Heather Webb looks at the impacts of jeans on the environment.
According to New Internationalist, jeans are the Coca-Cola of clothing.(1) They are a staple of most people’s wardrobe. Yet the production of jeans has devastating impacts on the environment, and controversy often surrounds how they are made and the working conditions of those who make them.
During the eighteenth century, as trade, slave labour, and cotton plantations increased, so did the use of jeans. Workers in America wore it because the material was strong and it did not wear out easily. The cloth was dyed with indigo taken from plants in the Americas and India, turning it into its trademark dark blue colour.(2)
Throughout the twentieth century jeans continued to be worn for their endurance and hardiness. Then in 1970, as new world trade regulations relaxed restrictions on manufacturing in developing countries, the production of jeans soared. Cheap labour, and relaxed environmental and health and safety laws led to many of the traditional American producers of jeans such as Levi Strauss, Wrangler and Lees moving production to countries such as Mexico, Bangladesh, India, China, the Philippines, and Thailand. While cheaper production led to more jeans being produced and sold, the impacts on the environment and workers were often ignored.
One of the main environmental impacts from jeans comes from the cultivation of cotton. Despite the well documented environmental and workers’ rights issues surrounding the cultivation of cotton, many of the companies producing jeans fail to state a policy addressing their cotton sourcing.
Only one company in our jeans report uses organic and Fairtrade cotton in their jeans. Best Buy Bishopston uses Agrocel Pure and Fair Indian Organic Cotton in their jeans which are produced by workers' co-operatives in India.
Our other Best Buy, Monkee Genes, sell some Soil Association Organic Standard and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified jeans. Look out for the jeans with the Soil Association logo next to them.
Jackpot and Kuyichi use organic cotton in some of their products although only Kuyichi sells organic jeans. Both are signed up to Made-By, which looks at companies supply chains. The Made-By website also allows customers to track and trace clothing items bought by entering a product code on their website.
Levi Strauss have started to address the amount of water used during the life cycle of a pair of jeans. A product life cycle assessment conducted by Levi Strauss found that on average a pair of jeans, ‘finished’ in large washing machines and dryers, uses 42 litres of water.(3)
Using this information, Levi Strauss made simple changes to its finishing process which led to a reduction in water consumption by an average of 28% and up to 96%. The Water<Less jeans range – which is due to come on sale in the UK sometime this year - has over 1.5 million pairs of jeans in its collection. Through using its new waterless technique, Levi’s will have used an estimated 16 million litres less water.
Levi Strauss’s product life cycle also highlighted that the after care of jeans consumes large quantities of water. Levi jeans now have after care labels suggesting washing jeans less, on a lower temperature and line drying.
Kuyichi will also be launching jeans which use less water in its production in its spring 2012 collection.
An alternative to water-intensive jeans may be to purchase raw denim jeans. This is where the jeans have not been washed after being dyed during production. The appeal of factory distressed denim is that it looks similar to denim that has, with time, faded. With dry denim, however, such fading is affected by the body of the person who wears the jeans and the activities of his or her daily life. To achieve the worn and faded look it is advised that the jeans are not washed for six months or more. Nudie sells raw denim and provides details on how to achieve a worn look.
Finally, for those who do not want to part with their loyal old pair of jeans, there are several companies who offer to restore or recycle jeans. The Denim Doctor offers customers the opportunity to repair or restore old pairs of worn out jeans. While www.recycleyourjeans.com offers customers the opportunity to get their jeans re-made into a pair of sandals, for £45.
Dying for a distressed look
Sandblasting exposed by Labour Behind the Label and Heather Webb.
Jeans - once seen as a symbol of the American working class, worn for its ability to stand up to the rigours of building railways and mining – have evolved from being solely for workers into fashionable must-have items. Today on the UK highstreet, most pairs of jeans being sold will have had some treatment to make them seem worn or faded. The worn, distressed denim look, which was achieved through hard manual labour, is now recreated in factories.
Yet this look comes at a cost. Many of the workers who create this distressed denim look are liable to contract the fatal lung disease silicosis. This is because sand is blasted at denim using sand guns in dusty environments, causing fine silica particles to gather in operator’s lungs.
In Turkey alone, over 50 former sandblasting operators are known to have died as a direct result of silicosis caused by denim blasting. In reality it is likely that many hundreds more have suffered this fate but have stayed beneath the radar due to the hidden nature of the industry.
In March this year, Labour Behind the Label launched a campaign to ban the process, calling on all UK high street retailers to publicly state their intention to remove sandblasted denim from their supply chains.
While many of the companies featured in this magazine have already removed sandblasting from their supply chain, others are dragging their feet. Labour Behind the Label is calling for these companies to ban the practice with immediate effect. This is because of the high risk of workers contracting silicosis. Those companies which have failed to commit to immediately removing the practice from their supply chain lose half a mark in the workers’ rights category.
Nudie Jeans stated that sandblasting was being used in its Italian factory. Labour Behind the Label told Ethical Consumer that there were challenges controlling supply chains which meant that there were no guarantees that unsafe abrasive blasting was not carried out, even in Europe. Given the fatal risk associated with this technique and a call by Labour Behind the Label to ban abrasive blasting throughout their supply chain, Nudie loses half a mark in the workers’ rights category.
As Sam Maher of Labour Behind the Label states, “The trend for Killer Jeans must be phased out by companies and rejected by consumers. Fashion to die for doesn’t need to cost lives.”
Monitoring the ban throughout supply chains will also be a challenge for companies. According to Labour Behind the Label: “Sandblasting is by far the cheapest way to distress denim, although there are other techniques which create similar results, such as chemical treatments, stone-washing, hand rubbing, brushing or lasering. This poses a further problem. When a company takes steps to ban the process it is likely to inform purchasing companies that they cannot use sand any longer and must switch to another of the techniques, and the company should increase their unit price accordingly. But without proper monitoring of the switch, it is highly likely that suppliers with sandblasting equipment will continue to use this and pocket the extra profit while reassuring purchasing companies of their compliance. Companies need to build in regular monitoring to keep the ban in place. Many of the companies which had stated they would ban sandblasting have said they would monitor this through their current audit systems. However, none of the companies contacted by Labour Behind the Label have involved third party or NGO assistance in monitoring the removal of sandblasting from their supply chains.”
How can I tell if my jeans are sandblasted?
Sandblasting is common on the thighs of jeans and around pockets but it is virtually impossible to spot the difference between distress achieved by hand rubbing, or by some chemical processes. This makes identifying sandblast-free jeans in shops difficult. However, you can choose to buy from brands who have announced a ban on the process.
Many would ask why there is a need to make our jeans look worn in the first place, when the process can occur naturally. It seems the trend to wear sandblasted denim is the ultimate in fast fashion.
We, here at Ethical Consumer, feel that making jeans look artificially worn in the name of fashion makes no sense, especially when the process used to achieve the look costs lives. We would suggest that if you want a worn or faded pair of jeans then hold onto your jeans and achieve your own personal touch or buy second hand jeans from charity shops.
Company positions on sandblasting
Kuyichi, Pepe Jeans, Levi’s, New Look, Marks & Spencer, Oasis, Warehouse, G Star Raw: Have publicly stated a ban on sandblasting within their supply chain
Arcadia Group, IC Company, Tommy Hilfiger: Stated that sandblasting is not used in their supply chain but have not issued a public ban on the practice
River Island, ASDA: Refuse to provide information on sandblasting
GAP: Old Navy brand sells sandblasted jeans
Primark, Diesel, Next, VF Corporation: Pledged that they will stop using sandblasting in the future but have not issued a public ban on the process