The most beloved item in your wardrobe? Of course, those denim jeans. For many, it is not a surprise that denim is slowly but surely destroying our planet, especially our oceans. Yet, it is impossible to avoid them as the popular fabric is a key staple, and a fashion favourite. In fact, at any given time, about half of the world’s population is wearing denim as one item or another.
Well, what is so bad about our trusty old friend denim you may ask? Let’s find out.
Enormous water footprint
In order to grow enough cotton to create just one pair of denim jeans, it consumes around 1,800 gallons of water. In addition to this astounding number, a huge amount of pollutants are released during different processing stages of denim. This includes dyeing, finishing, washing, and rinsing. The entire denim industry, from cotton irrigation to manufacturing, is responsible for an immensely high water footprint.
In a world where countless countries are desperate for a water source, can we afford to waste such a significant amount in the name of fashion?
Microfibres are the tiny strands of organics or synthetic material which come loose in the wash and eventually flow out with the wastewater into the rivers and oceans. According to research, on average, just one pair of blue jeans sheds a staggering 56,000 microfibres per wash. This is ten times more microfibres than other clothing items such as a polyester fleece jacket.
When these tiny plastic fibres end up in oceans, the marine life inevitably consumes them. As a result, it fills up their stomachs and prevents them from eating real food, causing them to eventually starve to death. Microplastics may also affect the aquatic life at a cellular level, causing cell damage, and inflammation. This is also affecting humans as the fibres often bind to harmful chemical pollutants, making them toxic. People continue to eat fish worldwide, so ultimately, these toxic chemicals are ending up in us.
Dark side to colourful dyes
To ensure its iconic blue denim colour, the fabric is repeatedly steeped in huge containers of synthetic indigo dye. Synthesising indigo dye requires a number of toxic chemicals and creates enormous pollution with some rivers near denim mills turning blue. Synthetic textiles are also more common in developing nations, which often don’t have robust wastewater treatment facilities to filter them out.
The colour associated with textile dyes does not only cause aesthetic damage to the water bodies, it also prevents the penetration of light through water which leads to a reduction in the rate of photosynthesis.
The dissolved oxygen levels affect the entire aquatic environment, including the organisms living in it. Additionally, once in the wastewater, dyeing chemicals are difficult to remove as they exhibit high solubility; therefore, the substances don’t degrade and remain in the environment.
It gets worse. In order to get the faded or “worn in” look that is extremely popular, it requires even more chemical bathing. This includes the uses acids, enzymes, bleach, and formaldehyde – which is highly toxic to aquatic life.
Wouldn’t a better solution be to just keep and wear your denim long enough to get the ‘worn in’ look?
What can you do as a consumer to help?
Academic research, ‘The Widespread Environmental Footprint of Indigo Denim Microfibres from blue jeans’ found that a new pair of jeans released significantly higher number of microfibres than used jeans. This means prolonging the lifecycle of your favourite denim has never been more important.
Whether that involves avoiding unnecessary denim purchases or second hand shopping denim. You can do this from charity shops like Oxfam, which helps reduce the harmful effect of ‘fast fashion’. Here is an article on why thrifting has taken our generation by storm and a trend you should follow.
“Considering jeans are made to last, and they rarely go out of fashion, buying them second hand seems like a great way to give water back to the world.” Oxfam
Do your research
There are many brands and companies like the Better Cotton Initiative, who have supported farmers in their move to reduce water usage by 39%. These are companies who care about the environment and the safety of our oceans as much as you do. It only takes a quick browse to find those that care about things that matter, so make sure to support them and purchase sustainably.
Brands that protect our oceans
Levi Strauss & Co
One of the world’s most popular denim brand ‘Levi Strauss & Co’ has made strong commitments to sustainable denim production, which includes significantly reducing water use. Through 2019, 69% of Levi’s jeans were made of Water<less technique. The brand was on target in its aim to make 80% of its products using this sustainable technique by 2020.
According to Levi’s statement, the brand has also pledged to reduce the hazardous chemicals used to dye and treat its clothing, showing their commitment to minimising the environmental impacts of their clothing manufacturing processes.
As well as this, the head of global product innovation at Levi’s believes that part of the solution is also encouraging people to stop thinking about clothes as disposable. They want to create durable jeans that customers will take care of and keep for good.
AG (Adriano Goldschmied) Jeans
AG Jeans is an American clothing company with a focus on denim apparel created with sustainable manufacturing methods. The company claims to be committed to making sustainable denim for all future generations.
How will they do this?
They have installed two new water filtration systems to recycle the water waste produced in the factories through a five-step process. This includes: collection, separation, clarification, ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and repetition of the process to achieve sustainability.
This new water filtration system has recycled over 28,000,000 gallons of water with goals to recycle 50,000,000 gallons of water per year.
Here is more information on why sustainability is necessary for our environment.
These are just a few examples on how fashion brands can make changes and a huge difference by aiming for sustainability and protecting the environment, whilst reducing water pollution in our oceans.
Further reading for those interested in this topic
A great article on how the fashion industry affects our oceans
House of Commons: Environmental impacts of microplastics
Eye-opening findings on water pollution caused by denim
Article showing the effects of the fashion industry on developing countries