Is your denim healthier for the environment?

Just one pair of jeans can use up to 3,800 litres of water, and an unimaginable number of chemicals. But you can make denim choices that are healthier for the environment and for you

November 19, 2018 11:18 am | Updated 04:47 pm IST

Choose responsibly  Buy denims made from ethically-grown cotton

Choose responsibly Buy denims made from ethically-grown cotton

The last time I counted, I had 14 pairs of jeans. Collected from college, seeing me through weight shifts, and pregnancy. Mr Strauss would not have approved. In his vision, jeans were sturdy workwear, meant to withstand all weather and even the grime of a coal mine.

“Look at the life cycle of a pair of jeans: every stage, from cotton cultivation to the point the consumer gets rid of it, is either depleting natural resources, or polluting the environment,” says Dr Simi Sugathan, founder, Safety Monitor Research Foundation, Bengaluru.

In fact, so toxic are the chemicals used in jeans manufacturing, that in 2014, denim giant Levi Strauss & Co launched a Restricted Substances Stewardship Programme, with an aim to eliminate some of these chemicals from the production processes of other brands as well. As for their own processes, Levi’s has a Restricted Substances List (RSL) in place, to which they’ve been adding, for a couple of decades now, and are aiming to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.

The pollutants
  • * Sodium hydroxide is used for scouring dirt in cotton, releasing alkali-laden wastewater.
  • * Chlorine is used to remove the natural off-white colour from cotton, a process that produces dangerous by-products.
  • * Azo dyes, traditionally used to colour denim fabrics, are known carcinogens. They also alter the physical and chemical properties of soil, causing harm to flora and fauna.
  • * Cellulase enzymes, sodium hypochlorite or potassium permanganate (called an acid wash), hydrogen peroxide or caustic soda, along with stones and sand are used to get that popular distressed look. The dye is washed off the surface using these.

“All of the chemicals on the RSL have been classified for serious health hazards, ranging from cancer, skin sensitisation and respiratory sensitisation, to endocrine disruption and reproductive damage,” explains Dr Sugathan.

“The dyes used are often recalcitrant, which means they are difficult to degrade or decompose.” The good news is that you can continue to buy jeans, just make sure you read the label. Here’s how you can make more responsible choices.

Denims that use less water

In September this year, Numero Uno launched a new collection called One Glass Water Denims, for which they collaborated with Spanish washing and technology experts Jeanologia, to use laser technology and Ozone treatments, instead of bleaches and other chemicals, for finishing processes. In the bargain, water consumption has also been brought down to just one glass per pair of jeans.

“Fading fabric by laser is far more environmental-friendly, as compared to acid washing or sandblasting, while Ozone treatment uses the natural bleaching capability of ozone to its advantage,” explains Dr Sugathan.

In 2011, Levi’s launched their Water<Less™ process, through which they removed the usage of water in stonewashes and combined multiple wet cycle processes, ending up using 96% less water than they did earlier.

As of today, 25% of their products use this technique, and they claim to have saved more than 1 billion litres of water, including 30 million litres of freshwater.

3 ways to be responsible with denim
  • * Pick quality over quantity.
  • * Steer clear of the distressed look. Not only do acid washes use more chemicals, the fading process also weakens the fabric, so your jeans are less likely to last longer.
  • * Don’t wash them after every wear. If you’ve dropped something, spot-cleaning with an old toothbrush should work. Wait at least 4 or 5 wears before each wash.

Denims that recycle

In 2017, researchers at Deakin University were awarded the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award, for inventing a technique called Denim-Dyed Denim. With this new process, the pigment from a pair of old jeans can be used to dye 10 new pairs of jeans, using no water at all, as opposed to the 200 litres that each pair of denim traditionally uses. While this process is yet to be employed commercially, it will be an important step in the right direction. “Recycling the dye will reduce the release of coloured wastewater recalcitrants into water bodies,” says Dr Sugathan.

Zara and H&M are both producing denims made of 20% recycled fabric, while working on technology that will eventually enable them to use 100% recycled fabric. Look out for denims from the Zara Join Life and H&M Conscious collections.

Back in 2013, Levi’s brought out a Waste<Less™ collection — their 511 Skinny Jeans, Trucker Jackets and Boyfriend Skinny Jeans are made of 20% recycled plastic bottles. They have, so far, succeeded at keeping up to 11.9 million bottles out of landfills. Dr Sugathan has some reservations: “Plastic is known for all the wrong reasons, including endocrine disruption and as a source of heavy metals,” she says. “There is potential for some of these toxic chemicals to be released during the manufacturing process as well as when the fabric is in contact with the skin.” Waste<Less™is an excellent initiative to save the environment, but it may not be a great idea to be wearing these denims day in and day out.

Denims from ethical fabrics

Your best bet is to buy denims made from ethically-grown cotton. Check if the brand is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) — the BCI website lists all its members, and most brand websites mention if they’re members. “Being a part of the Better Cotton Initiative provides a trackable approach in the supply chain of denim fabric,” says Dr Sugathan. “However, 100% traceability is yet to be achieved.”

Brands like Zara, H&M, Mango and J.Crew, are also extensively using Lyocell (Tencel™), instead of cotton denims, for their chambray garments, including jeans, shirts and jackets. Made from cellulose, Lyocell is biodegradable.

“In comparison with cotton and viscose, the Lyocell manufacturing process constitutes a significantly lower environmental burden,” explains Dr Sugathan. “Besides, it’s a more breathable fabric, with higher absorbency.”

Lyocell’s absorbing powers also reduce your chances of developing sweat-related rashes and allergies.

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