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Ethical Jeans

Finding ethical and sustainable jeans. We rank the ethical and environmental record of 56 jeans brands.

We also explore the issues around sustainable denim and other materials, organic cotton, recycled and secondhand jeans, pollution and chemicals, vegan jeans, workers' rights, and the price of jeans. We shine a spotlight on the ethics of Gucci and give our recommended best buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a shopping guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when buying jeans:

  • Are they secondhand? The oldest surviving pair of jeans – nearly 150 years old – has knee marks in several places, suggesting that jeans have long been passed from owner to owner.

  • Can you find out which factory they are made in? Several jeans brands are trying to increase transparency and accountability when it comes to workers’ rights in their supply chains.

  • Are all the company's materials sustainable? The best brands use over 95% organic, recycled, or similarly top-end sustainable materials.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying jeans:

  • A pair you don’t like much. Rather than amass seven pairs like the average UK person, spend time choosing a special pair that you could enjoy wearing for decades.

  • Does the brand pay below a living wage? Many brands pay workers less than needed to live a decent life. 

  • Is it greenwashing? Watch out for unjustified ‘sustainable’ or ‘recycled’ claims by some brands.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 100) Ratings Categories

Our Analysis

Finding an ethical and sustainable pair of jeans

This guide to sustainable jeans rates over 50 brands, from some of the biggest jeans names like Levi and Diesel to high street staples like H&M and Primark; from new online ultra-fast fashion giants like Temu and Shein to small specialist independent brands like BAM and Lucy and Yak. Plus we've included some secondhand retailers as well. 

We look at the materials and chemicals used to make jeans, review options for recycling and buying secondhand jeans, as well workers' rights, including looking at a powerful workers' rights model implemented by workers in Levi's supply chain. We also look at price and quality of jeans. 

With many of the brands failing to score more than 25 (out of 100), and some scoring way over 75, the difference between the more ethical and less ethical brands of jeans is noticeable. 

Which are the biggest brands of jeans?

The most commonly owned jeans brand in the UK is Primark, followed in order by M&S, Next, Levi’s, H&M, Zara, Diesel, Wrangler, Calvin Klein, and Gap. 

Sustainability issues for denim and jeans 

The environmental impact of jeans can vary significantly depending on the materials and processes used. We look at some of the key sustainability issues like water use, chemicals and the materials themselves.

Water usage and cotton

Cotton is the primary fibre used to make denim, and requires a lot of water to grow.

Some sources say producing a typical pair of jeans requires 1,800 gallons of water, others 7,600 gallons. One thing that’s agreed is that it’s a lot. But it’s too complex to put a simple figure on.

Usually the figure for water usage for a pair of jeans comes from one or a mixture of these:

  • Blue water – groundwater or surface water (the sensitive type that we need to carefully manage)
  • Green water – this is rainwater that feeds cotton, and would fall anyway
  • Grey water – water needed to turn polluted water back to a safe, usable condition

These figures can vary drastically from one pair of jeans to another. For example, cotton produced in Brazil requires 17 litres of blue water per kg of land, versus 13,696 litres in Turkmenistan.

Some growers use regenerative cotton growing practices, which could reduce the overall amount of water needed, but this isn’t industry norm. Gucci has, for example, used a small amount of regenerative cotton, but the top scorers in the guide seem to be opting for organic and recycled cotton.

Chemicals used for dyeing materials

Indigo may be the oldest natural dye in the world, and it exists in different plant species worldwide, in varying strengths. The oldest material dyed with indigo is 6,200 years old from Peru.

However, today synthetic dyes are cheaper and quicker to produce, and require smaller amounts to dye cotton than natural indigo. But synthetic dyes can be environmentally damaging.

Pollution has been reported near many jeans manufacturing sites worldwide, for example in Bangladesh, which can affect crop fields, and in Lesotho where denim production visibly polluted some waterways with blue dye. Some researchers suspect it could negatively affect fish populations, too.

The problems with creating a ‘worn jeans' look

Obviously, we love our jeans to look old and battered like we’ve been on very important adventures! So how is that ‘worn’ look created?

Workers used to fire sand at high speed at jeans to create the effect, which was very harmful to their respiration. Fortunately, due to campaigning supported by Ethical Consumer and many others, this is not widely practised any more.

