The truth about denim

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

Jean 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.

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Epic amounts of electricity

Levi Strauss & Company have released a report on the Life Cycle of Jeans, which reveals the amount of electricity involved in jeans production and consumer use. Excluding the electricity in the consumer use maintaining the 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.

To give you a bit of an idea of the production process, this article breaks down the steps it takes to transfer cotton into denim.


90% of 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.

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.

Water pollution

As mentioned, 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 some brands are making an effort to reduce their impacts on the planet.

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

  • Research the brand before you buy (I’ve picked out a few below)
  • 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.

Read next: Nobody Denim: Denim for everybody, made in Melbourne

About Author

Brittanie Dreghorn

Brittanie Dreghorn is the founder and editor of Britt's List, and an advocate for sustainable and Australian fashion.

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