The Search For Sustainable Denim

Charlie Bradley Ross Friday, 19 August 2016

Denim is known for its versatility and always being on trend, but it isn't always sustainable. The production process of conventional denim uses valuable resources and pollutes not just the land and air, but also the water as well. Fortunately, there are better choices available! In this article, I'll explore how denim got its bad reputation, and I'll share some secrets to assist you in the search for sustainable you can continue to rock your favourite trends in a more eco-friendly way.

How denim got its bad reputation, and how to fix it...

First of all, denim has earned a poor reputation largely due to the inefficiencies of its production. It starts with the growing of the cotton. It can require as many as 7000 litres of water to grow enough cotton for just one pair of jeans. According to the Earth Diva's Blog, the Levi’s plant in El Paso, TX, uses 15% of the city's entire water supply.

It doesn't stop there. More water is needed in the washing process. After adding harmful dyes to create that trademark blue hue we are all so accustomed to, the tainted water must go somewhere. Unfortunately, it often ends up in local waterways. Synthetic indigo dyes, which make up 90% of all the dyes used on denim in China, contain many harmful toxins — cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper - heavy metals that are carcinogenic. The cheapest synthetic dyes often contain sulphur which is also extremely damaging to health, especially the health of the producers, and remains in waste water even after treatment. Cancer rates are incredibly high in textile workers, especially nose and bladder.


Then there's the pesticides. Growing conventional cotton requires the use of pesticides and fertilisers, which can be harmful to the farmers on application to the fields, but also cause massive issues when they run off (with all that water I mentioned before) and can get into local water supplies (you can read more about the damaging effects of cotton in this previous article). Up to 1 million people die each year from pesticide exposure and ingestion according to NIH Statistics.

1 million people die each year from pesticide exposure and ingestion #shocking

Problems With Stone Washed Denim

The same is true of another ugly byproduct of denim production--pumice dust--which also has a tendency to pollute the surrounding air. We often use weathered or 'stone washed' denims. These get their name from the process through which they are derived. The denim is washed using pumice stones that are mined and shipped to denim brands all over the world. This has to be broken down to weather the denim, resulting in lots of polluting dust in addition to the carbon emissions associated with the shipping process.

Then there's sandblasting, the name speaks for itself. A horrible process that can be lethal to workers exposed to the particles in the air. Many workers have developed silicosis (lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica) from inhaling the particles. Thankfully many companies have refused to use this process but there are reports of it still being used in China.

Newer technology developments mean that many brands use lasers to create this worn effect, as well as rips and shredded areas.


Discover Organic Denim Cotton

You won't be alone in your quest for organic cotton denim to suit your designs. According to Senior Life Editor at The Huffington Post UK, Ellen Wallwork, many major denim labels are now working in the right direction.

Nudie jeans have always been a big player in organic cotton. They design for the life-cycle of the garment, meaning that they purposely sell untreated raw jeans and guide you through how to break them in to achieve that distressed look through day-to-day wear. They also provide a free repair service, a discount scheme for returning your old jeans for recycling/reselling, and have a pretty transparent production process.

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Be like @nudiejeans & design for the life-cycle of a product #ecodesign

Patagonia has also committed to using only 100% organic cotton fabrics, as well as fair trade stitching and a significant reduction in its energy and water usage and CO2 output by using Archroma Advanced Denim Technology.

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Levi's are making solid moves towards more sustainable denim and reduced water consumption by introducing their water<less fabric collection. This has already cut water usage in fabric production by 65% and in finishing by up to 50%. With innovations in processes such as using recycled water in the finishing of their denim they claim to be able to reduce the overall water usage by 95%!

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Opt For Raw Denim

I suggest avoiding toxic dyes, which are rich in harmful chemicals.

As you may have noticed above, washed denim contributes the most harm to the environment. If we started to design unwashed or unweathered denim, more than half of the environmental issues would be solved. In the fashion and textile industries, unwashed denim is considered raw. This is a topic I previously explored in this blog.

If we designed unwashed & unweathered, we'd solve half the #environmental issues


The latest raw denim trend is fabulous for the environment. Raw denim looks and feels different from stonewashed or distressed varieties. It is a bit stiff and the colour is darker. Counter to what you might be thinking, clothing made from raw denim is far more comfortable as it has a tendency to curve itself around your individual body shape. The result is a better fit that looks amazing while boosting the sustainability of your designs and your wardrobe.

Rethink Eco-Friendly Waste

Of course one of the best ways to make a fibres truly sustainable is to make it both organic and biodegradable, and to focus on design for re-use. With re-using we can make denim even more eco-friendly by recycling the fibres of raw denim waste, as this will have a direct impact on the amount of water and energy consumption involved in the production process.

In 2012, AG Jeans developed Advanced Denim in order to reduce waste by 87%. The company also aims to design patterns that maximise the yardage of their denim. Even the extra scraps are collected and strategically re-purposed in innovative ways.

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AG Jeans - Image from

What To Look Out For In Choosing Your Denim

Let's review the characteristics you should look for while searching for a sustainable denim. Firstly, the most classic sustainable denim will be a flat blue colour due to the yarn-dyed cotton fibres as well as the lack of washing or distressing. The hue can vary from dark to light blue denim as one might expect. Choose a denim that is strong and durable, a sturdy weave structure will last a long time. Remember the most thrilling feature of raw denim - it will hug your body and assume the perfect shape as you wear it.

Like the organic cotton denim we sell at Offset Warehouse, many are hand-woven, so they may have irregularities that make them all the more unique. They also tend to be thicker and heavier because of the type of cotton used, although they still feel soft to the touch.

I am sure that we all love the earth. Lets protect the planet by choosing to use, design, and wear only raw and sustainable denim, preferably made with organic cotton.


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