Chemicals, such as bleach and potassium permanganate, can also create a similar worn or distressed effect. However, these can contaminate water and affect respiration if mishandled.

One increasingly common method for creating the ‘worn’ look involves laser technology. Lasers heat the dye in fabrics up to 600°C, apparently evaporating it in a process called ‘sublimation’ and revealing the undyed cotton beneath. Many brands use this technique, including Nudie, MUD, H&M, and Levi’s.

Which brands use more sustainable materials?

At Ethical Consumer, when we say a company uses the most ‘sustainable’ materials we mean at least 95% of the materials it uses are organic, recycled, reused, or other major environmental alternative materials like hemp. 

The brands who used the most sustainable materials were:

Some brands have a much lower bar for what ‘sustainable’ means, for example Wrangler defines cotton as ‘sustainable’ as long as it’s grown in the US, Africa, or Australia.

Brands might also describe jeans as ‘recycled’ without specifying percentages. Boohoo for example was selling 'petite recycled high waist skinny jeans' at the time of researching this guide, but provided no information about how much of the material is actually recycled, so it could be a negligible amount. While 40% is really high for recycled content in jeans, 15% is quite good and 1% pretty meaningless. 

Different types of jeans hanging up in a shop

How do jeans brands rate for climate actions? 

15% of brands received full marks for their approach to carbon, compared to 24% that received zero marks. 

Some brands have stringent policies and science-based targets, but campaigners have revealed that they are not on track to deliver their promises, including Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), Gap, H&M, Inditex (Zara), and Kering (Gucci). Levi’s was the only brand rated by as being on track to meet its public target.

The top scoring brands for our climate rating were: BAM, Kuyichi, Levi, MUD, Nudie, Seasalt, and Wrangler.

The brands failing to score anything in our climate rating were: Uniqlo, Amazon Essentials, ASDA George, Boohoo Group (Boohoo, Burton, Coast, Dorothy Perkins, MissPap, Oasis, Nasty Gal, Wallis, Warehouse), and Temu.

Can you buy secondhand jeans?

Buying secondhand is a great option. It helps to reduce the amount of clothing going to landfill and also reduces overall demand for new products, a problem with fast fashion in particular. 

Our separate article on secondhand clothing and charity shops has more information.

Where are secondhand clothes sourced from?

Reselling secondhand clothes eliminates many direct workers’ rights risks, so we positively marked companies doing this. Big secondhand companies, however, source vast amounts of secondhand materials, so we hope to see more transparency regarding how they obtain it in future (at the minute, there’s none).

For example, Beyond Retro is owned by Bank & Vogue, which began in the 1980s by helping stock Salvation Army, and now resells over 500,000 clothing items each year in 27 countries. It hasn’t published any workers’ rights policies and vaguely says it sources secondhand clothes “globally”. These could be from charities or recycling centres potentially but it’s unclear.

Find out more about secondhand retailers in our guide to ethical clothing brands where we rate eight different secondhand outlets. 

Repair and recycling schemes for jeans 

Some of the brands in this guide offer repair and recycling services. 

Nudie offers free repairs for life, and returning an old pair of Nudie’s for recycling gets you 20% off a new purchase. Kuyichi will also recycle your old jeans.

For other repair and recycling options, read our feature article on upcycling, repairing and recycling clothing, to save worn out jeans going to landfill. 

Sustainability schemes and certifications for cotton and materials

There are several different schemes available which seek to certify cotton and other materials used in clothing. 

GOTS, Better Cotton Initiative and Bluesign 

GOTS shows that jeans are organic and Better Cotton Initiative is reasonably good too.

Bluesign only addresses a small stage of jeans manufacture – focusing on chemical management – but it’s a positive step. Patagonia is a Bluesign member.

Jeans Redesign project

Changing Markets Foundation claims the Jeans Redesign project logo gave Primark “licence to greenwash”, because the brand used it to promote its ‘circular denim’ products that contained synthetic elastane-blended fabrics make recycling difficult.

Participating in this initiative is supposed to signal that a product meets several minimum sustainability requirements, but the Foundation says repercussions for brands failing to meet the requirements are unclear.

