We all have a pair of jeans – or even several – in our wardrobes. But behind this desirable garment that’s all about identity, there’s an item with significant environmental and human impact. Here’s the demystification of it.
Every year, 5 billion pairs of jeans are produced and 2.3 billion sold, of which 63 million in France alone! It goes to show the extent to which this robust pair of blue trousers has become universal, worn by everyone, from 3 to 90 years old, from the labourer to the white-collar executive, from the USA to Cambodia.
Where do jeans come from, exactly? How are they produced, and by whom?
From the Far West to punks, from cotton fields to Chinese factories, from specialist brands to fast fashion chains, here’s the jeans story in a nutshell and an analysis of ideas to give them a future that’s more in keeping with Clean Fashion, better for people and the planet.
The jeans story shapes the 20th century
In the beginning, jeans or denim?
Fashion historians have been unable to pinpoint the precise origin of jeans, which we now get mixed up with denim. It’s known that in the Middle Ages, cotton would be mixed with linen or wool in fabric known as fustian. Northern Italy produced large quantities of this fabric, which was exported throughout Europe and not least into France, where it was used to make sailors’ trousers and also ships’ sails.
In Nîmes (southern France), weavers tried to copy this fabric, to no avail. In the 17th century they developed another fabric, a wool and silk twill known by the name denim (“de Nîmes”, meaning “from Nîmes”). This beige fabric, known for its hardwearing quality, was used for workwear worn by shepherds and countrydwellers in the Cévennes region. It was then exported to Genoa and dyed indigo blue (Genoa blue) to make it into a garment that was affordable, hardwearing and less prone to showing any soilage than pale beige. These fabrics exported to England can be found in the registers of the port of London under the name “jean” or “jeane”. In summary, Nîmes fabric, once dyed Genoa blue, brought denim into existence and put the blue in blue jeans.
As for the garment, it appeared with the development of cotton cultivation in the southern United States in the 19th century and the gold rush. In the 1850s a Jewish tailor from Bavaria, none other than Levi Strauss, created a work trousers for gold prospectors and lumberjacks. Cut from cotton tent canvas, they were reinforced with copper rivets in the wear-prone areas (pockets and flies). The patent was filed in 1873.
From the plains of the Far West to Hollywood
These affordable, hardwearing trousers were the preserve of cowboys in the Levi Strauss ads. With the Great Depression of the 1930s they were to become the standard apparel of farmers and labourers. After World War Two the USA flooded the European market with army surplus gear, including jeans. Once Hollywood got its hands on them, and Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando and James Dean made signature pieces of their jeans, the phenomenon took on a whole other dimension. The younger generations seized on it and made it a sign of protest and of voicing their wants and needs.
From counterculture to mass production
In the 1950s to 1960s jeans were associated with bikers, Elvis Presley’s raunchy hip gyrations and the beginnings of rock’n’roll. When Marilyn Monroe sported jeans in Clash by Night, she made them a symbol of the fight for female emancipation. In the 1960s to 1970s, they were trimmed with embroidery with a flared cut to join in with the hippie movement. In the 1980s they went for the punk look.
But in the 1990s, with the arrival of Lycra®, skintight, stonewashed, “ripped” and coloured jeans, they fell victim to their own success. Fast-fashion chains seized on them. They became a real fashion and consumer commodity, and even one that was bought at levels beyond reason. By that point, jeans were symbolic of the fashion industry’s excesses.
The jeans life cycle – an environmental and human catastrophe
Racking up the air miles
The jeans production cycle comprises a great many stages: cotton fibre cultivation, processing and spinning, dyeing, weaving, cutting and garment creation, bleaching and trims. Then the jeans are packaged, shipped, warehoused and lastly put on sale. But each of these stages correspond to different areas of expertise and locations.
The cotton is cultivated in India, Australia or Africa, spinning takes place in Pakistan, dyeing in China and garment creation and bleaching mostly in Turkey, while overstitching and trims are added in the West or in Japan. This super-globalised production process and shipping between continents are responsible for an enormous carbon footprint. It is thought that a denim garment can travel up to 65,000 km – or 1.5 times around the world – before landing in our wardrobes. Its CO2 emissions are thought to total 20 kg on average and reach up to 40 kg. This large footprint also includes the CO2 emissions generated by cotton cultivation, the use of farm machinery, spinning, weaving and assembly in factories.
A big polluter
All of these stages also use a lot of energy and /or are polluting.
The production of a pair of jeans is said to take between 7,000 and 10,000 litres of water according to the ADEME, and 3,781 litres according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The first stage, and not least, the production of the raw material: cotton. Cotton fields only account for 3% of cultivated land, but cotton registers the third-highest irrigation system usage after rice and soya. The jeans dyeing and bleaching processes also take a lot of water.
- Crammed full of toxic substances
To guarantee a high yield, cotton cultivation calls for heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides. Cotton is mainly grown in areas where pesticide regulations are particularly elastic. Not least, India permits the use of diethion, a highly-toxic insecticide that poses a health hazard to the brain, heart and lungs, and is suspected of being a carcinogen. To rein in its use, 82% of cotton cultivated is now genetically modified. However, demand is such that even GM cotton can’t do without these products completely.
