The Jean Dream or really a behind the seams nightmare for the planet and people? by Julia Henry

The Jean Dream or really a behind the seams nightmare for the planet and people? 

When I think about key wardrobe staples, those classic pieces that everyone has in their closets. I think of a little black dress, a white shirt and of course the perfect pair of jeans. 

Who doesn't own a pair of jeans? In fact most of us probably own several pairs. Checking my own wardrobe I count 4 pairs. A pair of jeggings, Ksubi dark denim skinny legs, a faded grey stretch hipster bootleg and some wide legged blue jeans.

How many pairs are in your wardrobe? Do you remember why and where you bought them? Do you remember where you've worn them?


The denim market is always trending with the ebb and flow of new styles, return to old and updates or modern twists on the classics.

With the rise of fast fashion the way we consume has changed, it is increasingly easy to pick up a trendy low cost pair, wear them once or twice and then throw them out and get a new pair the following week. In years past, buying a pair of jeans was a massive commitment requiring serious decision making. Much thought went into thinking about what brand to invest in and trying them on to get that perfect fit. Once you found your dream jean it was all you wore for years, wearing them to your perfect shape and fadedness. They would only get softer, comfier and better with age. These days we are much less invested and attached to most things in our wardrobe. Jeans may come and go and you may not give a second thought to buying a new pair. Do you know what you're buying? 

An increasing awareness of sustainability and ethical fashion has led consumers to want to know more than ever before who made my jeans? And at what cost and impact to the environment does one of our humble wardrobe staples have?


So what's in your jeans? Denim is made from cotton fibers which are harvested and spun into yarn. The yarns are dyed (often with toxic carcinogenic chemicals) making the classic blue colour we all recognise. Cotton is a thirsty plant and also requires lots of chemical pesticides when growing the crop. To produce a single pair of jeans it requires up to 10,000L/ 2,600 gallons of water, this includes the growing of cotton and manufacturing but not the water you'll use over time to wash your jeans. Once the cotton is spun into yarn and dyed indigo it is then coated with starch to make it stiffer and then woven with white yarn, and voilà the fabric created is denim. Once made into a garment it may be bleached and washed (to give it a worn out or faded effect) or sandblasted. Acids and toxic chemical washes are used to lighten the colour and pumice stones are rubbed on the fabric, then they are repeatedly washed to remove the chemicals, acids and fine stones before they're ready to use.

What cost does this process have on the environment and people who make the jeans?  



Denim is a billion dollar industry, in 2020 it had a market value of 21.8 billion U.S dollars. The biggest exporter was China's Xintang province, where 300 million pairs of jeans are made every year. One in three pairs of jeans sold globally are made here. There are garment manufacturing hubs around the world, for example; China, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia.  Many of these factories are located nearby water sources, local rivers. The communities who were here long before the factories now find themselves living alongside foul smelling polluted rivers stained blue with indigo dye run-off and chemical waste. Factory workers have stained blue hands and can suffer from a deadly lung disease called silicosis (caused from inhaling particules used in sandblasting to create the worn denim look). These Communities are being devastated by pollution and health issues such as cancers, gastric, and skin conditions. These illnesses are caused by the largely unregulated toxic chemicals and processes used in producing our clothes, including denim jeans for some of the worlds biggest brands. 


What Can I do?

Use your power of consumer choice. Wear your values, choose your jeans wisely and find out where your jeans were made and check out the ethical and environmental standards of the brand you're purchasing. Check your brands rating for people, plants and animals on Good On You App (a brand sustainability resource).


Choose to buy second hand denim or repurposed or upcycled denim products. 

Think about making your jeans an investment piece, they'll be with you a long time so take time to find the right pair. Look at brands like Outland Denim (rated great), Nudie Jeans (rated great) Mud Jeans, Zero Waste Daniel and of course Titanic Denim.


Want to learn more?


River Blue Movie -This 2017 documentary uncovers pollution impacts of the global fashion industry on our river systems around  the world.

The True Cost - Learn about who is really paying the price for our insatiable thirst for cheap clothing.


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