Everything you need to know about buying sustainable denim
by Michele Henry October 11, 2018
My colleague’s alone at her desk working quietly so I seize the opportunity to sidle up and thrust my backside near her face.
“Do I smell?” I ask in a whisper. She grimaces. “No,” she says, but I can’t tell if she’s lying.
I’ve been wearing the same pair of raw denim jeans for nine days without tossing them in the laundry. In an effort to be environmentally friendly, I’m foregoing the wash to conserve water because, lately, I’ve been wondering whether my denim habit could be harming the planet.
Besides, Penny Ford, manager of Dutil Denim, a jean mecca on Queen Street West in Toronto, says devout raw-cotton wearers never launder their jeans. “They’re pretty intense about it.” And so recently, I folded mine into a plastic bag and tucked them into my freezer, between a pack of lamb chops and a box of Popsicles. Apparently, chilling raw jeans will kill some bacteria.
As the clothing industry reckons with its impact on the environment, it has turned a spotlight on my hands-down favourite piece of clothing: jeans.
From the amount of water used to grow the cotton seed, to the gallons of water polluted by blue dye that flows into rivers after jeans are repeatedly laundered while being produced, to the techniques employed to distress the jeans, the entire process of making a pair can be wasteful, toxic and harmful, says Kelly Drennan, executive director of Fashion Takes Action, a 12-year-old organization focused on changing the industry for the good. She’s been sounding the alarm for years and urging green-minded consumers to lessen their fashion footprint by—gasp!—not buying jeans.
But giving up my skinnies and bell-bottoms, my girlfriend and boyfriend fits is a non-starter for me, because I’m addicted to jeans’ simplicity, their ease and and how sexy they make me feel. And so, I’m on a mission to find a sustainable solution to my obsession.
Some industry insiders and denimheads have told me that dungarees crafted from raw, though indigo-dyed, cotton may be the only way to wear this fashion staple without leaving an indelible, toxic footprint on the earth.
Jeffrey Silberman, professor and chairperson of the Textile Development department at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, thinks raw denim is a “pretty compelling story.” Like all jeans, they start out as a thirsty cotton seed, no different from many other commercial crops, which require water and energy to grow. After that, the yarn needs to be dyed, again relying on water and energy to force the indigo to adhere to the cotton fibre—a potential source of pollution. Then it’s woven into the denim fabric. But that’s where the similarities end and raw denim may emerge as somewhat of an environmental victor. Once the jeans are cut and stitched, they are potentially no more burden on the earth, Silberman says (unless you take them home and wash them or throw them out).
By contrast, a typical pair of jeans—like so many in my ever-expanding collection— will go on to be “distressed,” that magical finishing process that ages denim to chic, worn-in perfection. That’s where the environmental problems may intesify, he says.
Repeated launderings give jeans that ever-cool fade to shades of blue, and their irresistible softness. Some factories purify the indigo-hued water that flows from the machines, but others don’t, Silberman says, especially if they’re located in countries that lack proper environmental policies or enforcement. The “dry processing” stages aren’t much better, he says. Sandblasting, a practice that is illegal in many countries, is still used in others, to create holes and torn-up knees and can send particulate into the air, not to mention into lungs. Chemicals, including bleach, that create special effects like acid and stone washing can also wreak environmental havoc.
Drennen says the denim industry is slowly taking up the cause and making changes. Indeed, “sustainable” clothes are quickly becoming fashion’s buzzword, with labels, including Reformation and Everlane that say they strive for sustainability when crafting jeans. Some companies say they seek to minimize the environmental impact of their products by using “ethical factories” that pay their employees “fair wages.” Still more make their entire process transparent, so the public can openly scrutinize their prices.
Even H&M, the large, fast-fashion retailer, has a line of “conscious” clothes that includes jeans. But they’re tough to find.
I spend 25 minutes fighting my way through a crush of shoppers and getting tangled and irritated in a jungle of shirt sleeves and pant legs bursting off racks at the Toronto Eaton Centre store recently as I search for a pair with a small green tag. “Good luck,” a salesperson tells me. When I finally find what I’m looking for, I spend another 20 minutes hunting for my size to no avail.
H&M’s website says the responsibility to address sustainability “spans across our entire value chain” and the label poses “strict demands” on its suppliers, which include both social and environmental regulations.
That may be true, but Andrew Olah, who has spent 42 years in all facets of the denim industry, is nonetheless skeptical of fast fashion. While certain brands may produce some of their clothes sustainably, many of the high-trend garments they manufacture are destined to be throw-away pieces that may end up in the landfill, he says. (H&M did not return The Kit’s requests for comment.)
