A pair of jeans is the most common clothing item worn by millions of people around the world. Many people are crazy about wearing jeans and style their outfits by wearing denim over denim or wearing a pair of jeans all year round.
The word denim is another name for jeans and is derived from the fabric “serge de Nîmes” made in the city of Nîmes, France, where it originated. Jeans come in a variety of shades, styles, and colors, and first became popular in the late 19th century. Invented by Jacob W. Davis in partnership with Levi Strauss & Co. in 1871, they were patented by the famous denim brand 2 years later. Sold for $3 dollars at the time, blue jeans were originally called “waist overalls”. Miners all over the United States participated in the success of the iconic piece of clothes: they were ideal for anyone participating in the famous California gold rush.
Dressed up or down, jeans have since then made their way in every wardrobe. You surely own a pair of jeans or more yourself, but have you ever wondered what their lifecycle is? Do you know what the process of getting a pair of jeans ready is and what happens when your favorite pants are worn out?
CO2, water, energy… Jeans are a high resource-consuming clothing item, often consumed in mass with little or no regard for the time, effort, and resources they require to be produced.
As you can see from this image, making a pair of jeans isn’t insignificant: just for water alone, your jeans are the equivalent to 53 showers or 575 toilet flushes!
Let us walk you through the steps of making a pair of jeans and their impact on the environment.
Cotton to denim yarn
Typical denim jeans often start their journey on a farm in China or India where cotton seeds are naturally grown, irrigated, and the fluffy balls made. These cotton puffs are then harvested through a machine, and an industrial gin separates the cotton from the seeds. Cotton plants need a lot of water and pesticides to grow properly. One pair of regular blue jeans will need a minimum of 1800 gallons of water to grow its cotton.
Cotton also uses way more pesticides and insecticides than any other crop grown in the world. Some denim jeans are made of organic cotton grown without insecticides and pesticides, but this cotton totals for only 1% of the entire 22.7 million metric tons of cotton made in the world.
The cotton then leaves the farm and is shipped to a spinning facility. One bale of cotton can produce up to 225 pairs of jeans.
Processing, dyeing, and manufacturing
After the bale wrapping, rope dyeing begins to twist yarns into ropes that are quickly dipped in indigo baths. This is to give your favorite pair of jeans their final colors and explains why you often see a tag saying you might experience color discoloration on your first few washes.
Then long chain beaming is done where yarn alignment into the dyed rope is changed into a sheet form. Sizing, weaving, and finishing is then done before the finished cloth is moved to factories. Most jeans factories nowadays are located in Bangladesh, where human labor is needed to stitch the clothes up into denim jeans. This is intricate work that machines cannot do and is labor-intensive, often retribution at a very low price.
More water is used in the lifecycle of jeans, contributing to water pollution worldwide.
According to Resilience, “It is estimated that 70 percent of Asia’s rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by that continent’s textile industry.”
Jeans lifecycle: from the factory to the landfills
Denim jeans pants are then traveled by trains, ships, and trucks to be sold in high-income countries, adding to the global pollution problem.
Finally, the jeans go to the consumers’ homes. In America, around 450 million pairs of jeans are sold every year. Every person in America has around 7 pairs of jeans. Machines for washing and drying are used to clean the denim jeans. Both these machines involve energy, which is 5 to 6 times more used in dryers than in washers.
The dramatic shift in clothing consumption in the past 20 years is driven by a huge corporation’s fast fashion trend. It has put adverse effects on the environment, the health of farmers, and involved questionable human labor practices. This trend has made fashion the second biggest polluter in the world, after the oil and gas industry.
Looking for alternatives can help reduce world pollution.
You can take simple actions to reduce the impact of your jeans on the environment:
- Wash less
- Wash cold
- Line dry instead of using a dryer
- Look for organic fabrics
- Prefer recycled or second-hand jeans
After the extensive use of denim jeans by its owner, the life cycle of a pair of jeans either leads to being owned by second or third owners or thrown away to end up in the garbage. If recycled properly, denim can be given a second life. Habitat for Humanity has a program called Blue Jeans Go Green ™ where old denim jeans are converted into insulation material for example. This has helped divert over 1 million pieces of denim clothing items away from the landfills.
Interested in learning more about the true human and environmental cost of the jeans industry? This very comprehensive study by the Impact Institute explains in detail all the hidden costs of our dear jeans and shows how can the fashion industry’s transition contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Our solution for a healthier denim for you and the environment: Boyish Jeans, a sustainable women’s denim line.