The carbon cost and climate impact of jeans
Sorcha Bowles investigates the carbon management practices of denim companies.
Jeans are the second most bought item of clothing in Britain. We have rated jeans companies on their carbon management and reporting, and the results are summarised in the table further below, along with a price comparison of their cheapest pair of jeans and the companies’ annual revenues.
Measuring carbon emissions - the different ‘scopes’ categories
Although every company mentioned climate change in its reports, there was often little elaboration.
Company carbon emissions are generally broken down into three categories: scope one, two and three.
Scope one is direct emissions by the company – for example, the petrol it uses in its own vehicles. Scope two is the emissions of the electricity and heat it purchases. Scope three is everything else, largely ‘upstream’ emissions from its supply chain and ‘downstream’ emissions from the use of its products.
If the company makes washing machines, scope three includes the emissions from the electricity they use throughout their life. And if it makes jeans, scope three includes the emissions of growing the cotton, making the fabric and sewing the final garment, although these may be done by other people or companies.
A company’s scope three emissions are on average three to four times the size of their scope one and two emissions combined, making them the biggest portion of a company’s emissions. But they are also harder for a company to know and to control because many companies don’t fully know what their suppliers and consumers are doing.
We are looking for companies to report on their scope three emissions and plan how to reduce them, particularly those of their supply chain. However, very few do. Only Levi’s, Nudie, and Abercrombie & Fitch Co provided a breakdown of their scope three emissions.
The fabric matters
As discussed in our feature article on the carbon cost of clothing, the biggest portion of clothing emissions comes from producing the fabric.
Because much of this is due to the use of fossil fuels, it is important that companies talk about the use of renewables in their suppliers’ factories. The best in this regard is Kuyichi, which says that 52% of its suppliers use renewable energy.
More positively, all of the companies mentioned their intention to use more climate-friendly fabrics apart from the two owed by Abercrombie & Fitch Co (Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister).
Jeans are traditionally made from cotton, but some companies are now mixing in polyester, and also elastane/ lycra for stretch. We discuss the climate impact of different fabrics in a separate feature, alongside an article on different fabrics.
Our carbon emissions review found that there isn’t a clear case between cotton and polyester, but cotton impacts can be reduced through better growing methods.
Polyester emissions can be reduced by recycling, although it is generally ‘open loop’ recycling – from plastic bottles to clothes, with clothes as the end of the line, regarded as less good than ‘closed loop’ recycling which you can keep doing infinitely. WRAP estimates that using recycled polyester reduces CO2e emissions by 32% compared to virgin polyester.
Howies advertises a pair of jeans made using recycled plastic bottles. Elastane is harder to recycle – mixes containing elastane mostly just end up as things like insulation materials.
Conclusion – the cost to the climate?
Jeans companies are not doing nearly enough on the climate front. However, luckily for those of us not wanting to spend a fortune on jeans, the table shows little correlation between price and what a company is doing. Levi’s and Kuyichi are mid-range in terms of price and show what can be done without breaking the bank.
Our ethical clothing guide provides a comparison across all the issues we cover for the following brands (which also make other types of clothing): Kuyichi, Monkee Genes, MUD, Nudie, Howies, Thought.
Our guide to high street clothing provides similar information for brands like Boohoo, Primark, and Shein.