Are My Denim Jeans Bad for the Environment?

Environmental reporter Tatiana Schlossberg, author of "Inconspicuous Consumption," says the American staple needs a 21st-century overhaul for the sake of our water, climate, and health.
Workers sew jeans in a makeshift shed that serves as a workshop in Xintang, Zengcheng

Lu Guang/Greenpeace

Q: I’ve heard that producing denim is particularly bad for the environment. Do I need to give up my blue jeans?

A: Throwaway plastics and gas-guzzling cars are the typical consumer no-nos, but clothing also has oversize impacts on the planet and our health. And it’s true—denim is one of the worst offenders.

Tatiana Schlossberg, author of "Inconspicuous Consumption"

Elizabeth Cecil

Let’s start with the fabric. Denim is made primarily with cotton, though it’s now often blended with synthetic fibers like polyester. And though all fibers have their trade-offs, “cotton in general is a very thirsty crop,” says Tatiana Schlossberg, a former environmental reporter at the New York Times and the author of Inconspicuous Consumption, a new book on the hidden environmental impact of our spending habits. Very thirsty, indeed: Producing just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton can require up to 7,660 gallons of water, depending on where it’s grown. (In comparison, producing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes requires one one-hundredth of that amount, 76 gallons.) A cotton crop consumes a lot of chemicals too: 16 percent of all insecticides are used on the plant, and many of them pose significant health risks for farm workers and nearby residents.

Nowhere have the impacts from this process been more evident than in Xintang, a town in southern China. The denim capital of the world, it produces one in every three pairs of jeans sold. Because of limited regulatory oversight, by 2013 Xintang’s rivers ran a deep blue and smelled foul, a result of manufacturers dumping chemical-laden wastewater directly into local waterways. Unsafe amounts of toxic metals like mercury, lead, and copper have been found in the water, which residents rely on for drinking and bathing. Workers and residents have reported rashes, lesions, and, some locals believe, infertility.Denim also goes through a particularly energy- and water-intensive—and destructive—dyeing and finishing process, beginning with what gives the fabric its signature indigo color (originally a plant-based dye, but today largely replaced with a synthetic version). After dyeing, fabrics are repeatedly treated and washed with a variety of chemicals, like bleach, to soften, fade, or texturize the fabric. Most of our favorite shades and styles—acid-washed, distressed, light-washed—require additional treatments and chemicals. All in all, producing a single pair of jeans requires an immense amount of water and energy and creates significant pollution.

“These clothes are cheap in the store because nobody’s paying for this waste,” Schlossberg says, adding that communities on the other side of the world will be footing that bill for generations.

Top, from left: Every morning, workers at a Xintang denim-washing factory must search through wastewater to scoop out stones that are washed with the fabric in industrial washing machines to make stonewash denim; wastewater discharged from a denim-washing factory in Xintang. Bottom: A Greenpeace campaigner takes a water sample from a polluted river near Dadun Village, Xintang, where the economy is centered around textile production. Greenpeace has found high levels of industrial pollution and has documented the effects on the community.

Lu Guang/Greenpeace

But the industry is transforming, however slowly. When the dangerous situation in Xintang came to light several years ago, China’s central government ordered the local government to tackle the pollution issue. In response, between 2016 and 2018, 76 facilities, including 68 dyeing, printing, and laundry mills, were shut down. According to Sina Finance, these shutdowns have caused more than 1 billion U.S. dollars’ worth of local economic loss. But there are now encouraging signs: Some companies are rolling out new production techniques that significantly reduce water usage, and other brands are pursuing sustainability by powering their factories with renewable energy and recycling water.

Although some denim manufacturers are making smarter choices, most international corporations get away with disclosing little information about their production processes. “People need to demand that companies make their practices available. Because the information isn’t there in the first place, people don’t know what to ask,” Schlossberg says.

Yiliqi, a scientist at NRDC, is working to do just that. She says improving the clothing industry will require oversight, transparency, and accountability. NRDC has worked with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China, for example, to map and rank multinational corporations on their supply chain performance. Meanwhile, the Clean by Design program that NRDC created more than a decade ago provides a tool for brands to cut water, energy, and chemical consumption as well as wastewater discharge from their supply chains. (Last year the program was transferred to the Apparel Impact Institute, a collaboration of industry stakeholders working to scale up the initiative.) The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has developed indices for measuring a products’ environmental impact. And various sustainability certifications, including BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), Bluesign, OEKO-TEX, and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), among others, can be used as branding and put on clothing labels, creating further incentives for companies to improve.

For individuals, Yiliqi says, “the fastest way to make an impact is to ask their brands to do better.” It’s also important to investigate the work a company is doing to reduce its impact before you buy its products. And if you’re looking to change some of your shopping habits, here are some tips:

  • Avoid overconsumption. Wear the denim you have as long as possible and forgo “fast fashion,” which is a term for cheaply made, trendy clothing manufactured to last only a season or two.
  • Take existing jeans in for mending when needed, rather than tossing them out altogether.
  • Shop at thrift stores, which extends the life and reduces the carbon footprint of each pair of jeans, or swap with friends.
  • When you do buy new, opt for durable items that will last years instead of months.

We don’t have to forgo this American classic—it just needs a makeover.

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