Jeans

In this guide, we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 37 brands of jeans

We also look at sandblasting, pollution and upcycling jeans, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Levi Strauss 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying jeans:

  • Do they use alternative fabrics? You can also avoid the issues of non-organic cotton by opting for jeans made from alternative fabrics such as hemp.

  • Do they come with free repairs? Hiut and Nudie offer free repairs on jeans. This means you can avoid the impact of buying a new pair for much longer.
     

  • Are they organic? Look out for jeans made from 100% organic cotton, especially certified to GOTS standards. This means your jeans are not contributing to the over-use of pesticides, GMO crops or forced labour in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
     

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying jeans:

  • Are they polluting the environment? A wealth of toxic chemicals are used in the clothing industry. Try to avoid companies with poor track records of toxic chemicals. It also helps to avoid those leather patches.

  • Are they new? The impact of buying new jeans is huge. A number of companies are offering jeans made from recycled denim and you can always buy second-hand.

  • Do they have a worn look? The distressed or worn look in jeans could be created with sandblasting, bleaching or acid washing. These techniques can be extremely harmful to garment workers and the environment.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Jeans are the second most bought item of clothing and around half of Brits will have bought a pair of jeans in the last 3 months. In the US, the average consumer buys four pairs of jeans a year.

They were originally designed to be strong, durable and long-lasting, however, the rise of fast-fashion has seen a trend for jeans being discarded after only a few wears.

We uncover the companies that are still failing to address issues such as toxic chemical use, high water consumption and dangerous working conditions. We also take a look at those doing things differently and paving the way for a better approach to denim.

Image: ethical guide to jeans

Water

According to the Water Footprint Project, the average water footprint of cotton is 10,000 litres per kg which equates to a pair of jeans having a water footprint of around 8,000 litres. This includes the large quantities of water needed to grow cotton crops and the water-intensive dying and prewashing processes.

Organic cotton is much less water-intensive. MUD jeans state that they use 1,500 litres of water compared to an industry standard of 7,000 litres. Levi’s states that its Water-less jeans have reduced the water footprint to just 42 litres per pair of jeans.

However, the company also reported that its regular jeans had a footprint of around 3,000 and that 45% of this was through consumer washing. It is unclear why regular Levi’s jeans would already appear to have a water footprint much lower than industry standards, especially considering it is not using 100% organic cotton. No information on how it had calculated this could be found but it looks like a certain wariness around uncertified claims is in order. So, if you want to reduce your water footprint look for jeans made with organic cotton and try to reduce the number of times you wash them.

Of course, buying recycled or second-hand jeans would also dramatically reduce water use.

Image: polluted water in Xintang ethical jeans ethical consumer
Polluted water in Xintang, China.

Pollution

Creating a pair of jeans can also cause significant pollution to our water systems. Denim was traditionally dyed using indigo sourced from plants (see page 38 to learn more about the history of this). However, most denim will now be dyed with synthetic indigo made using a variety of chemical reactions.

The process of making synthetic indigo produces a number of waste chemicals, some of which can be considered hazardous.

We rate all clothing companies on their toxic chemicals policies. MUD, Kuyichi, Monkee, Beyond Retro and Freitag/F-ABRIC were the only companies not to lose marks under Pollution and Toxics. 

Xintang: the jeans capital of the world

Xintang is a riverside town in Guangdong Province of China. The town is home to around 3,000 businesses linked to the manufacture of jeans and supplies a significant percentage of the global market.

It has become known as the ‘jeans capital of the world’ but this has had serious ramifications. The subject of a 2010 Greenpeace investigation into the jeans industry and an undercover documentary ‘Der Preis der Bluejeans’ in 2012, Xintang was found to harbour a severe pollution problem and terrible, and often dangerous, working conditions.

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.

This is apparently in order to clean up the pollution caused by the jeans factories as new factories in Huarong are said to use more modern technologies and safety equipment.

While this may lead to some job losses it should also mean safer working conditions and less pollution.

Distressing Denim

One of the curious things about 21st Century clothing consumption is the desire from some consumers for a product which, when new, looks ripped, worn and generally beaten up. It’s like paying extra for a car with dents and scratches and covered in mud! Although the ripping of jeans doesn’t cause problems in the supply chain as far as we know, other processes to create a worn look have caused concern amongst campaigners.

Sandblasting

Most companies lost half a mark under workers’ rights for having no sandblasting policy. Sandblasting can be used to give denim a worn or ‘distressed’ look.

The process involves firing abrasive sand onto denim under high pressure, whether in a machine booth or simply via an air gun attached to a hose. Often performed without proper ventilation, safety equipment or training, the practice exposes workers to serious risk of silicosis, the deadly lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi’s, Diesel, Guess, Wrangler, Lee, Thought, Finisterre, Howies, Pepe, Sainsbury’s and Tesco were all marked down for no or insufficient policies on sandblasting.

Due to the fact that this issue had been raised a number of years ago, all companies selling denim were expected to have a policy against the use of sandblasting, regardless of whether they currently had any distressed jeans for sale.

