Skip to main content

Ethical Jeans

Finding ethical and eco-friendly jeans. We rank the ethical and environmental record of 64 jeans brands.

We also explore the issues around sustainable denim and other materials, organic cotton, recycled jeans, forced labour, pollution and chemicals, vegan jeans, and gender neutral jeans. We shine a spotlight on the ethics of Levi Strauss and Hiut and give our recommended best buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product 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 second-hand? Choosing second-hand jeans reduces the environmental impact from the raw ingredients needed when buying new every time. 

  • Are they organic or recycled? Several brands sell jeans made from over 90% organic and/or recycled materials, which helps consumers avoid funding pesticides or GMO cotton.

  • Are they built to last? Buying from a brand that has a reputation for making jeans with longevity, or offers free repairs, could mean the next pair of jeans you buy is also the last.

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

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying jeans:

  • Has the brand been criticised for workers’ rights abuses in its supply chain? The apparel sector faces heavy criticism for this and jeans brands are no exception.

  • A second or third pair? One pair you feel fabulous in can be better than several pairs that clog up your wardrobe.

  • Do they contain toxic materials? Uncertified cotton, polluting synthetics, and damaging dyes are all ways mainstream denim manufacturing can pollute our planet

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 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Finding an ethical pair of jeans

In this guide for ethical jeans, we look at the environmental impact of cotton and denim, including the chemicals involved in the production process. We also look at cotton sourcing and forced labour, and hear from the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) about its investigation into sexual assault at Levi’s supplier factories, and examine the impact of the groundbreaking worker-driven programme that has been put in place to improve conditions.

We also weigh up cost, quality and quantity of jeans. The majority of the British public spends less than £25 on a pair of jeans – significantly less than some of our Best Buys which charge around £100 per pair. We consider whether this extra cost is worth it.

Jeans are the second most bought item of clothing in the UK within a fashion industry that has a significant carbon footprint – estimates vary from 2% of global emissions up to much higher figures.

Image: ethical guide to jeans

Sustainable denim or cotton 

The name of "denim" is alleged to come from the French town of Nimes (de Nimes meaning ‘from Nimes’) in the 17th century. However, the material referred to as denim was actually made of silk and fleece, while denim is typically now made of cotton. It’s also been suggested that sailors from Genoa used to wear trousers made from a cotton wool and/or linen blend, and the word ‘jean’ accordingly came from ‘Genoa’.

The environmental impact of jeans can vary significantly depending on the materials used. We look at how sustainable some of the most commonly used materials are.

Cotton

Cotton is the primary fibre used to make denim. The UN estimates that a single pair of conventionally-made jeans requires a kilogram of cotton. Because of its water-intensive nature, cotton production makes up approximately 70% of water consumed throughout a pair of jeans’s life cycle. Opting for raw denim means it has a lower water footprint as it won’t have been washed and treated multiple times.

Organic cotton jeans

Organic cotton is more environmentally sound compared to conventional cotton, because the use of genetically modified seeds, synthetic fertilisers and toxic and persistent chemicals, such as pesticides, is not allowed. It also has a lower carbon footprint than conventional cotton. Products received a whole Product Sustainability mark if they were 90% or more organic cotton or a mix of organic and recycled cotton. They are marked on the score table with [O] after the brand name.

Recycled materials

Using recycled fibres in a pair of jeans can substantially reduce its environmental impact.

Many brands sell jeans containing at least some recycled materials, including for example ASOS, COS, H&M, Kuyichi, and Topshop. But the average recycled content is only 15-40%. It becomes more difficult to ensure durability over 40%, so manufacturers often combine the recycled cotton with other stronger fibres, such as virgin cotton or reclaimed polyester, the latter most commonly derived from post-consumer PET plastic bottles.

However, mixing cotton with synthetics can complicate future recycling.

Disappointingly, very few companies had ambitious company-wide policies on using recycled materials, or future plans to increase their use of them. MUD leads the way though: its ethos is to design jeans for recycling. By 2025 it aims to use 100% recycled cotton across its products.