The blue hue of denim, where it still comes from indigo dye, requires huge quantities of water and pollutes waste water. But it is often achieved using artificial products containing, not least, chlorine and heavy metals. In south-east Asia, these substances end up getting discharged untreated into the natural environment, where they trickle down into the soil and water tables.
- Use that’s every bit as polluting
A study conducted by Levi’s on the life cycle of a pair of 501s revealed a surprising fact: the environmental impact of the use of a pair of jeans is almost as significant as that of its production. Because according to this study, the breakdown of its impact is as follows:
- Fibre cultivation: 9%
- Fabric production: 27%
- Cutting and garment creation: 8%
- Bleaching: 5%
- Freight transport and retail: 11%
- Garment care by the consumer: 37%
- End of life: 3%
The surprising figure of 37% ascribed to garment care by the consumer – which according to the ADEME is said to reach 48% – varies according to the laundering frequency and type of detergent used. French and American jeans wearers launder their jeans after having worn them 2.5 times, whereas those in China do so after four wears. The figure also varies according to whether the jeans are tumble dried or ironed. In the USA and Japan, a lot of people even have their jeans dry-cleaned!
Something that’s not shown by this study, but revealed by experts: jeans are polluting through their use because of the many chemicals used to produce them – often ones not permitted in Europe – which leech out when they are laundered! Its end-of-life phase is also problematic, since composite finished garments (containing Lycra® or elastane, and rivets, etc.) make disassembly and reassembly more difficult.
All the workers involved in jeans production are affected.
In cotton fields, farmers breathe in toxic products, with high case rates of respiratory disease and cancer. The same goes for workers in dyeing plants in China.
Yet another process is every bit as devastating: sand-blasting. This is an industrial method of ageing jeans (making them less rigid) and bleaching them. It consists of blasting sand or silica powder at very high speed onto the denim fabric. This technique exposes workers to very volatile fine particles that get lodged in the lungs and cause irritation of the airways, silicosis and cancer. Fortunately, it’s now prohibited in most western countries. Turkey, which was formerly a real stalwart of sand-blasting, put an end to it in 2009. The following year, buckling under the pressure of the “Il est mortel ce jean” (“These are killer jeans”) campaign, more than 40 major jeans brands followed suit and dropped sand-blasting. Currently, though, this method is still in use – not least in China – and topped off with other techniques that are every bit as harmful like manual sanding or chemical treatments using potassium permanganate.
In addition, like for other garments, jeans are mostly produced in countries where workers’ rights are not as closely monitored and protected as in Europe. Poor health and safety conditions, piecemeal work, no social protection or healthcare provision, and sometimes forced or child labour…
Towards cleaner jeans
The denim industry is one of the first to have been singled out for criticism, so it’s one of the first to have initiated its social and environmental transition. Initiatives have been taken at every stage, and even though as of 2020 less than 5% of jeans were eco-designed, progress is starting to take shape.
More sustainable raw materials
The use of cotton organic reduces soil acidification and marine eutrophication by 25%, and cuts occupation of farmland and water usage by 60%. But currently it only accounts for 1% of the cotton produced.
Big-name jeans brands like Levi’s and Lee are working on alternatives to cotton, like linen, cottonised hemp or Tencel™. These rustic, sustainable fabrics require less water and fewer chemicals, and are more respectful of the environment. A young French brand, 1083 (i.e. the number of kilometres between France’s two most distant points) produces jeans that are almost completely made in France. The brand has even created l’Infini recycled polyester (made from plastic bottles and marine waste), which is infinitely returnable and recyclable.
On labels, consumers can look out for the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) mark vouching for organic cotton that’s traceable and meets social and environment criteria. They can also seek out the BlueSign or C2C Certified™ marks certifying that the finished textile item or garment is produced in line with the ZDHC (Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals) Program and so can be fed into a circular production chain.
Less polluting dyes
Using traditional indigo is the least polluting way of dyeing jeans. The use of recycled fibres sorted by colour also makes it possible to rein in the impact of this stage, even though the fibres get automatically re-dyed. Lee has tackled the dyeing issue with Indigood, a foam dye that cuts chemical usage by 89% and energy usage by 65%, and requires no water whatsoever.
Laser and ozone treatments
There are “clean” alternatives to sand-blasting and sanding. To give jeans a worn look, lasers can be used to make faded-out bands, and ozone – instead of water- can be used to fade denim. The laser alters the thread surface by burning into it. Instead of washing with bleach, ozone is applied to damp jeans and then rinsed out. Ozone, which then turns into oxygen, cuts energy and water usage.
More and more brands are launching more responsible jeans collections or jeans capsule collections. Levi’s has developed some 20 techniques that are unpatented, and so open to anyone, to save water in the production process. As for Lee, its “Back To Nature” line features fully biodegradable pieces made from cotton and linen thread without rivets.
A significant problem remains: the recyclability of jeans. On this issue, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has drawn up a schedule of specifications for producing jeans as part of the circular economy: The Jeans Redesign. In addition, jeans leasing, hire, upcycling and repair initiatives are emerging.
Certainly the perfect jeans do not yet exist. But would you be willing to give up this mythical, indispensable garment?