Photo: Nobody Denim, by Jake Terrey

Did you know that the average US consumer has about seven pairs of blue jeans in their closet? That’s at least four more than me right now, but I too am a culprit when it comes to having more than I need in the wardrobe.

Although most mass-produced fashion items contribute a huge amount of pollution and waste, blue jeans and other denim products are particularly taxing on the environment due to the large amounts of cotton involved and the intense dying process.

Here’s a few things to consider next time you’re tempted to add to your jeans collection.

Water usage

Denim production uses a hell of a lot of water. Just the cotton production alone for one pair of jeans involves about 1800 gallons (6814 litres) of water. That’s the equivalent of taking a five and a half hour shower at an average of 20 litres per minute, all before the cotton gets to the factory. The same is said for organic cotton (or sometimes even more) although organic cotton has the benefit of being better for the land and farmers growing it.

Brands such as Outland Denim and Tri Colour Federation work with high-tech denim mills in Europe that are working to reduce the amount of water required in the denim manufacturing and dying process – capturing water at each stage of the process and reusing it over and over again. They even capture the steam that’s released in production to recycle it. It’s one way the denim industry is becoming a lot more efficient and less resource intensive.

Outland Denim

Epic amounts of electricity

Levi Strauss & Company released a report on the Life Cycle of Jeans, which reveals the amount of electricity involved in denim production and consumer use. Excluding the electricity in the consumer use maintaining a pair of jeans, about 40% of the total energy was used in the manufacturing and production stage. All in all, the lifetime energy use of a pair of jeans was equivalent to running a computer for about 70 days – a huge amount. Brands are looking at different ways to reduce this from using solar power in their factories to changing up the process completely. 


To get that original blue jean look, natural indigo was used as a dying agent. These days, 90% of the jeans out of China are coloured with synthetic indigo dyes which are made from coal tar and other toxic chemicals. These chemicals include but are not limited to cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper. These are often used and untreated, before being discarded into waterways where they are slow to decompose, polluting precious water supplies and killing aquatic life. Brands looking to address this issue are working with organic or non-toxic dyes, and capturing the dyes to be reused over and over again. 

That distressed look

Bleaching, sandblasting and stonewashing  are just some of the harmful processes used to produce the worn look that consumers demand. Sandblasting was actually “banned” in 2004 after it was proven to be linked to a fatal respiratory disease. These days – there’s all sorts of sustainable and ethical processes, from a water free air dryer technique, to using lasers to create the bleached look. 

Water pollution

As mentioned above, the waste from the dying and bleaching processes is often untreated and released into public waterways, Greenpeace has found. The on flow effects of this pollution are huge in these communities. If you get a chance, check out the RiverBlue documentary for more information.

So just like that jeans are using crazy amounts of water, days worth of electricity, polluting precious waterways and harming people in the process – and we haven’t mentioned any of the labour issues or pesticides used in farming the cotton.

There’s no one solution at this time, but lots of brands are making an effort to reduce their impacts on the planet. Check out our articles with Outland Denim, Nobody Denim, Tri Colour Federation to find out more.

As a consumer, here’s what you can do:

  • Research the brand before you buy
  • Make like Magic Dirt and wash your jeans as little as possible to extend their lifetime
  • Keep only one or two pairs of jeans at a time
  • Choose an eco cycle and cold water wash when you do machine wash them
  • Keep your jeans for as long as you can and donate them to an op shop/thrift shop when you’re done with them.