Ethical Consumer awarded companies a whole Product Sustainability mark for products made from at least 90% recycled materials.

Alternatives to denim

Fashion demands and trends have led to the inclusion of synthetic materials into jeans. Stretchy jeans are mixed with spandex or similar whilst poly denim jeans (made from a mix of fibres) are favoured for their cheapness.

Given cotton’s often significant human rights and environmental footprint, and the microplastic issues with synthetic materials, one might ask what other materials can be used to make jeans?

Monkee Genes and Nudie use bamboo in their jeans. This fast-growing, water-efficient crop can be cultivated without pesticides and fertilisers. However, it commonly requires harsh inputs to make it comfortable to wear.

Heritage denim manufacturer Candiani Denim patented a plant-based yarn to make jeans stretchy, and Hiut, a Wales-based jean company included in this guide, has incorporated this material in some of its jeans.

Meanwhile Hewitt Heritage Fabrics is trying to turn UK-grown hemp and nettle into a cotton-like yarn strong enough to make denim. And in a similar thread, Homegrown Homespun is a project working to develop a UK industry for making jeans out of flax, a plant that requires minimal watering, pesticides or fertiliser. But the commercial viability of these initiatives remains to be seen. Pangaia makes jeans containing hemp and nettle but they cost over £200.

 

Image: polluted water in Xintang ethical jeans ethical consumer
Polluted water in Xintang, China. Xintang is a riverside town in Guangdong Province of China. The town was home to around 3,000 businesses linked to the manufacture of jeans and supplies a significant percentage of the global market. In early 2018, the Chinese government announced that denim factories in Xintang town would be transferred nearly 1,000 km away to Huarong county in Hunan Province, as there new factories in Huarong were said to use more modern technologies and safety equipment.

Is it possible to find eco-friendly jeans?

Hazardous chemicals for blueness and distressing

Historically, natural indigo dyes from plants were used to colour clothing. Today, synthetic dyes are commonplace as they’re cheaper and quicker to produce. The industrial production of synthetic indigo employs chemicals known for their toxicity such as caustic soda (lye), formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. Synthetic indigo’s base ingredients are also derived from petroleum.

Many jeans come with a pre-‘lived in’ look. Sandblasting, which can cause deadly lung disease silicosis in workers who perform it, used to be commonly used to create this look. While sandblasting is still an issue, it is becoming less common and has been largely replaced by chemical-intensive washing processes using potassium permanganate.

Jeans and water pollution

In light of all these harmful chemicals, it is perhaps not a surprise that the jeans industry has contributed to the widespread issue of water pollution in many jeans manufacturing regions.

In Bangladesh and Mexico, the waste water from industrial denim jean facilities has contaminated water used to irrigate crop fields. A study by Water Witness International found effluent from denim production in Lesotho to have visibly polluted some waterways with blue dye.

One alternative is undyed jeans, which are an option from People Tree.

To address sustainability issues with dyeing, Korean scientists discovered a way to make indigo from bacteria, and a biotech startup called Huue in California has developed a process to create dye using microbes instead of petroleum. In Tennessee, a small resurgence of natural indigo production is arising which has been used in some collections of Levi’s, Patagonia and Nudie Jeans. But more needs to be done to address the serious issue of waste water leaching from factories.

Jeans brands’ policies on cotton sourcing from Xinjiang, China

The top five denim exporting countries are:

  • China (42% share of total exports)
  • Pakistan (11.7%)
  • India (8.2%)
  • Hong Kong (7.4%)
  • Turkey (6.8%)

In addition, 20% of the world’s cotton supply comes from Xinjiang, China, where forced labour of the Uyghur population is common. (Our article on forced labour in China has more information.) As a result, brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China.

What are jeans companies doing about sourcing cotton and jeans from Xinjiang?