Potassium Permanganate

In the wake of the serious health concerns linked with sandblasting, many factories are now opting for a bleached look with 90% of bleached look denim created using potassium permanganate spray. Unfortunately, it appears that this could pose just as much of a health risk with side effects including pulmonary oedema, skin irritation and burns as well as possible damage to liver and kidneys.

Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey have produced a report into the health risks of potassium permanganate which is frequently used in factories after the government banned sandblasting. They spoke to workers who reported working long hours with ineffectual safety equipment.

One worker said: “I would like to have a better job, with better working conditions, but for now I am obliged to do this work. Maybe you will say, “But this work is deadly”, but believe me if I didn’t work I would maybe die in even worse conditions.”

Another stated: “We breathe in the air, but we don’t have a choice, we don’t have another profession.”

Clean Clothes Campaign said the problem was exacerbated by complicated chains of subcontracting and the relatively low cost of setting up a bleaching workshop.

Stone-washing and acid-washing

  • There are a number of other techniques used in the denim industry to give jeans a worn-out or faded look.
  • Popular in the 70s, stone-washing is a process whereby jeans are washed in a large drum with pumice stones to create a faded look.
  • This was largely replaced by acid washing in the 80s which uses the same technique but with added chlorine. This creates a faded and often marbled look.
  • Bleached denim has also become increasingly popular with jeans being bleached to near-white. Chlorine and bleach are well known for their harmful effects on the environment and wildlife.

Lasers

In 2018, Levi’s caused some hype with the announcement that it would be finishing its jeans with lasers, removing the need for harmful chemicals. As this is still a fairly new innovation there are still higher costs associated with it compared to traditional methods, meaning not all companies and factories are willing to invest.

Hopefully, we will see the costs start to come down or for companies to start seeing worker health as more valuable.

Other ethical choices

Apart from cutting down on the number of new jeans you buy, you can also cut your impacts by choosing raw denim.

Raw denim is denim in its just dyed state. It is recommended that you do not wash raw denim jeans for the first six months of wearing them. This will allow you to achieve a naturally worn-in look without any harmful chemicals. Whichever jeans you choose, it is better to avoid washing them as much as possible to save on water and make them last longer.

Jeans don’t have to be made from cotton. Cock & Bull Menswear offer jeans made from hemp, and Freitag has created their own material called F-ABRIC which is designed to be sourced from within a 2500 km radius of its Zurich factory and is completely home compostable. It is made from flax, hemp and Modal (see our guide to ethical clothes shops)

Interestingly the cut of your jeans can also have a bearing on how ethical they are. The recent trend for skinny jeans has meant that many jeans were made with elastic as well as cotton.

Combining materials makes it harder to recycle denim after use.

Alternative systems

Closed-loop

As with the fashion industry as a whole (see page 26) the concept of a circular economy for jeans could offer a real alternative to the current model of disposable denim.

Closing the loop requires companies to refocus, from the sourcing and processing of new denim from raw materials to recycling existing denim into new jeans. There has even been work done on the possibility of recycling the dye from old jeans as well as the fibres.

While a number of companies in this guide are talking about these concepts, MUD jeans have made it their future goal to produce all their jeans with 100% recycled denim. A pair of MUD jeans currently contains around 40% recycled denim. The company also offers the ‘Lease a Jeans’ scheme whereby instead of buying a pair of jeans you can rent them for under £10 a month and then return them to the company for resale or recycling.

Free repairs

An obvious way to help change the culture of fast fashion is to extend the life of our clothes.

Jeans can often wear out at specific points but, as they are generally quite durable, repairing them is often a viable option and much better than throwing them away.

Hiut and Nudie Jeans are doing their bit to help out by offering free repairs for life on any jeans purchased. MUD Jeans offer free repairs for the first year if you are leasing. Some companies also offered repairs at a cost.

Denim DIY

You can also repair your jeans yourself.

We asked our readers to tell us what they had done with their old jeans. There was a wealth of ideas and instructions for upcycling your jeans. 

Ideas included rugs, doormats, placemats, upholstery, quilts and blankets, jewellery or new items of clothing such as skirts, shorts or dresses.

Companies behind the brand

Levi & Strauss is the maker of the iconic Levi’s brand.

While it is definitely ahead of some of its other global counterparts like Diesel or Guess, the company still has a long way to go in terms of sustainability and a new pair of Levi’s still has a significant impact. However, the fact that Levi’s produces a relatively durable product means it is easy to pick up a pair second hand and the company has even started its own pre-worn collection with ‘Levi’s Authorized Vintage’.

Levi & Strauss has also been outspoken on issues unrelated to its industry and has recently made headlines announcing its support for greater gun control laws in the US

Some cowboys in the US had a further problem on their hands when Wrangler – the go-to choice for those upset with Levi’s political stance – partnered with the rapper Lil Nas X to create a capsule collection after the artist name-checked Wrangler in his hit song ‘Old Town Road’.

The song sparked debate in the country music community over whether it was more hip-hop than country, with some suggesting that race had been a factor in the removal of the song from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Others claimed that Wrangler’s Lil Nas X Collection wouldn’t be worn by ‘true cowboys’.

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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