Are Your Jeans True Blue?
In this guide we look at the main brands of jeans plus some ethical alternatives. Also the Clothes Shops guide, many of which sell their own brand of jeans.
History of Jeans
Made from a durable cloth and solidly constructed, jeans were adopted initially as a sturdy choice of workwear worn by miners then cattle ranchers through the ages.
Originally made with a mixed-fibre cloth, slavery and a growth in cotton plantations led to 100% cotton jeans becoming the norm, dyed with indigo from the Americas and India to give them their trademark blue colour. Levi’s claims to have ‘invented’ the blue jean, after patenting its idea of riveting on the pockets in 1873, but even so the company admits that denim trousers had been worn as workwear for many years previously.
Possibly the most enduring garment of all time, in more ways than one, jeans are the backbone of every Westerner’s wardrobe. You can buy a pair for £20 on the high street, pre-faded to spare you the years of manual labour required for an authentic look.
Read our article 'Slow Jeans' on how to make your pair sustainable.
Comparison table for Jeans companies policies
The Problem with Cotton
Not only does cotton require huge amounts of water and land, but it’s also linked with slave labour in Uzbekistan, and when grown conventionally is doused with huge amounts of chemicals.
Cotton is planted on 2.4% of the world’s crop land but accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively.
It is also largely grown from genetically modified seed. Based on a global hectarage of 30 million hectares, genetically modified cotton accounted for 81% of cotton grown in 2012. The most popular is insect-resistant Bt cotton, followed by stacked cotton (insect resistant and herbicide tolerant).
Several companies in this guide are signed up to the Better Cotton Initiative, but this doesn’t commit to remove chemicals entirely, and abstains from passing judgement on the use of GM cotton seed.
The Fairtrade Foundation reported in February 2015 that sales of Fairtrade cotton had dropped by 38% in the previous year. This is backed up by our report which found no fairtrade jeans on offer from brands we have covered.
Luckily there are still plenty of brands using organic cotton, with some, like Kuyichi, significantly increasing their ranges of organic jeans since our last guide in 2011, and Nudie, which has recently achieved its goal of using 100% organic cotton.
We’ve also seen the emergence of some exciting new brands such as Mud and Hiut which are testing out new innovative business models, challenging our ideas of ownership, while also using sustainable materials and working hard to ensure fairness in their supply chains.
Read our 'Slow Jeans' article for more information on sustainable options.
In 2010, campaigners drew our attention to the practice of sandblasting – a process carried out to give jeans their pre-worn look. It involves quite literally blasting sand particles at a pair of jeans with a jet of air.
Sacom urges blanket ban on sandblasting in 2013, Flickr.
Unless extensive safety precautions are taken the practice is deadly, resulting in lung silicosis for the workers who breathe in the tiny particles. Thanks to campaign action, many brands announced bans on sandblasting in 2010/11. But a follow-up report in 2013 found that all this had done in effect was to force the practice underground.
An exposé on Aljazeera earlier this year discovered that sandblasting was still being used in Xintang, China – the ‘Jeans Capital of the World’. In one case, a mobile sandblasting operation travelled around to different jeans-sewing factories, which is one way for a factory to ensure that sandblasting equipment is never found on-site.
As a result, in order to receive a best rating on this issue, Ethical Consumer expects companies to not only commit to a ban on sandblasting, but also to state publicly how they monitor their supply chains for compliance with their policy.
The best scoring companies in this issue are:
Clothes shops: M&S, Arcadia, Primark, New Look, H&M and Asda.
Jeans brands: Monkee Genes, Nudie, Kuyichi, Hiut, Mud Jeans, F-ABRIC (does not make faded-look jeans), VF Corp (Lee, Wrangler), G-Star and PVH Corp (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger).
Alarming Water Consumption
It takes around 11,000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans. Much of this impact is in the growing of cotton, which is a very thirsty crop and is usually irrigated. But the ‘wet processing’ stage is also a very thirsty one, with the dyes, fabric treatments and washing all consuming lots of water.
Companies are ‘cottoning on’ to this hot topic and developing new production methods which reduce water use.
