What’s the Deal with Denim?

And why we think denim should be done differently

By Renee Fortune

Have you ever stopped to consider the process that your jeans or jacket goes through to become denim? Because it’s a water-intensive process that is relatively “dirty” compared to how other fabrics are produced. 

Essentially, denim is a hard-wearing cotton that is made using a twill weave to create a diagonal ribbing pattern. Cultivating this cotton requires litres upon litres of insecticide and pesticide before it can be turned into yarn. When the yarn is dyed in the correct shade of denim, the fabric is rewashed, and sandblasted or bleached to create the worn texture of denim. 

It’s quite amusing to think that since the dawn of contemporary fashion, the world has revered a material that has essentially been damaged beyond repair to become what it is. But here we are, and it’s safe to say that denim is not going anywhere. 

However, there are more sustainable ways of doing things, and producers of denim are undergoing closer scrutiny than ever before when it comes to their manufacturing processes and the sourcing of materials. There are a number of reasons why the production of denim is detrimental to the environment. 

Cotton is environmentally demanding. According to recent reports, one-sixth of the amount of pesticide that is used globally can be attributed to the growing of cotton. In the long term, this leads to soil contamination and damage to soil diversity. Add these realities to the rapid progression of climate change and I’m sure you can understand why conscious consumers are getting behind brands that do denim differently. 

The production of denim also requires an exorbitant amount of water. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, it takes almost 3800 litres of water to make one pair of jeans. What’s more is that the use of certain dyes, which contain toxic chemicals, leads to water pollution. According to Emily Machar from Smithsonian Magazine, in some factory towns where denim mills are in operation, the water runs blue and contaminates the water, leading to the death of aquatic life and health problems for the people who work in those mills. Here, as is the case with any issue that relates to sustainability, people and the planet are at risk.

On the whole, denim does not decompose at a fast rate. It can take up to 200 years for some textiles to decompose in landfills, including denim, which makes use of synthetic materials. For most mass producers, the end of the product’s life is simply not a concern. But for innovative brands who are leading the charge towards a better and more sustainable fashion industry, what happens to a piece of denim clothing at the end of its lifespan is of the utmost importance. And that’s a cause we can get behind. 

We have found a worthy alternative in eco-denim - a fabric produced by means that save water and energy, and produce less waste. More and more emerging brands in the fashion space are opting for concentrated Sulphur dyes that bond better with cotton and do not require excessive rinses to obtain the correct colour. This method can save an incredible amount of water and energy in the long run.

A number of brands are also using denim alternatives to produce fabric that boasts the same hardiness and texture as the classic denim the world has come to know and love. Today there are innovative ways of producing denim, from using recycled plastic to using organic cotton, zero-water technology and other donated cotton that would otherwise go to waste.

We’ve got a few of these fashion champions right here, on Plain Tiger. Here is our list of top picks from these pioneering brands:

This 100% cotton classic pair of denim jeans can be recycled or shredded at the end of its lifespace. The hardware detailing on these jeans is nickel-free and created by means of a water-efficient, non-polish process that affords it with a matte finish. The garment also includes a spool of deep tobacco recycled thread which can be used to customise the length of the leg to the desired length. It’s sustainable, down to the last thread. And we’re here for it. 

TED - True-Waist Denim | denzilpatrick

This figure-accommodating pair of denims is handwoven from naturally dyed cotton that involves only natural processes. As a brand, Studio Maatie hopes to inspire the global community of consumers to pause and think about how their fashion choices impact the environment and the people who produce it. To this end, the brand uses processes that have been passed down generations, from block printing to the ancient art of shibori (resist dyeing) and eco-printing which makes use of the colours that come from petals and leaves. When it comes to denim, it doesn’t get any greener.

Free You Denim Pants | Studio Maatie

Flip your collar like a trendsetter with this jacket by FIELDS. The cotton that is used to make this jacket is sourced from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) - an organisation that is dedicated to transforming the cotton industry. The BCI is on a mission to help the communities who harvest and create cotton to thrive in working environments that are governed by the principles of social justice and fairness. Its goal is to develop an industry that is better for smallholders, larger growing environments, farm workers, their communities and civil society. 

The Field Jacket | Dark Denim by Kim Van Vuuren | FIELDS