Sustainability in the denim business: How denim manufacturing impacts the environment.

Published: 18 July, 2018

Categories: General

Sustainability in the denim business: How denim manufacturing impacts the environment.

When we think of oxymoron’s, they are typically used in a manner of irony and contradiction however in the fashion industry the meaning of ‘denim-wearing eco-warrior’ is treated with much more seriousness! For wearing denim that has been mass produced by fast fashion companies and claiming be an advocate for a sustainable life is perhaps akin to eating meat if you are vegetarian. Basically, a NO GO!

Adorning yourself in denim goods will never go out of fashion. Jeans have formed the basis of every person’s wardrobe since the 20th century and their popularity will, no doubt, continue far into the 21stcentury and beyond. As a popular product, its manufacture can safely fall into the ‘fast fashion’ segment of the fashion business. As with all clothing that is produced ‘fast’ the detrimental effects on the environment are something to consider when making your next denim-based product purchase. It was a little-known fact, prior to 2014, that the manufacturing of denim products had such an unfavourable effect on the environment. It doesn’t have to continue along this trajectory, however, but until one is aware of the existing problems with its production it’s difficult to affect any lasting change. Below are some of the problems associated with its production followed by possible solutions:




Used for the cultivation of denim fabric main ingredient, cotton. It’s a fibre that is heavily irrigated and fertilized, and additionally, it uses large amounts of water in its manufacturing and packaging processes. The finishing processes employed – which include dyeing, washing and special visual effects, such as stone-washing – also consume vast quantities of water, resulting in denim manufacturing with a high-water footprint. Incredibly, one pair of jeans, including its production and general wear uses up to 2,900 gallons of water.

Potential Solutions

Shopper education such as using a washing machine less often to wash your denim and perhaps considering sponge cleaning them occasionally is one such solution. The Better Cotton initiative has supported farmers in their move to reduce water usage by 39%. They are uniting farmers, ginners, traders, spinners, mills, manufacturers and retailers in a unique global community that is committed to developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

Drip irrigation- Is a type of micro-irrigation that has the potential to save water and nutrients by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, either from above the soil surface or buried below the surface. The goal is to place water directly into the root zone and minimize evaporation.

Innovations in dying technologies developed by Bluesign, an endeavour that helps the textile business to produce in an environmentally friendly and resource-efficient way combining both the economic and ecological advantages to the benefit of everyone involved.

Shopper education such as using a washing machine less often to wash your denim and perhaps considering sponge cleaning them occasionally.


The three processes that cause water pollution are the growing of cotton, dyeing and finishing the material and texturizing and finishing the product.

It’s a natural occurrence if herbicides and chemical pesticides are used so prolifically. Their use contaminates the soil and water sources and can cause detrimental health effects to cotton farmers.

The use of chemical dyes in the production of ‘distressed’ denim is intensive. The denim is subjected to several chemical washes. Added to that, there are serious health risks to the workers through exposure to the harmful chemicals that are used to spray the material in pursuit of an ‘acid wash’. Chemical run-offs from some of these manufacturers are also dumped into the water system, turning them indigo-blue such as the Pearl River in China.

Potential Solutions

The production of organic cotton uses natural techniques to ward off insects. Natural indigo dyes could be used as well as Archroma advanced denim technology; an innovative dyeing process that uses sulphur dyestuffs that bond more easily.



This process involves taking fine sand and channelling it into an airgun, it is then sprayed at high pressure onto denim to create a worn, old look. It’s a cheap, quick method that manipulates garments but its main ingredient, silica, is harmful to workers.

Potential Solutions

Computer-driven laser technology can replicate localized wear and whiskers, without the use of water, chemicals or stones. Lasers offer precise, repeatable bleaching effects that are more controlled. However, equipment is expensive, each garment must be individually positioned for treatment, and only one side can be treated at a time. It’s excellent for creating smaller effects but is less beneficial for overall bleaching.

Ozone Technology harnesses the natural bleaching capabilities of ozone gas to give a range of overall and speciality bleaching effects with substantially reduced environmental impact. Ozone can be used to clean pocket back-staining from normal washing processes or to bleach denim to a lighter shade. Ozone does not eliminate water use in jeans finishing. However, it substantially reduces consumption of water as well as energy, chemicals, enzymes and stones. Ozone offers important advantages over traditional wet finishing.

An emerging greener chemistry process, called Advanced Denim by Archroma, can produce a pair of jeans using up to 92% less water and 30% less energy than conventional methods. In addition to this, it generates 87% less cotton waste and no wastewater. Unlike conventional denim production methods, which require up to 15 dyeing vats and an array of potentially harmful chemicals, Advanced Denim uses just one vat and a new generation of eco-advanced, concentrated, liquid sulphur dyes that require only a single, sugar-based reducing agent. All other production steps are also eliminated.


Project Just is just one of the platforms whose mission is to “transform the fashion industry into a transparent, accountable and sustainable system that celebrates the stories, the people and the resources behind the clothing”. Along with the creative input of mindful designers such as Faustine Steinmetz who has managed to create a menage-a-trois through the combination of a commercially viable collection and a luxury aesthetic with an impressive sustainable core, a change is a coming.

With a focus on handwoven denim, she shows during London Fashion Week, her pieces are made with the help of a women’s craft collective in Burkina Faso. Produced on traditional West African looms her production time has now been reduced from one week to a matter of hours. Faustine, in her bid to expand her business in an ethical fashion, also works with a Spanish mill that specializes in recycled denim.

There are denim brands and other fashion designers that are taking a more sustainable approach to their manufacturing processes.

Everlane, the e-tailer and stalwart of sustainability and transparency uses the Saitex factory to produce their denim jeans. It is housed in a LEED-certified facility that recycles 98% of its water, relies on alternative energy sources, and repurposes by-products to create premium jeans-minus the waste. Through its commitment to renewable energy resources like solar power, Saitex has reduced its energy usage by 5.3 million kilowatts of power per year – and reduced C02 emissions by nearly 80%. Eighty-five percent of the jeans produced in the factory are air dried and then briefly finished, for softness, in a commercial dryer. All denim production creates a toxic by-product called sludge. At Saitex the sludge is extracted and shipped to a nearby brick factory. It is then mixed with concrete and converted into bricks that are used to build affordable homes.

The majority of these processes are fairly new to the denim manufacturing market. If your brand ethos is to follow a more sustainable path, finding the right type of manufacturer for a small company could prove difficult. In addition to asking the typical questions to fashion factories, you should also include questions that ask about their environmental footprint and practices.

Once you have sourced at least five factories, enquire about their sustainability regulations and ask to see their audits. Consider mandating that the factory you select signs a sustainability commitment, similar to the one that H & M supplies to its suppliers.

Written by

Mick Owen

PTA Inscape Fashion Lecturer