The Impact of Denim: What are those new jeans really worth?

At one time in my denim career, I interviewed for a  “something-21” company who didn’t hire me because I wasn’t able to roll out more than 100 different denim styles for them – per week! 

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After a 10-year career in the denim industry, and a love affair with denim, I never thought I’d arrive to where I am today. I always sought to climb higher in my career, do more, learn more, forecast better, make it cheaper, etc. But as I dove deeper into my craft, I created a chaotic and stressful world for myself.

And so I  sought solace in my down time. My moments of decompression were times of deep reflection. And the more I learned about greener technologies, the more I learned about how not-so-green our denim industry is. It was like taking a bite of the forbidden fruit and suddenly my eyes were opened. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to what I had discovered. It was then where I realized my career path needed to take a different direction.

Many organizations have been trying to get the word out, and other companies feign a greener product, but in the end, less waste is really the greener option.  Reusing, reducing, recycling is greener. Less water consumption is done this way, less natural resources are accomplished this way. Not simply by us buying an organic denim jean or a jean that uses “less water” or a campaign that encourages us to wash our jeans less. Yes, by all means follow that rule of thumb, but there is a bigger picture here.

A MUCH bigger picture.

As my denim career progressed, I progressed too. Living in LA changed me. I began to look at life differently and by the time I ended up in Denver a few years later, my outlook on the denim industry had totally shifted. The more I learned, it seemed, the more my industry stopped resonating with me. It wasn’t until I finally when I ended up in Dallas working for a major clothing company that I realized I just couldn’t be a part of the industry in that way any longer. I was totally done.

I love the world of fashion and creating but I literally felt guilty at times for adding more and more new product to an already over-saturated market that wasn’t selling. Thousands of units sat in warehouses, not moving.  I went to malls and the amount of clothing I saw was overwhelming. I began to see what the over-consumerism was doing to us in every aspect of our lives.

More, more, more. Whatever we have, it’s somehow never enough. Whatever we have worn too much, it’s no longer good enough. Mounds of clothing in warehouses, millions of clothing in stores, leftover clothing in thrift stores and yet, even MORE is being produced worldwide every single day! When is enough really enough?  

The Impact of Denim. Let’s break it down:


Cotton

Natural doesn’t always mean better.  Natural fibers have their problems, too. Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world: these pesticides injure and kill many people every year. It also takes up a large proportion of agricultural land, much of which is needed by local people to grow their own food. Herbicides, and also the chemical defoliants which are sometimes used to aid mechanical cotton harvesting, add to the toll on both the environment and human health. These chemicals typically remain in the fabric after finishing, and are released during the lifetime of the garments. The development of genetically modified cotton adds environmental problems at another level.

Manufacturing Processes

Getting from fiber to cloth – bleaching, dyeing, and finishing – uses yet more energy and water, and causes yet more pollution.

  • Dyeing alone can account for most of the water used in producing a garment; unfixed dye then often washes out of garments, and can end up coloring the rivers, as treatment plants fail to remove them from the water. Dye fixatives – often heavy metals – also end up in sewers and then rivers.
  • Cloth is often bleached using dioxin-producing chlorine compounds.
  • Virtually all poly-cotton (especially bed linen), plus all ‘easy care’, ‘crease resistant’, ‘permanent press’ cotton, are treated with toxic formaldehyde (also used for flame proofing nylon).

Did you know?
Xintang, China, Guangdong Province, is the Denim capital of the world. This city is DEDICATED TO DENIM with over 5,000 factories from the very small ones to those who make over 60,000 pairs of denim a day can be found here. The quantity of jeans produced here is so high that the Pearl River which flows nearby has actually turned Indigo Blue! 

fucking gross, isn’t it?

Workers’ Rights

Many people feel that concern for the environment is intimately linked to concern for humankind as well. Working conditions in the clothing industry are an international scandal. There are numerous reports of workers being forced to work long hours for desperately low pay, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, female workers being sexually exploited, and attempts to form trades unions being brutally put down. Even in the UK, vulnerable people are routinely exploited in sweatshops and as home workers.

What’s the Carbon Footprint of Denim?

While figuring out the carbon emissions of your travel or home energy use isn’t a difficult task (several sites such as TerraPass offer calculators to assist in the task), nobody seems to have a definitive calculator for calculating the carbon footprint of what you wear. However, we did find some information regarding what it takes to create a pair of jeans and one study that examined the life cycle of a pair of jeans:

The average American owns 7 pairs of jeans; women are the biggest offenders of all when it comes to denim, with the average female owning 8 pairs of jeans. And while picking out that perfect pair may seem like a complicated task in itself, there’s actually a whole process involved well before the jeans reach the store shelves. For starters, cotton crops require a lot of water – approximately 1,500 gallons of it are required to grow the cotton used to make just one pair of jeans. Then there’s the necessary equipment to harvest the cotton, which takes about one pound of oil to operate.

Once the cotton is picked and harvested, the resulting cotton yarn is processed using starch, paraffin (which also comes from oil) and occasionally caustic soda to provide that popular worn look. Starch is biodegradable, but can be harmful to the earth when dumped in the water supply, since the same microbes that biodegrade it also consume oxygen, which in turn may be detrimental to the creatures that call that water home. The yarn is then dyed using synthetic indigo, which is also produced from coal or oil. In rare circumstances, a factory may be precise in measuring the concentration of dye and then be able to re-use the liquid by adding fresh dye, however in facilities where denim is produced at a low-cost, protecting the earth is not a priority, so the dye may also be dumped in the water supply.

If you want to know just how harmful these dyes can be, look to the case of Tehuacan, Mexico, once a city known for its mineral springs and spas. In the 90’s it became a central location for denim production, used by many top North American labels. Now the city’s canals are stained a bright blue from the dyeing of fabric. The area’s residents must also deal with the effects of dealing the constant barrage of chemicals and processes including sandpapering, fading using potassium permanganate, stonewashing and fabric softening.

One popular denim trend that never seems to go out of style is the distressed look, which is achieved by stonewashing. Stonewashing involves washing and rinsing a pair of jeans several times (which of course uses more water and energy), then sandblasting and scrubbing jeans which releases denim and silica dust into the air.

These facts demonstrate just how hard the production process of one pair of jeans is on the earth. It certainly makes you think twice about heading into True Religion or A&F for the latest must-have pair.

Pricing 

The average cost (that is, the manufacturing to freight, to distributor) of a basic, no frills pair of jeans priced between $20-$40 by a major retailer (i.e. Old Navy.) is around $7.50.  Yes, you heard that correctly. Manufacturing cost is $7.50.  So, by the time it reaches the store for the consumer to purchase, the price has been marked up four times.  In some cases of the higher end brands, a jean costs appx. $35-$48 to mfg. (i.e. True Religion, Seven, PRPS) and then sells for an average of $195-$250+.  A jean which costs a company $28-$30 to manufacture will retail for $120 in the stores.

Knowing what you know now, doesn’t it just make sense economically and environmentally to buy less, buy used and/or recycle?  We can make a big difference simply by buying used jeans instead of new. I wear mine till the wheels fall off, so to speak.  Patch and repair. Shop at consignment shops and thrift shops, buy fair-trade, reuse, trade, up-cycle, buy used/vintage and reclaim clothes. 

You can also reduce your jeans’ impact on the environment by washing them less. When you do wash your jeans, then air dry them. Doing this also increases their life since dryers break down the fibers.

 

Sources: NPR, Green Choices, fibre2fashion.com

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