantly reduces the need to manufacture clothes using new materials, which can help manufacturers save plenty of resources. Synthetic fibers like polyester, for instance, require a lot of power and oil inputs to synthesize the fibers.

IV. Customer Care and Repair

Some brands, like the Dutch denim brand MUD jeans, one of the denim sustainability leaders, are offering a repair service to their customers. This means that your favorite piece will stay in the closet longer than ever expected.

As we said at the very beginning of this case study, our goal for the final paragraphs is to dig down into Levi's, the world's best-known denim brand. We will be lookin at some of the actions and policies the brand has taken with respect to the circular economy and the UN SDG number 12: responsible consumption and production.

At the end of the year 2021, Levi’s announced the launch of a more circular iteration of its 501 Original jeans as part of its ongoing partnership with Swedish sustainable technology company Renewcell. Renewcell’s Circulose fiber is a sustainably sourced viscose made in part from recycled denim, and organic cotton and is designed to be fully recyclable. This new material mix will translate into less use of natural resources and chemicals to produce the jeans, aligning with Levi’s strategy for resource conservation across the lifecycle of their products. These new jeans are also part of the Levi's campaign, “Buy Better, Wear Longer”, which aims to raise awareness about the shared responsibility and environmental impacts of apparel production and consumption.

Another of the brand's big bets in the last few years has been to establish collaborations with organizations like Fashion for Good, which funds and scales sustainable innovation, and circular apparel initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign project, which is helping to realign the industry and create economies of scale.

The brand has also launched the Levi’s Second Hand and Second Chance initiatives. The Levi’s Second Hand is oriented towards consumers who want to buy used garments instead of new ones. This will result in water savings, reduced greenhouse emissions and less waste. The Second Chance initiative allows consumers to drop their products at a Levi’s store in exchange for discount vouchers for future purchases.

In conclusion, it is clear that denim is one of the most used materials in fashion and at the same time one of the most polluting. In order to continue using this material without damaging our planet excessively, brands and consumers should change their vision and move towards circularity. In other words, in the past decades we have been following a traditional manufacturing model in which resources are transformed into products which are sold and eventually discarded. However, circularity calls for a fundamental change, starting with design and running all the way through a product’s lifecycle and this is where Lienzo stands.

Sources on circularity / denim,620%20miles)

Sources - Levis

Sources - other