We all know about denim, don’t we? We all wear it, often on a regular (perhaps even daily) basis. Yet there is a lot more to this durable material than you might think, and even if you believe yourself to be something of a connoisseur of denim, there could be a lot you still need to learn.
The process to make denim (undyed horizontal yarn called the weft is woven in between vertical dyed (in various shades depending on the colour of the final product) yarn called the warp) may seem a simple one, but it has taken many years of trial and error to get to the stage where denim is not only durable but sustainable.
What Is The Problem?
It may come as a surprise to find that the denim you are wearing is not sustainable. After all, it’s denim. It’s ever-lasting. It’s always there. Yet the truth is that some companies have had a battle to produce a sustainable material that would be as sturdy and long-lasting as the original cotton
The good news is that cotton is much more environmentally friendly than manmade fibres like polyester. It is non-polluting, non-carbon intensive, and because it is all natural, it is biodegradable too.
The bad news is that it takes a huge amount of water to create denim fabric, and this is the main concern when it comes to its environmental impact. It all starts right at the beginning as cotton needs a lot of water to grow well. Then, once the cotton is picked and processed in mills, even more water is used – it takes around 1,500 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans. But that’s not all; if the material needs to be dyed or bleached, even more water is used. At this point the problem becomes two-fold; not only are gallons and gallons of water being used, but the run off entering natural water courses will contain dye, bleach, pesticides, enzymes, and plenty of other hazardous chemicals too.
Is There A Solution?
Since denim is so popular and the industry is such a wide-ranging one, something needed to be done. Back in 1992, Goldschmied
started using sustainably harvested tree pulp to made Tencel lyocell fibres which were blended with the cotton. This meant that less cotton needed to be used to create a single pair of jeans, and therefore less water was used. Not only that, but since the trees required less water than the cotton, even more was saved. Experiments continued, and recently Goldschmied and Nodarse came together to create another type of denim (specifically for Reformation) which is made of refibra. Refibra uses up to 20 percent recycled cotton, making it environmentally friendly and sustainable.
It’s not just the material itself that needs to be made more sustainable when it comes to denim. In order to get the true look of a denim jacket or a pair or jeans, or anything else that you might like to wear, it needs to be dyed. And this is an issue. It involves a massive amount of water, plus it requires chemicals (in the beginning the distinctive indigo colour of a traditional pair of jeans came from the indigo plant, but as demand for denim increased this colour had to be made synthetically instead).
So clearly, even if the water cannot be reduced, the chemicals being used will have to be. This is where Spanish mill Tejidos Royo are working hard. They are using less toxic alternatives to the standard indigo dye. And what did we say about not being able to reduce the amount of water used? Think again – although it has taken 10 years, Indigo Mill Designs along with Gaston College Textile Technology Center
has developed a water-free dying system.
And then there is the work done by research institute Aitex
. They have certified the process for using one hundred percent less water, 65 percent less energy, 89 percent less chemicals, and even producing no water discharge at all. It’s an incredible step forward, and jean company Wrangler have signed up already, clearly able to see the benefits that this will bring not only to them, but to everyone else as well.
Something to bear in mind when it comes to denim is how durable it is. A pair of jeans is going to last much, much longer – perhaps years longer – than a pair of cotton or synthetic trousers. Therefore, denim is already ahead of its counterparts; there is no need to make quite so much since it lasts for such along time.
Is It Really That Easy?
Since there have been so many leaps forward when it comes to creating sustainable denim you might be forgiven for assuming that it’s all done, and that there is no reason why your next pair of jeans wouldn’t have been made using the methods mentioned above.
There are complications, however.
Skinny jeans, the latest fashion trend, are much harder to make sustainably. That’s because they have to have some ‘give’ in them and they need to stretch (that’s the whole point of skinny jeans). There has to be a synthetic fibre included within the material in order to give them this ability. Unfortunately, this fibre cannot be composted and is not biodegradable.
And of course there are distressed jeans – jeans with holes in them – and these are also an issue. In order to make them last longer, they need to be washed much more carefully. They use more water, therefore, and potentially more chemicals too.
It would be bad business for jeans manufacturers to stop making distressed and skinny clothing – that’s what the consumer wants, after all – and therefore, even when other variations of the same material can be made sustainably, not all of it can, and not all of it will be.
There are many studies happening right now to find a solution to this problem; a solution that will keep everyone happy and ensure that sales don’t decline. Goldschmied is sure that there must be a middle ground which helps the environment and doesn’t either limit consumers’ choices or ask them to pay more for the same (although more sustainable) product.
The denim industry is a vast one, and it’s good news that it understands the impact it is having on the environment as well as taking steps – big steps – to combat the problems. However, it is the very vastness of the industry that could be its biggest barrier to finding the solutions it still needs to look for; demand will only increase, fashions will dictate more than the environment ever could, and the industry will need to keep up. Does that mean it cannot be one hundred percent sustainable? Only time will tell.