NRDC’s OnEarth site has an educational article out on blue jeans that states:
“Some 450 million pairs of jeans are sold in the United States each year — 1.5 pairs for every man, woman, and child. The average woman has eight pairs in her closet. Chances are that to make those jeans, cotton crops were drenched in pesticides; fibers were stained with toxic dyes… There is another option: the eco-minded can invest in a pair of jeans woven from organic cotton, dyed with natural indigo, and faded with nontoxic ozone.”
In the post they cover the truth about growing cotton, making denim, dying, hardware, distressing and fit. Here is a quick recap of the downside to wearing denim from the Natural Resources Defense Council:
- Growing the conventional jean cotton: “1,500 gallons of water are required to produce the 1.5 pounds of cotton used to make a single pair of jeans, not including the water used to dye and finish the fabric.” Insecticides are also a problem as they include” highly toxic organophosphates (chemical relatives of nerve gases used during World War II).” Pesticide sprayers and growing equipment runs on about one pound of oil to harvest enough cotton for just one pair of jeans. Many eco jean producers skip pesticides and oil guzzlers, and instead hand-pick organic cotton, grown without pesticides.
- Making the denim fabric: “Cotton yarn is typically “sized” with starch to increase its strength for weaving, bathed in oil-derived paraffin to smooth and lubricate it, and, in some cases, “mercerized” in caustic soda, which gives it a worn look.” Although starch does biodegrade, when it’s dumped in waterways the microbes that eat it also consume the oxygen that aquatic life depends on.
- Blue jean dye: “To get the right shade of blue, cotton yarns may be dipped a dozen or more times in enormous vats of synthetic indigo, which is often made from coal or oil…” Often in developing countries, where water and dyes are cheap, factories without modern equipment will dump the old dye into nearby waterways since environmental regulations may not apply to them. This is why international environmental standards are so important.
- Zipping it up: “Yes, zippers matter too. Brass is used to fashion the zippers, buttons, and rivets found on jeans, and brass is made from copper and zinc. Extracting and processing these minerals comes with a whole slew of nasty side effects, from acid mine drainage to air pollution laden with toxic metals such as cadmium and lead.” Some environmentally friendly jeans utilize hardware made from recycled scrap metal.
- The Faded Look: “Denim may be physically sanded or blasted with silica, or dye may be stripped using chemicals such as potassium permanganate, which is highly toxic and contains heavy metals. Various enzymes may also be used; when improperly dumped, they sap oxygen from waterways. Scrubbing jeans releases denim and silica dust, which can inflame workers’ lungs and cause silicosis.” Eco-brands are known to use ozone to fade denim. This treatment is done by exposing oxygen to uv light, dissolving it in wash h2o or mixed with steam and applied to denim in a contained chamber.
- Finding the best fit: “Of course, the lowest-impact jeans are those you already own (washed in cold water and air-dried). Green or not, shipping new jeans halfway around the world has a hefty carbon footprint. If you must buy new ones, do your homework.”
NRDC points out that while eco denim is not perfect, it’s a good start in changing the fiber science of the jean industry for the better.
Here is a list of some green jeans on the market now:
Above image is in the public domain.