Can you wear jeans and not harm the planet (too much)?

·4-min read
These days it's possible to wear jeans produced with little water and chemicals, and made from responsible and sustainable materials.

A new exhibit in Paris is revisiting the history of that most iconic article of clothing, jeans, and the manufacturing secrets of denim. On show now through January 2022 at the Cité des sciences et de l'industrie, the display invites us to explore the conditions of production of one of the most polluting (and water-intensive) garments. So is there a way to wear jeans today without (too) much impact on the environment? We highlight some of the alternatives and initiatives taking the garment forward.

Some 2 billion pairs of jeans are sold worldwide each year, that is to say a good 60 pairs per second, which makes it one of the most worn clothes. The only problem is that they are also one of the most environmentally harmful items, as it takes almost 10,000 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans, and they usually travel tens of thousands of kilometers before they land in your closet. A problem that the industry has been trying to solve for several years now, but which persists despite the efforts of many brands.

Cleaner materials and production methods

One need only take a look at the latest collections of ready-to-wear brands, or denim specialists, to see that many have recently taken a 180-degree turn to offer new collections of more sustainable jeans. Natural or cleaner materials, less water-intensive manufacturing, and even new-generation dyes and washes (with fewer chemicals or chemical-free): brands are progressively committing to reducing the environmental impact generated by the production of a pair of jeans. This currently concerns only one or several ranges in a sea of more polluting jeans in large quantities, but we have to start somewhere, right? Brands such as COS, Weekday, Marks & Spencer, and Levi's, to name but a few, all now offer more sustainable ranges to meet consumers' expectations and environmental issues.

Some brands have gone as far as making sustainable jeans part of their DNA. That's the case of New York-based DL1961, which starts by "shredding old denim and post-consumer waste" into small pieces that are woven into new yarn with eco-friendly fibers. The company also uses "waterless technology" so that while the average pair of jeans uses 1500 gallons of water in its production, a pair of theirs uses less than 10 gallons. Meanwhile Kelly Slater-founded Outerknown brand is Fair Trade Certified, and its S.E.A. jeans come with a guarantee -- "to keep worn or torn S.E.A. JEANS out of the landfill, we'll repair, replace, or recycle them," they promise. Meanwhile other sustainable denim brands like Nudie Jeans are taking into account the whole life cycle of each product and Netherlands-based MUD Jeans uses GOTS-certified cotton and non-toxic dyes.

Looking at rental or second-hand

Second-hand platforms have been rapidly growing in popularity since the first lockdowns of last year. From the most generalist to the most specialized, there are a host of them. DePop, Vinted, thredUp, Vestiaire Collective, and The RealReal are among the best known, but nowadays, traditional brands are also launching into second-hand. In such cases, the concept is simple, the brands usually give vouchers to their customers in exchange for unused pieces or garments at the end of their life that will be offered a second life in some form. An alternative to wearing jeans with less environmental impact (and often coming in at a lower cost).

In the same vein, renting can be a more eco-friendly alternative. Initially reserved for evening wear or outfits for special events, rental services are gradually being extended to everyday clothing. This is the case of Selfridges Rental, recently launched, but also of Haverdash, or Armoire which offer clothes for rent on a one-off basis, or on a subscription basis, depending on whether you want to avoid over-consumption. Not to be underestimated, in case of a real sartorial crush, it is often possible to buy the pieces at a preferential rate. The process allows you to enjoy the comfort of jeans, and to test a multitude of cuts, without harming the planet.

Endlessly recyclable jeans

The future of fashion will (inevitably) be in clothes that can be returned for re-use or recycling. Many brands are investing in this new alternative, which allows for the nearly endless recycling of clothes, tights, sneakers, and jeans. The concept is quite simple. When you buy your jeans, you pay a little more (a deposit), which you get back when you return the piece at the end of its life. The brand then takes care of all the logistics to transform your old jeans into a brand new model. The ultimate in circular fashion.

Christelle Pellissier

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