It’s hard to tell when denim decided it wanted to be a sustainable product.
Perhaps it was in 2010, when reports of a “silicosis epidemic” that cost the lives of sandblasting workers hit the mainstream press. Or maybe it was after Greenpeace investigators described blackened rivers in China, India, and Mexico marbled with fetid plumes of cadmium, mercury, lead, and other cancer-causing substances. Certainly revelations of the garment’s thirstiness didn’t help. Levi Strauss admitted in 2011 that a single pair of cotton-heavy jeans sops up 919 gallons of water, or enough to fill 15 spa-sized bath tubs, throughout its lifetime—hardly ideal on a warming planet increasingly beset by drought.
“There’s so much water used in denim,” said Rachel K. Lincoln, director of sustainability at Prana, a California-based lifestyle brand. “It’s not just that it gets dyed multiple times but there’s so much finishing to get the look that we want of our denim. And [whenever] you do something to a product, you have to wash it afterwards.”
Faced with bad P.R., the industry, for the most part, rallied. Brands began experimenting with planet-friendlier fibers such as organic cotton, post-consumer recycled cotton, Tencel, and hemp. Instead of harsh chemicals or stones and sand, manufacturers started using laser technology, ozone and enzyme washes to weather and finish denim. Mills restricted substances and delved into water recycling, wind and solar power, and effluent treatment.
“Denim has always been one of the lead dogs in being an offender, but it’s also one that has gone out of its way to capitalize on creating solutions,” said Marshall Cohen, chief industry advisor at the NPD Group, a New York-based market research company. “Obviously not everybody follows the program, but denim, in many cases, has become one of the cleaner products because of so much of the effort.”