Cradle to Cradle (C2C)

Brand members of the Cradle to Cradle scheme are apparently able to “cherry-pick which issues to tackle” under this scheme according to Changing Markets. It says Primark heavily promoted its C2C jeans, which amounted to just two of its 540 women’s clothing products.

Fairtrade cotton

Regarding workers’ rights, Fairtrade cotton is used by some brands (such as Nudie which uses it for cotton products).

We have further articles on organic clothing and fair trade clothing where you can explore these topics in more detail.

Which brands are using organic and fair trade cotton?

Organic cotton is used by the following brands:

Fairtrade cotton is used by the following brands:

In addition, White Stuff said that 100% of its cotton would be either GOTS organic or Fairtrade certified by the end of 2024.

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

Group of five young people wearing denim clothes

Animal-friendly jeans

Are jeans vegan? 

The leather patch on jeans is the most common animal rights issue associated with jeans. Some companies use replacement materials for the patch, such as Jacron (a faux-suede material).

Beyond Retro, Preworn, Thrifted, and Vinted only use secondhand animal materials (so are ethical enough for a freegan, but not someone who wishes to avoid all animal products).

Lucy & Yak and MUD are the only completely vegan companies in this guide.

Take action on Levi’s! PETA is campaigning to get Levi’s to become a trendsetter for popular brands by switching to vegan leather patches. Sign the PETA petition.

Are jeans brands exploiting animals elsewhere in their business?

Among Gucci's animal-sourced offerings are a lizard bag and a python card case. Gucci’s small light blue crocodile tote bag is available for just £28,990. PETA claims a Gucci supplier in Indonesia "plunged conscious and struggling lizards into buckets of water before beheading them", pointing out how lizards can remain alive for up to 30 minutes in pain after being beheaded.

H&M has been criticised by PETA for ‘cutting up’ goats for mohair and cashmere, after it reversed its bans of these materials (you can sign a petition asking for the ban’s reinstatement).

Find out more about the use of animal products in clothing in our separate feature article.

Ethical jeans for every budget

We looked at the cost of typical jeans for a range of our Best Buys and Recommended brands to find options for all budgets.

We capped the range at £120, but when we were researching prices, there was a pair on Vinted for £4,540 if you want to splash out!

High price tags don’t automatically mean jeans will last you longer: some cheap fast-fashion jeans (like H&M) are, according to Which?, more durable than expensive brands like Levi’s. But Which? hasn't assessed all our top ethical brands for durability unfortunately.

Average price of ethical jeans
Price bracket Brands
Very low cost £1-£10 Beyond Retro, Thifted, Vinted
Low cost £10-£30 Beyond Retro, Lucy & Yak, Thrifted, Vinted
Reasonable cost £30-60 BAM, Beyond Retro, Howies, Lucy & Yak, Nudie Jeans, Thrifted, Vinted
Moderate cost £60-£90 BAM, Beyond Retro, Community Clothing, Howies, Kuyichi, Lucy & Yak, Nudie, Thrifted, Vinted 
Higher cost £90-£120 Beyond Retro, Community Clothing, Kuyichi, Living Crafts, MUD, Nudie, Thrifted, Vinted
High cost £120+ Beyond Retro, Kuyichi, MUD, Nudie, Thrifted, Vinted

Prices based on brand websites in January 2024 (excluding postage). 

Workers' rights in the jeans industry

A third of brands received 0 points under our workers’ rights category, and several brands lost marks for not asking suppliers to pay a living wage. Boohoo, Gap, Levi’s, and M&S are among the brands that only expect workers to receive the legal minimum wage in their country – rarely enough for workers to live on.

Jeans brands could use their leverage to increase wages

The new minimum wage introduced in November 2023 by the Bangladeshi government is well below inflation, and it’s dangerous for workers to speak out – at least three have been killed for protesting against it. Clean Clothes Campaign is calling on fashion brands to use their influence to pressure the Bangladeshi government to increase wages to a fair rate. 

But it’s hard to imagine brands would do this because they’re not renowned for putting much effort in to ensure garment workers get fair pay.

For example, Clean Clothes criticises H&M because, in 2013, it said it would pay all supply chain workers a living wage by the deadline of 2018. Now it allegedly tries to “cover up that commitment, pretending they have been saying something else all along”.

