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A better way to wear denim: How the fashion industry is trying to reduce its denim carbon footprint

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 7 min read
A better way to wear denim: How the fashion industry is trying to reduce its denim carbon footprint
From upcycled jeans to sustainable denim, these fashion houses are showing their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint.
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From upcycled jeans to sustainably-produced denim, these fashion houses are showing their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint

Have you ever wondered what goes into the making of a ubiquitous pair of jeans? Considering that denim falls under the fast fashion category, the process to manufacture it is by no means simple nor is it environmentally-friendly. In fact, denim is one of fashion’s dirtiest secrets, laden with toxic chemicals, water pollution and fossil fuel emissions.

Made from cotton, a standard pair of jeans requires at least 1,500 gallons of water to produce — the equivalent of six years’ worth of drinking water for one person. Add to that the pesticides and fertilisers needed to grow cotton and you can imagine the impact it has on the waterways downstream, the environment and the health of the local communities.

To achieve denim’s signature indigo shade, more water and energy is utilised, followed by a whole load of chemical-heavy applications to soften, fade and texturise the material to achieve a plethora of hot styles from acid-washed to distressed and faded.

What many cease to realise is that chemically-invasive wastewater and dyes are dumped out into rivers and turned into blue sludge that causes grievous environmental damage to the surrounding ecosystems. Such is the case of Xintang, a town in southern China that produces 300 million pairs of jeans annually yet most of its manufacturing processes have been unregulated for years.

In a 2017 documentary The River Blue: Can Fashion Save the Planet?, it was revealed that Xintang’s rivers were found to have unsafe amounts of toxic metals like mercury, lead, and copper in the water. Supposedly, workers from the denim factories and residents, who rely on the river for drinking and bathing, reported having rashes, lesions, gastric and possible infertility and cancer.

Thankfully, the industry is transforming, however slowly. While local governments tackle the denim issue by shutting unregulated factories down, fashion’s stakeholders for denim fabric and jeans supply chains are taking a more proactive stance on adopting more sustainable manufacturing processes that significantly reduce water usage, use renewable energy and recycle water.

Levi’s for example, has been very committed to sustainable denim production including significantly reducing water use. In 2010, the denim brand launched the Better Cotton Initiative which trains farmers to use less water, pesticides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilisers when growing cotton plants. By 2020, it was using sustainable cotton in almost all of its products.

The denim giant has also pledged to reduce or completely cut hazardous chemicals used to dye and treat its clothing, and has been applying Water

Levi’s also teamed up with Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green program to save old denim from landfills by turning it into insulation for homes and buildings.

COS recently launched a collection solely using recycled or organic cotton

‘Green jeans’

It is about time. Today, you will find dozens of “green jeans” cult labels marketing their special brand of sustainability. But what’s even more exciting is that bigger retail brands and fashion houses are following suit to try going green or greener.

Swedish retail giant H&M launched jeans made from recycled, donated clothing while sister company COS recently launched a denim collection solely using recycled or organic cotton.

Continuing its commitment to circularity and sustainability, COS has been consciously reinventing its design techniques and approach, such as finishing the denim pieces with rivet-free detailing so as to reduce the use of plastic.

While the women’s denims feature raw and ecru finishes, the menswear placed a strong emphasis on clay-dye techniques and organic hemp cotton blends for fabrics.

According to its website, 86% of materials found in COS are sustainably sourced and 39% are organic. Apparently, the brand is working with farms to explore new technologies and production methods to restore soil health, help fight climate change and use less water.

Prada has launched a pre-fall collection of organic cotton denim pieces

Prada goes organic

Building off of an industry-wide push for sustain- ability, Prada has officially launched a complete collection of certified organic cotton denim pieces for its pre-fall collection this year. The denim is also dyed and finished using an Acquasave process that requires a below-average amount of water, saving 10 litres per metre of fabric. Both of these initiatives help to improve the brand’s EIM (environmental impact measurement) — a metric that has become increasingly important for brands.

Featuring indigo shirts, high-rise jeans, bra tops and mini-dresses, the ethically sourced denim line comes just after Prada’s successful launch of Re-Nylon, featuring ready-to-wear clothing and accessories created out of 100% regenerated nylon.

These Miu Miu pieces have been refreshed and renewed in a play between masculinity and femininity

Miu Miu repurposes preloved Levi’s

Prada’s sister brand Miu Miu continues to pursue the sustainable ideology by refashioning second-hand Levi’s pieces and making them high fashion.

The upcycling project with Levi’s is a celebration of denim wear of the last century which includes the classic button-fly 501s and trucker jackets from the 1980s and 1990s.

The quintessential American workwear and from the mid-1950s onwards, a symbol of youthful rebellion, these pieces have been refreshed and renewed by Miu Miu in a play between masculinity and femininity.

The vintage denim is hand-embellished with Miu Miu’s signature adornments such as crystal, pearl, floral and diamanté embroidery, puffed sleeves and bold leather patches featuring Art Deco-inspired intarsia motifs. Jeans are cut off to the thigh or finished with ivory silk duchesse turn-ups while the trucker jackets are adorned with oversized white lace collars. Inspired and inspiring, no two pieces in this collection are the same.

Designer McDowell takes pieces from Pinko’s archives and adds fresh embellishments

Pinko designs with old stock fabric

Italian fashion label Pinko launched a sustainable fashion capsule featuring old stock fabric and vintage sourced items such as military uniforms and denim wear. Called Reimagine Pinko X Patrick McDowell, the collection is a collaboration with British designer Patrick McDowell, who is known for his edgy upcycled garments.

In the Reimagine collection, vintage Italian, German and British navy and army uniforms are deconstructed and reinterpret- ed with Pinko’s signature cloud sky pattern. The garments are embellished with rhinestone weaves, grosgrain ribbon details and hand-embroidered crystal trimmings.

“I hope to be able to give these garments a brighter and more serene future. It has been a busy year, I wanted to present an idea of freedom and a new path to follow. Reuse the military nature of the leaders for a more positive future,” says McDowell.

McDowell also takes denim pieces from Pinko’s archives and breathes life into them with fresh and fun embellishments. He even modified Pinko’s Mom-fit jeans by hand-sewing P-shaped patches raw-cut from another pair of waste jeans meant to be warehouse stock material. “Sustainable fashion can be really fun and colourful,” says the Liverpool-based designer.

This collection sold out in Europe during its initial launch late last year and a new season is already in the works.

Valentino’s special collaboration with Levi’s gives new life to an age-old classic

Valentino reintroduces Levi’s 517

The classic 517 bootcut jeans created in 1969 by Levi’s has found its way into the couturiers’ house of Valentino in a special collaborative venture to breathe new life into an age-old classic.

Led by creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, the Valentino team merely changed the labels to incorporate both brand names while remaining faithful to the 517’s silhouette and style.

For the Valentino Collezione Milano Show, actual untouched vintage original pieces dated from the 70s were used on the runway models, and paired with the Maison’s elegant tops and accessories.

While it’s easy to get a hold of Re-Edition 517s, the vintage pieces are limited with only 517 for distribution around the world.

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