Are Denim Jeans Worth the Price?
Denim. From its humble beginnings as a fabric used in sturdy work pants to a global commodity and staple in the fashion industry, denim is everywhere! Most of us today take having a pair of jeans in our wardrobe for granted. But can we afford to be so complacent when it comes to owning a clothing staple that is responsible for so much toxic devastation to our planet and it’s people? Are there more ecologically friendly options we should be aware of that take advantage of kinder, more sustainable manufacturing methods?
Xintang, China - Denim Capital of the World
The single biggest manufacturer of jeans today is China, which produces one in three pairs of jeans sold around the world. More than 3000 factories in the town of Xintang produce about 300 million denim products every year. You’d think this huge volume would mean Xintang would be booming, but the region is so polluted by effluent from our ‘want for jeans’ production that you can’t give away the houses in this district.
Wastewater and dissolved chemicals used in the production and dyeing process flush directly into the East River, creating a toxic sludge with a pH level of almost 12 (normal is about 7 with healthy, acceptable levels not straying far from that value). Horrified by conditions, locals protested and the government responded by moving many factories into what they named an ‘environmental’ industrial park.
But the puddles of toxic dark blue water, air smelling like sulphur, and blue dust coating everything, reveal there’s nothing environmentally friendly about the place. The result was simply to move the problem down the road and spread the pollution farther afield to an area that was once a village of fruit growers and families that fish. Not any more. Now a wasteland, locals exposed to high levels of environmental toxins are suffering from infertility and other health problems.
What’s So Bad About Cotton?
So why is denim-production so hard on the environment? Cotton is a thirsty crop - the amount of cotton needed for a single pair of jeans (about .68 kg) needs approximately 6000 litres of water to grow. The manufacturing and dyeing process also use water: even if the industry was completely clean and non-polluting, the water requirements are draining available resources - literally! It’s been said that future wars will be fought over water, not oil, and looking at figures like these, it’s not hard to believe. Where would we be as a species without water?
Environmental Damage Caused at Every Stage of Jeans Production
Once the cotton has been grown and harvested, the dyeing process discharges bleach, synthetic indigo, potassium permanganate, sodium hypochlorite, lead, copper, and cadmium into local rivers. The controversial process of ‘sandblasting’ jeans to make jeans appear to be well-worn (sometimes, fashion trends are truly baffling) is horrendously hard on workers who sometimes must carry out the process without proper ventilation or safety equipment and, as a result, suffer from deadly lung diseases. Though the process of sandblasting jeans has ostensibly been banned, in places like China, inspections are lax and savvy factory owners simply hide the equipment when inspectors show up.
Are there Eco-friendly Options for Jeans?
Do we need to give up our beloved blue jeans? Not necessarily. There are alternatives, but you probably won’t find them on the discount racks at the big, international chain stores. Instead, check out jeans produced by some of these manufacturers that use organically-produced or recycled cotton and support companies and jeans brands that make use of new dyeing technologies that use less water and non-toxic dyes. As for that pre-owned look, your local second-second-hand shop is a much gentler option.
Support organizations like Clean Clothes Campaign and educate yourself about issues relating to the textiles industry or new techniques for processing like ‘surface activation’ which treats denim after it has been dyed to produce that well-worn look we seem to like so much.
At Mandala Dream Co we don’t produce jeans, but we do create organic hemp wrap pants, hand eco dyed with our homegrown indigo ferment which we reduce down for use in block print inks and use any residual waste as a natural fertiliser for our indigo crop. We care deeply about the environment and the future. All of the dyes we use in our hemp garments and bed linens are safe and natural, our ingredients are organically produced and gentle on the environment, and our production processes are sustainable and fair.
We already do it, so we know it’s possible to create beautiful clothing that’s not causing toxic harm to the planet and those who live here. Working together we can hold larger clothing companies to account and encourage them to invest in more sustainable manufacturing practices.
Our purchasing habits are all that stands between the current model and a healthier alternative, let your dollars do the talking, make purchases that have a higher purpose than those rules dictated by fast fashion. With slave labour, high health risks and an environmental care factor of zero, do they deserve any support?
Make the Change, Be that Change, Stay Sustained.