Groundbreaking worker-led rights programme in jeans supply chains bears fruit

A specific type of workers’ rights programme, called ‘Worker-driven Social Responsibility’ (WSR), has proven successful at addressing systemic and widespread workers’ rights abuses in different sectors worldwide.

One WSR programme exists in the Levi’s supply chain in Lesotho, South Africa, known as the ‘Lesotho Agreement’.

Constant sexual harassment at Lesotho denim factories

Lesotho is Africa’s second-largest exporter of clothing (after Kenya), and approximately 80% of Lesotho's garment workers are female, while most supervisors are male. A 2019 investigation by the NGO Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) exposed severe and extensive sexual violence, coercion and abuse affecting workers at three garment factories in Lesotho, which collectively employed 10,000 workers. This violated the country’s labour laws, international standards, and the codes of conducts of the brands to whom they were major suppliers, including Levi’s.

WRC’s damning investigation created very bad publicity for brands sourcing from these factories, including Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee, where workers were being abused. Rola Abimourched, Deputy Director of Investigations and Gender Equity at Worker Rights Consortium, says:

“It was the combination of brands feeling like their reputation was coming under fire, combined with unions and NGOs presenting a solution that would work, that led to brands taking action.”

How does the WSR programme work?

WSR programmes can look very different to each other because they are hand-tailored to the unique needs of workers in that specific sector and location. But all of them involve a big brand becoming legally responsible for suspending orders with a supplier if the programme requirements are violated.

Here are four of the key elements of the Lesotho WSR programme:

  1. It established an independent complaints investigation body which decides whether, and what, disciplinary action must be taken when a worker speaks out against the supplier. (Usually, complaints mechanisms are run by brands or suppliers… Who came up with that daft idea?)
  2. It got brands (Levi’s, Kontoor brands which owns Lee and Wrangler, and The Children’s Place) to sign a legally binding agreement. This is what ensures that the disciplinary action decided by the complaints body actually happens – because if the supplier fails to act, brands must legally reduce orders with it.
  3. A massive worker education programme in which all workers receive paid training on what their rights are and how to complain.
  4. Brands were obliged to provide funding for the first two years of the programme.

What’s the impact of the WSR programme?

Today, most workers have a basic level of trust in the complaint mechanism and a willingness toreport abuse through it – a major transformation from the previous attitudes to reporting genderbased violence and harassment at the factories.

Reversing the race to the bottom

WSR is a fascinating model because it turns the usual relationship between brands and suppliers on its head. Usually, big brands scour the globe to find the cheapest suppliers, then try to pressure them into lowering costs further. Suppliers therefore cut costs more and workers pay the price. WSR programmes show how brands’ buying power can be used to pressure suppliers to improve conditions for workers instead.

Workers in Levi's factory in Lesotho
Workers at a Levi supplier’s factory in Lesotho where the WSR programme operates. Credit: Solidarity Centre

Voice from the clothing supply chain

Young female garment worker Thebelang Mohapi* shared her story of working for a Levi’s supplier before and after the workers’ rights programme was implemented.

Before: constant sexual abuse

Several years ago Thebelang Mohapi joined the payroll department at the supplier, aged just 23, and a supervisor started to harass her.

“I thought this job was the start of something good for us. I knew of the bad things happening at the factory, but I was foolish enough to think it wouldn’t happen to me”.

“At first, he tried to say that he’d fallen in love with me and wanted us to be in a relationship. When I said no, he said I had to show him some gratitude.”

She was fired later that day. The factory’s HR manager put a letter on her file saying she was insolent and insubordinate, and her work was unsatisfactory, meaning that a year later she still couldn’t find work anywhere.

“That letter has followed me from place to place. I feel angry every day that I was punished and this man is still there, taking home a salary. Nobody cares what is happening to us women there.” Another worker said “All of the women in my department have slept with the supervisor … this is about survival and nothing else."

After: supervisors face consequences

After the WSR was implemented, Mohapi heard that things had improved at the factory. She took her case to an employment tribunal, got her job back, and began training to be a union representative. “The people from the WRC were the first to ever ask us what was really happening, and to listen to what we had to say."

