Is denim sustainable?
Long-lasting and always in style: Denim is the key to fighting over-consumption
Words— Marc Richardson
Sometimes, the answer is right in front of us—whether you’re looking for your phone only to find it in your pocket, or whether it’s two life-long friends finding love together after decades dating other people. But it’s also true when it comes to marrying sustainability and style. For the last few years, more conscious consumers have been on a seemingly never-ending quest to find clothes that look good without further contributing to the destruction of our planet. It turns out, one of the most sustainable things around has been right in front of us—for more than a hundred years.
Denim comes to mind. On the surface, denim is far from the most sustainable textile used in the production of clothes. A single pair of traditionally-made jeans has required an embarrassing amount of chemicals, thousands of litres of water and energy consumption that has been almost comically outsized compared to the finished product. But things have changed and today denim is produced in more responsible ways—ways that use less water, fewer chemicals and less energy (hydro-less denim).
G2 technology that eliminates the use of indigo dyes and bleach. It's a process that uses less water, energy, and chemicals than standard denim production.
Still, denim is not necessarily among the most sustainable products, which raises the question: Can buying denim be sustainable?
Denim’s roots go back to France (the name comes from "de Nîmes") but the denim that we’ve come to know and love was born in the mid-1800s in the American West. A tailor named Jacob W. Davis created reinforced denim pants, using rivets to fasten the pockets. The durability of the jeans impressed Davis’s customer and, soon, word began to spread. Davis’s jeans became something of a sensation, with workers throughout the American West seeking him, and his durable pants, out. Eventually, Davis partnered with a wholesaler by the name of Levi Strauss & Co. to produce them on a larger scale—you may have heard of them in the hundred-plus years since.
Denim was embraced for jeans and for jackets and for cover-alls—mainly because of the textile’s inherent durability. It became a go-to for manual labourers in pretty much every line of work—from the military to rail workers—and the textile of choice for any garment that was set to experience its fair share of wear and tear. Pass through vintage shops and you’re sure to find a nice array of jeans and jackets crafted from the sturdy material—whether they’re from the mid-‘00s or the ‘70s.
There are few other textiles that can lay claim to that staying power and denim’s durability is crucial to its sustainability. It’s the type of fabric that will last and a pair of jeans or a jacket made from good denim is probably something that you won’t have to think about replacing for many years—if not more than a decade if you take care of it. That, alone, ought to bump jeans near the top of your list if you’re trying to be a sustainable shopper—but denim’s appeal is so much bigger than that.
As mentioned above, it’s also one of the easiest things to come by on the second-hand market—because there’s so much of it, but also because older denim clothes tend to still be in great condition. And one of the best ways to shop in a sustainable way is to do so within the circular economy, prolonging the life of garments and keeping them out of landfills that much longer.
So, to recap, thus far—not only is denim durable, but there’s also plenty of it to be had in a way that reduces waste.
"There is arguably no single garment or textile or product class that has as healthy a circular market as denim."
But it gets better—most articles of clothing lose their lustre as time goes on, even if they physically stand the test of time; not so with denim! Taste is, of course, subjective, but for the most part, denim is one of those things that’s widely considered to get better with age.
As it gets worn down, denim develops mesmerizing patinas and fading, something which helped contribute to the raw denim boom we witnessed a few years ago. Its durability has become intertwined with its ultimate aesthetic form and denim that has been worn is the denim that looks best. Even denim that has been patched up is celebrated, thanks in large part to the popularity of Japanese boro textiles. The name literally means "tattered" or "repaired" and often sees denim of different shades and weights used to patch together garments. The end result is mesmerizing, but it’s also a sterling example of how repairing, rather than replacing, something represents the idyll of sustainability.
Such is the appeal of old, worn denim that there are some vintage shops dedicated solely to the woven fabric. Elsewhere you’ll find programs that allow you buy jeans that have been broken in—the same programs that will also either pay you or offer you store credit to trade in a pair of pre-worn jeans, which are then washed and patched up before being sold as “broken in.” There is arguably no single garment or textile or product class that has as healthy a circular market as denim.
That is central to what makes denim a sustainable option.
It’s worth repeating that denim is not harmless to produce. But so little is. Making sustainable choices comes to minimizing the effects of said production, and denim’s durability, longevity and its sheer popularity make it one of the most sustainable options out there. Buy a new pair of jeans, then wear the heck out of them for a few years. Patch them up, sew them back together, make them your own. When you’re tired of them, pass them along to someone who wants a pair of jeans that have a nice patina or sell them to a vintage shop. There’s no reason that a single pair of jeans shouldn’t be around for a decade or more.
And that’s what makes denim interesting.