You can be sure that Beyond Retro’s secondhand products are not fuelling forced labour in Xinjiang as they are all secondhand items.

The only companies in the guide to have signed up to the End Uyghur Forced Labour Coalition’s Call to Action are ASOS and M&S.

Companies that haven’t signed the Call to Action, but do have policies against sourcing from Xinjiang, are: Asda, H&M, Primark and Tesco.

MUD and Nudie don’t have a statement against sourcing cotton from Xinjiang, but are transparent about where their cotton comes from (Turkey for MUD; Turkey and India for Nudie).

Companies that claim to have no direct links to Xinjiang, but lack a clear ban against suppliers sourcing from the region, include Boohoo, Finisterre and Sainsbury’s.

Companies providing no information at all about whether they source from Xinjiang include: Diesel, G-Star Raw, Gap, Hiut, Howies, Kontoor (Wrangler and Lee), Kuyichi, Living Crafts, Monkee Genes, PVH (Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), Pepe, Rohan, Shein, Thought, and People Tree (though its main supplier was in India, it didn’t provide further information about regions cotton was sourced from).

Levi’s says it hasn’t had dealings in Xinjiang for over a decade. No clear ban on sourcing from Xinjiang was identified, but it seemed to be inferred.

Example of a transparent jeans supply chain

On the Nudie Jeans website you can trace the product back to the people who produced it. Its website lists where its different products come from, names and addresses of factories, narrative about the brand’s relationship with the factory, how it’s audited, and the number of employees it has. It also lists subcontractors. Nudie’s jeans suppliers (including one supplier it has worked with for 20 years) are located in Tunisia and Italy.

Levi Strauss jeans label on back of pair of jeans

Vegan jeans

The most common animal-derived ingredient used in jeans is a patch of leather which features the brand's logo.
 
Some companies use replacement materials for the patch, for example Thought and Nudie which use Jacron (a faux-suede material which Nudie says is made from paper and acrylic polymer). MUD and Monkee Genes are the only completely vegan companies in this guide – every other company sold products containing animal-derived ingredients.

The following brands currently advertise some pairs of jeans as vegan on their websites: Hiut, Howies, Kuyichi, Living Crafts, MUD, Monkee, Monki, Nudie, and Thought. Others may also offer products that don’t use leather patches.

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

Jeans for all genders

The pockets in women’s jeans are on average 48% smaller than pockets in men’s jeans, rendering them virtually pointless. It is a rather fitting analogy though – if pay still came in a packet, who would need the bigger pocket...

ASOS, Beyond Retro, G Star Raw, Levi’s, Nudie, Shein, and Tommy Hilfiger all sell jeans advertised as unisex, gender neutral, or genderless, so you can buy jeans without having to also buy into a binary.

Cartoon of female and man wearing jeans. Woman says 'He didn't believe me about pocket sizes in women's jeans, so to prove my point we've swapped trousers'. Lots of things are falling out of the man's pockets.
Cartoon (C) Mike Bryson for Ethical Consumer

Ethical jeans brands?

To produce this shopping guide to ethical jeans, we researched and rated a number of companies and assessed them against our ethical ratings. Here are some of the highlights of how they scored.

Company ethos

If a company offers a significant environmental alternative (for example over 90% of its materials being sustainable, such as organic, recycled, or secondhand), half a positive Company Ethos mark was awarded.

Beyond Retro, Finisterre, Living Crafts, MUD, Monkee and Pangaia received this half mark.

Half a mark was also awarded to companies that offer a free repair services: Hiut, MUD, and Nudie.

It’s rare for clothing companies to use no animal-derived materials at all, so a whole positive Company Ethos mark was awarded to Monkee and MUD for their animal-free policies.

People Tree received a positive Company Ethos mark for being fair trade certified.

Supply chain management and tax

Brands that scored worst under Supply Chain Management were: ASDA, Boohoo, Burton, Coast, Diesel, Dorothy Perkins, Lee, MissPap, Nasty Gal, Oasis, Pangaia, Pepe, Pretty Little Thing, Shein, Wallis, Warehouse, and Wrangler.