Levi’s WaterGap Wise Wash denim (launched in 2012) use low-impact manufacturing techniques that the companies claim consume around 25% less water, electricity, and chemicals than conventional wet processing. Levi says some styles of its Water
Currently both only produce small ranges, but express an interest in scaling up the program. Levi’s says it aims to make 80% of its products using Water
Diesel is perhaps best known for its ‘edgy’ (read: offensive) marketing adverts, one of which was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for featuring nudity and the slogan ‘BE STUPID’. The advertising agency which carried out the campaign then resigned.
While it may be bold and vocal in its ad campaigns, there’s not a peep from the company on any of the issues currently facing the fashion industry. The company is not signed up to the Cotton Pledge, or the Bangladesh Accord or any toxics plan.
Since our last product guide, Guess has gone fur-free, according to the Humane Society’s fur-free fashion shopping guide. This is great news because the company was found to be selling fur when it was last rated by Ethical Consumer back in 2011.
Guess unfortunately still falls short on our other reporting requirements, making no mention of cotton sourcing, elimination of the use of hazardous chemicals or sandblasting. It has been targeted by Rainforest Action Network for using unsustainable wood pulp in its fabrics.
You could be forgiven for getting confused between the Hiut and Howies brands. Hiut jeans are made by the founders of Howies, who started that brand in 1995 then sold it in 2006. Now it says it has no shareholding in Howies as it stands today.
It’s not so long ago that we made a significant proportion of our own clothing here in the UK. This included jeans, which were a specialism of Cardigan in Wales. Hiut Denim set out on a mission to bring jeans manufacturing back to Cardigan with its raw denims, some of which are made with organic cotton. Hiut says its goal is to make all of its jeans from organic cotton, though it doesn’t give a date for achieving this.
In 2015, Monkee Genes, a familiar face in the ethical jeans market, has made a transformation into Stop Taking The Pennies Ltd. This charitable company will continue to sell ethical jeans but with a positive twist – 50 cents from each item sold from its new collection will go to a foundation which provides education for children in Bangladesh, local to the company’s manufacturing partner.
The STTP profits will go “towards raising awareness on the true cost of fast fashion and the thirst for ever cheaper clothing. This will be done via a variety of methods, including educational trips, workshops, lectures, talks and road shows.”
Mud Jeans is an innovative brand demonstrating a real commitment to doing business ethically. It’s a member of Fair Wear Foundation’s Young Designer Programme, an information-sharing programme for new start-ups, with a view to them joining the full FWF supply chain monitoring programme as they become more established. However, Mud Jeans demonstrates that its commitment to transparency goes above and beyond the reporting requirements of a small company.
At the time of writing it had just published a full audit report of one of its suppliers. The 41-page document includes photographs from inside the factory and full disclosure of all non-compliances found, as well as the plans for making improvements at the factory.
The founder and CEO of Fast Retailing, UNIQLO’s parent company, is Tadashi Yanai – Japan’s richest man. Since our last guide, Fast Retailing has announced a policy banning Merino wool after a PETA campaign.
The company also runs a new social enterprise, Grameen UNIQLO Ltd in Bangladesh, a joint venture with the Grameen Healthcare Trust.
Grameen UNIQLO seeks to provide clothing that is designed and made in Bangladesh, for the people of Bangladesh. In the company’s own words: “The objective behind this was to address issues related to poverty, public sanitation and education, by establishing a sustainable, community-level business cycle.”
It started out in 2010, with local partner factories manufacturing clothes that were then sold to the poor door-to-door by ‘Grameen Ladies’ for $1 each. Then the company set up a showroom and mobile shops, introducing stretchy fabrics and raising its prices to $2-$4 per item. It now has stores in the capital, Dhaka.
Whether this enterprise is any more than a back-door entry to a new market for UNIQLO remains to be seen. Find out more on the website: www.grameenuniqlo.com.
VF Corp (Lee, Wrangler) is the subject of a campaign run by United Students Against Sweatshops over its refusal to sign the Bangladesh Accord.
This product guide is part of a Special Report on fashion. See what's in the rest of the report.