One of fashion's biggest villains, disrupting ecosystems and destroying communities, is probably in your wardrobe. You are likely to have many versions of it, and frequently buy more - most of us do. This fabric is one of fashion's most iconic, versatile, and ever-present, showing up in every seasonal trend report and on most catwalks. We are of course talking about denim.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
In this story, we will look at:
- What is denim ?
- Is denim bad for the environment ?
- Is denim vegan?
- Denim and worker's rights
- How can denim be made more sustainably?
What is denim ?
Denim has been one of fashion's favourite fabric since the late 19th century, when Loeb Strauss changed his name to Levi, and set up his own branch of his family's textile goods shop in California, attracting many of the area's miners who were looking for good workwear. Using a sturdy, resistant cotton fabric invented in Nîmes, France, and called denim after 'de Nimes', Strauss quickly became one of the most requested names in clothing.
Is denim bad for the environment?
Through the years, denim has made its way into mainstream fashion - which has made it easier for all of us to get dressed in the morning, but has also brought large-scale environmental destruction. For starters, denim is incredibly water-intensive. Over 3780 litres of water are used to make just one pair of the 501 design that Levi Strauss, and his company Levi's, have become known for. The large bulk of this is made up of the water required to produce cotton. Some experts argue that cotton is the most water-intensive of all agricultural commodities, which would make denim largely problematic when it comes to sustainability.
Aside from the water issue, the production of denim also involves a variety of chemicals that can be toxic to the environment, such as synthetic dyes - substances like cyanide, formaldehyde and aniline all involved in the dyeing of denim . Some of these substances are considered to be toxic to human health as well as the planet.
Is denim vegan?
As denim is mostly - if not entirely - made from cotton, it's pretty much always vegan. The tiny detail that makes it tricky is the patch that many companies use on the back of the waistband. In some cases, that patch can be made from leather, which frustratingly renders the garment non-vegan. PETA has a campaign calling on Levi's to start making patches made from vegan leather instead.
Denim and workers' rights
Like all garments made from conventionally made cotton, denim can present issues when it comes to working conditions and workers' safety. Slavery is still a big presence in the cotton trade, including child labour. Countries like China and Uzbekistan, where a lot of cotton is produced, have been found to keep workers in prison-like conditions and engage in forced labour.
Furthermore, the practices behind making your jeans look like they do are also problematic. Processes like bleaching, stone-washing, and sandblasting - all done to make jeans look a certain way - have been linked to workers' health issues. Sandblasting, where the fabric is blasted with sand to achieve a certain 'worn' look, has been banned by many brands and some countries after being linked to cancer among workers.
How can denim be made more sustainably?
Making denim more sustainable starts with material choice - better cotton means more humane conditions for the workers as well as a smaller impact on the planet. Ethical fashion brand 1 People work with organic cotton only, which means that fewer chemicals are used in the growing of the crop, as well as much less water than conventional cotton production. COO Molay Ghosh says: “1 People stands at the intersection of fashion and environmental responsibility. Our commitment isn't just a statement – it's visible in every product we craft. We utilize upcycled fabrics, ensuring that our denims are both luxurious and environmentally conscious. Our unique blends, from the cotton-rich Alto and Celeste to our Sky denim that incorporates REPREVE polyester from recycled bottles, echo our dedication to sustainable innovation. With OEKO-TEX® certified fabric and dyes, and nickel-free hardware, we don't just create fashion, we craft a movement towards a brighter, greener future.“ The brand also takes care to ensure all workers are paid a living wage.
The latter is also important to sustainable fashion brand Baukjen, who engage in regular conversation with their suppliers to ensure ethical working conditions. Much like 1 People and other ethically minded labels, Baukjen is a big user of organic cotton. “We are committed to reducing the environmental impact of clothing and we are proud to be a circular, carbon negative and zero-waste business,” says husband and wife founder duo Geoff van Sonsbeeck and Baukjen de Swaan Arons.
You can shop our full ethical and sustainable Denim collection here.
Three sustainable denim styles for the new season
To complete your denim wardrobe, look no further than these three versatile and ethically made designs.
A relaxed, slouchy style that prioritises comfort, this pair will become your trusty weekend favourite - but can also be dressed up for the office with a crisp blouse and a structured blazer.
Wide-leg styles are the perfect balance between elegant and off-duty cool - wear this pair with a band tee for a Seventies-inspired look or choose to go more glam with a sleek camisole and and a biker jacket.
Nothing gives a sleek silhouette like a pair of well-made skinny jeans. Wear this organic cotton and Tencel pair with an oversized shirt for contrast, or dress it up with a pair of heels.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her or listen to her podcast Catwalk Rebel. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
You can shop Immaculate Vegan's ethical and sustainable Denim collection here.
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