There was no middle ground when it came to Tax Conduct among jeans brands – all lost either no marks or a whole mark. Nearly half of the companies rated in the jeans guide scored a worst rating.

Environmental reporting

Jeans are the second most bought item of clothing in the UK within a fashion industry that has a significant carbon footprint – estimates vary from 2% of global emissions up to much higher figures.

In our Environmental Reporting category we expected companies to discuss environmental impacts of cotton, water, climate, chemicals, transportation and leather (or be a small company offering products with a low environmental impact).

Best-scoring brands included Beyond Retro, Calvin Klein, Finisterre, H&M (and associated brands), Hiut, Howies, Kuyichi, Living Crafts, M&S, MUD, Monkee, Monki,and People Tree, Thought, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Companies considered to have best practice regarding action on climate change were: & Other Stories, Beyond Retro, Calvin Klein, COS, H&M, Kuyichi, Levi’s, Living Crafts, MUD Jeans, Monki, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Most companies lost a whole mark under Climate Change, including: Asda, Boohoo and its associated brands, Diesel, G Star, Gap, Lee, M&S, Nudie, Primark, Pepe Jeans, Rohan, Sainsbury’s, Shein, Tesco, and Wrangler.

Rolls of jeans blue denim

What's a decent amount to spend on jeans?

The majority of the British public spends less than £25 on a pair on jeans.

It might be presumed that the massive markup charged by luxury brands like Levi’s and Diesel means that they are of superior quality and are less likely to fall apart. However, Which? carried out tests and it turns out that cheaper high street jeans were often able to out-perform luxury brands when it comes to fabric strength, resilience to wear and tear, and appearance after washing. For example, a £16.99 pair from H&M significantly outperformed a Levi’s pair on these metrics.

Our Best Buys weren’t included in the Which? analysis so we don’t know how they compare. However Nudie for example offers free repairs forever – if they were shoddily built and so needed repairing often, it’s hard to imagine it would be financially viable for the company to offer this service.

The cost per wear varies depending on how much you paid originally, and how often you wear the jeans during their lifetime.

If you buy...

  • ... a new pair of fast fashion jeans at £15 each every six months, you'll end up spending £600 on jeans over the course of 20 years. This works out as 58p per wear.*
  • ... a new pair of durable fashion jeans at £15 and take good care of them, you'll end up spending £15 over the course of 20 years. This works out as 1-2p per wear.*
  • ... a new pair of quality jeans that are ethically produced and take good care of them, you'll end up spending £100 over the course of 20 years. This works out at 10p per wear*.
  • ... a second hand pair of durable quality jeans and wear them for a long time you could potentially win on all fronts - lowest cost and highest ethics.
  • If you just keep wearing the jeans you own already, then you don't need to do any maths!

(*Based on wearing jeans once per week for 20 years.)

Infographic showing five pairs of jeans and how much each would cost to wear over their lifetime. Fast-fashion brand costing £15 would cost 58p per wear if they were worn once a fortnight in one year. Low-cost durable secondhand pair would cost less per wear.
Infographic (C) Moonloft for Ethical Consumer

Spotlight on Levi’s

Levi’s is the most popular classic denim brand in the UK. In 1873 Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis patented denim trousers with ‘metal rivets’, which prevent jeans from falling apart, making them invaluable for labourers. The brand gradually ultimately became the casual wear of the elite, from Marlon Brando to Steve Jobs.

But now, as is common across the apparel sector, supply chain workers pick up the true cost while executives receive extravagant rates of compensation (one Levi’s executive was paid over $10m in 2020).

In 2019 the Workers’ Rights Consortium published a damning report on conditions at factories in Lesotho, South Africa, which supply Levi’s (and other major brands such as Kontoor which owns Wrangler and Lee). Over 26m pairs of jeans are made in Lesotho each year, and according to the Guardian this industry “has become the fuel that keeps the country’s faltering economy running”.