“It is still hard… but at least here in Lesotho everybody is listening to us now. I want to try and make sure that no other woman in the factories has to come to work and suffer like that again.”

Other workers say the factories feel safer now: “Everyone is on proper contracts now … And a lot of the harassment has stopped.”

One supervisor, who had previously got a woman fired for reporting him, was fired after the WSR programme was implemented and another worker reported him. She said “This is how the program is helping people like myself to report. I am still at work, and he is not. … Now my rights are protected by this agreement.”

*As interviewed by The Guardian. Name changed for anonymity.

The Bangladesh International Accord

The first WSR programme in apparel is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (now the International Accord). This legally binding agreement saw virtually undisputed improvements in health and safety conditions in factories in Bangladesh that supply major fashion brands, with brands originally being pressured to sign the agreement after the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013, killing over 1000 people.

Unravelling secretive supply chains

As WSR programmes demonstrate, when connections are exposed between big brands and suppliers it’s much easier to force them to take responsibility and use their power for good. But often brands don’t make it easy for us to make that link.

Here we celebrate brands trying to boost transparency in the world of jeans supply chains (and name and shame those that are secretive about suppliers).

Super transparent supply chain: Nudie Jeans

Nudie’s website has a downloadable spreadsheet naming all worldwide suppliers and much more detail too, including:

  • When the supplier started producing for them.
  • How much of that supplier’s products are destined for Nudie’s. This is useful information because if Nudie’s only buys 1% of a supplier’s products, it probably can’t influence the supplier much. But if everything the supplier makes ends up at Nudie’s, Nudie’s has huge power to ask the supplier to make changes.
  • How many workers are at the supplier, broken down by gender.
  • When the last audits and visits from Nudie’s to the supplier were.

This goes well beyond the detail of any large jeans brand. Of the big brands, Mango has the most in-depth and accessible supplier list.

How transparent are denim brands’ supply chains?

In the table below we list the levels of transparency in jean supply chains for the brands in this guide.

Supply chain transparency and brands
Level of transparency Brand
Extensive transparency Kuyichi, MUD, Nudie Jeans
Publishes all direct supplier names, plus some of its suppliers’ suppliers & Other Stories, ASOS, Calvin Klein, Community Clothing, COS, Gap, Gucci, H&M, Levi’s, M&S, Mango, Monki, New Look, Next, River Island, Tommy Hilfiger, Topman, Topshop, Uniqlo
Publishes all direct supplier names Amazon, BAM, Boohoo, Burton, Coast, Dorothy Perkins, Lucy & Yak, MissPap, NastyGal, Nobody’s Child, Oasis, Patagonia, Wallis, Warehouse, White Stuff
Publishes some direct supplier names Primark
Opaque: publishes barely any or no supplier names at all I Saw It First, Diesel, Howies, Inditex, Jack Wills, Living Crafts, Missguided, Seasalt, Shein, Temu, Wrangler

Where does the profit go? 

In contrast to the poverty wages and workers' rights abuses, the directors of several of the big brands in this guide are very well paid.

Directors at Amazon, Etsy (Depop), Gap, Kering (Gucci), Levi's, PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger), and TJX (TK Max) received total annual compensation above £10m.

Amazon’s executive Andrew Jassy topped the pile in 2021 with £167m. Points were lost for these companies in the company ethos category.

This guide appears in Ethical Consumer Magazine 207.

Companies behind the brands

Gucci is the second-most Googled jeans brand in the UK (after Levi’s). Its owner Kering also owns high-fashion brands Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and, likely soon, Valentino. Kering has subsidiaries in the tax havens of Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Hong Kong and its CEO was accused of gigantic tax avoidance in Switzerland. 

MUD Jeans received a near perfect ethical score. It’s a PETA-approved vegan company and B Corp, and all its cotton is organic, recycled or secondhand. Its jeans contain a maximum of 4% synthetic materials overall, with the company’s ethos being around longevity and circularity. In 2022, people sent 3,227 old pairs of jeans to MUD through its recycling service. Following Brexit MUD no longer ships to the UK (it’s based in the Netherlands). However, you can buy MUD jeans from the Brothers We Stand website (a Best Buy clothing retailer).

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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