To truly be sustainable, Olah says, companies must make a commitment to change the way they operate from top to bottom and continually audit their practices in order to improve at every turn. “The road to sustainability is like the road from Toronto to Winnipeg,” he says. “Long.”
For Adam Taubenfligel, designer and creative director of Triarchy, a Toronto-based denim label, the journey began a few years ago when he was standing in a factory in Los Angeles, checking on his product. Staff turned on the taps to start the washing process, which gives the jeans their texture and fade. “The water flowed everywhere,” he says. “It was insane how much water was being used. It was obnoxious.”
Within months, Taubenfligel says, he and his team stopped production and dissected their supply chain. It was a full year before it was reassembled with factories that employ more environmentally friendly practices. It wasn’t easy, he says, and the company took a huge loss. Luckily, Taubenfligel was also working as a designer for a company in China, which helped him stay afloat. But becoming sustainable was a must-do because it was important to the “DNA of our brand,” he says.
Today, Taubenfligel explains that Triarchy jeans are washed in a Mexico City facility that recycles 85 per cent of its water. The jeans are then sewn in Los Angeles—some pairs are made from upcycled vintage fabric and others are crafted, in part, from spent, plastic water bottles that help to give the jeans their stretch. Buttons and rivets are made from recycled materials, too, Taubenfligel says. “Once the curtain was lifted as to the irresponsible practices behind the majority of denim manufacturing, I simply could not turn a blind eye,” he says. “If there is a way to do it better we will adopt that way and build on it.”
After hanging up the phone with Taubenfligel, I run to Holt Renfrew on the off chance a pair of Triarchy jeans were left over from a recent pop-up. About $200 a pair, they’re typically only available online.
Out of luck, I meander through the displays, scouring denim labels for signs of eco-friendliness—such as transparency of where they’re made or if, say, they’re crafted from recycled materials—until a benevolent salesperson leads me to Outland Denim. “People come in looking for these,” he says, “because they’ve heard they do good.”
To my untrained eye, Outland Denim, an Australian brand also priced around $200 a pair, looks like other premium brands: slight stretch, mild fading, nice stitching. But each pair, says company partner Lauren Purkis, is hand-crafted in Cambodia by a woman diverted from the sex trade.
Designated a Certified B Corporation company, which ensures certain standards of social and environmental performance, Outland Denim employs at-risk women, giving them an education, transferable skills and paying them a living wage, Purkis says. “To us, sustainability means you can bring premium European denim to the market and no person or the planet is exploited in the process.” The company’s next goal, she says, is to have zero waste in its manufacturing process.
Frank and Oak is already on its way with its “Hydro-Less” jeans. Washed in a factory that uses cutting edge techniques to filter and recycle its water, Frank and Oak jeans are made with up to 95 per cent less water than conventional denim, according to founder and CEO Ethan Song. But the Canadian retailer takes an additional step, also cutting from its process the chemicals commonly used to give jeans that classic whiskered and worn look. Rather, that’s done by lasers in a high-tech facility in Dubai, says Song. And at around $100 a pair, these jeans are a relative steal. Setting reasonable price points was a priority, Song says, because sustainability “should be accessible.”
Naked & Famous Denim, a Montreal-based brand, clearly shares that ethos. Its raw denim jeans are around $150 a pair and, since they aren’t distressed at all—just pure, sleek, stiff, deep-indigo-hued denim—they are made with “no water,” says owner Brandon Svarc. “Zero!” Of course, excluding the growing and indigo-dying of the fabric.
Svarc underscores that raw denim should never be thrown in the wash, as it both wastes water and fades the material. The allure of raw denim, he says, is how the wearer leaves her mark by working them in, fading them from genuine use and, maybe even jumping into an ocean with them on.
Perhaps that’s how I’ll clean my pair?
Freezing them just left them cold and, well, smelling a bit like frozen lamb.
For now, I’m opting for Denim Spray, an $18 mix that includes witch hazel and tea tree oil and is supposed to remove nasty odours when spritzed on sweaty jeans.
Penny Ford, Dutil Denim’s manager, tells me it works.
And it helps me save the environment, right? I ask her.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “Of course.”
Photography by Luis Mora. On model: Outland jeans, $235, jacket, $295, similar styles available at outlanddenim.ca
- Shop Sustainable DenimFrank & Oak, $90, frankandoak.com