The report showed how female workers were routinely subjected to Gender Based Violence and Harassment (GBVH) by managers, supervisors and coworkers at three factories owned by supplier Nien Hsing Textiles Co., Ltd, which employed roughly 10,000 workers. Significantly, the report also detailed a way that Levi’s and other brands could meaningfully address this abuse.

This is a powerful example of how worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) initiatives can address violations in supply chains, but sadly they are exceptions. As recently as October 2021 workers at the Denim Clothing Company in Karachi, Pakistan, which supplies Levi’s (plus other brands such as Zara and H&M) protested for minimum wage, social security, and other basic rights.

Levi’s scored worst ratings and lost whole marks in the following categories: Human Rights, Workers’
Rights, Political Activities, Anti-Social Finance, and Tax Conduct. It lost half marks for Environmental Reporting, Pollution & Toxics, Animal Rights, Supply Chain Management, and Controversial Technologies.

Changing the culture at a Levi's supplier in Lesotho

The 2019 WRC report and its aftermath provide an insightful case study of how Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) initiatives can clean up supply chains.

Rola Abimourched, Deputy Director of Investigations and Gender Equity at Workers’ Rights Consortium, says: “Companies such as Levi’s and Kontoor which source from these factories all already had policies which prohibit harassment. The problem was that social audits at the factories didn’t capture reality....

“Workers don’t trust management, and due to the power imbalance between workers and management it was clear that a real solution could not be led by the supplier. If there’s no way for workers to speak safely and for what they say to be acted upon, it doesn’t matter if brands or suppliers say certain requirements are mandatory.

A binding arrangement that unions and NGOs help enforce

In Lesotho, unions and the broader community came together to propose a solution that was enforceable and binding. This included the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), United Textile Employees (UNITE), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA) and Women and Law in Southern African Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA).

The programme now in place is implemented by Lesotho unions and women’s rights organisations with the support of the Solidarity Centre. An independent nonprofit organisation called Workers’ Rights Watch was set up to conduct monitoring, interview witnesses and alleged harassers, and determine whether or not violations have occurred. If it rules that a violation has taken place, the factory is obligated to implement the penalty, which could include termination of the offender - not just ignore it or send them to another position within the company.

Otherwise, brands are obliged to reduce orders with the supplier. Workers can ring a toll-free number run by one of the women’s rights organisations to learn about what would happen if they disclosed a complaint.

Every employee, from workers to management and supervisors, must also attend a two-day workshop during paid hours which explains what rights workers are entitled to and how to ensure they are met. The workshops are run by local women's organisations.

Several complaints have been investigated, and at least one termination issued, since the signing of the Lesotho Agreements.

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.

Additional research by Anoushka Carter

Companies behind the brand

M&S claims to sell 15 pairs of jeans every minute, and to serve “1 in 10 denim shoppers in the UK”.

Along with other brands including Tesco, H&M and Gap, M&S has come under fire from the Workers’ Rights Consortium for sourcing from the Indian region of Karnataka, where predominantly female workers are commonly paid less than the legal minimum. M&S said it was working to “demand” suppliers paid the minimum wage there – all other brands said similar things.

Hiut’s motto is “Do one thing well”, that thing being making jeans. It’s so convinced its jeans are good quality that it provides free repairs for life.

Hiut ended up with a three month waiting list for orders after being sprinkled with the Meghan Markle Effect - she wore them to Wales one time with Harry. It however lost half marks under several categories, from Climate Change to Supply Chain Management… so perhaps there’s scope for Hiut to do its ‘one thing’ better.

Feb 2022 - At the moment you can't order MUD jeans directly from the company website to the UK, but this appears to only be temporary so keep an eye out for sales resuming. For now they are available to purchase in the UK from the Brothers We Stand website. The company didn’t lose a single mark, and scored positive marks for using only organic cotton, being a vegan company and certified B-corp..

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. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.