Can Denim be sustainable? Here is how we approach this

Can Denim be sustainable? Here is how we approach this

We’ll make a strong statement right away: denim isn’t going out of fashion anytime soon.

Denim has been a big part of global culture in the past 150 or more years. The fabric as we know it today was originally manufactured in Nîmes (France) in the 1800s and was known as “bleu de Nîmes” (blue of Nîmes). The wavers there developed a unique technique to make this sturdy fabric, which we still use today. They used indigo (natural dye originally from India) to dye some threads but left others in their natural white colour. This resulted in the typical colour we associate with denim today.

By the 20th century, denim was everywhere. Old Hollywood introduced denim to pop-culture, making jeans a symbol of rebellion youth in the mid-century. In the late 1970s and 1980s, denim entered high-fashion, and by the end of the century, denim was in pretty much everyone’s closets. It is a durable, versatile, and functional fabric, now more available than ever. 

But the way we produce denim today makes it one of the worst materials for the environment and people. So a fair and critical question is: can denim be sustainable? 

Today, we address this question.

Credit: Jason Leung - Unspalsh

Why is denim so bad?

Let us first understand why denim is such a problem. 

Much of the denim comes from the fast fashion industry, relying on cheap, fast, and massive production. Though it is hard to estimate, some reports claim that in 2018 alone, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide. That’s well over half the number of people on this planet! Despite the whole fashion industry slowing down in 2020, some are certain that denim will arise even stronger in the post-pandemic fashion trends. What this means is even more water, chemicals, and other resources are needed. And it’s already quite alarming.

Essentially, denim is a sturdy cotton fabric. And cotton, fashion’s favourite natural fibre, is a very thirsty plant. It takes between 10 000 and 20 000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of cotton, which is equivalent to a single cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Yet, growing the crop that becomes a fabric is only one side of the story. The production of denim fabric goes through several stages, including dyeing, washing, and other finishing processes, all of which require more water. The majority of modern denim is still dyed in indigo dye. However, the pigment no longer comes from the plants but is synthetic. This pigment also never comes alone. To colour denim, manufacturers use a mix of dyes and other agents, usually composed of toxic chemicals. The common dyes in denim production are the so-called azo dyes. These are complex synthetic compounds, found to be extremely carcinogenic. People working with these dyes are at a high risk of developing a whole range of allergies and diseases. With a growing pressure to produce more and more denim, many factories around the world lack the basic working equipment and protection.  

But the impact of the denim doesn’t end in the factory. The dyes (and other chemicals) used in the process are never perfect, and much of it gets washed down and leaves the factories in the form of wastewater. That water easily enters the local water systems, introducing the toxic chemicals from the dyes. The biggest issue here is that these dyes don’t biodegrade, but accumulate in nature, posing a long-term threat to the ecosystems. They also pollute the freshwater sources for the communities living near the factories. Some of the biggest denim-producing countries, like India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, are already experiencing water scarcity. The increasing market needs for denim could only intensify this in the future. And in some places, the waters are so polluted, that people can’t even live there anymore. The 2016 documentary, RiverBlue shows this very well. If you haven’t already, we recommend watching it, as it majorly discusses denim production and its very visible impact on the people and the planet today.

That’s just an overview but you can easily see why denim is a fabric with a high eco-footprint and is a direct danger for many workers and communities. One possible answer to all of this would be to stop making denim altogether.

Another is to find a better way of making it. 

Here’s how we figured that out.

Credit: Canva

Meune does denim differently

The good news is that many factories and brands started looking for alternative ways to denim-making in recent years. Solutions are out there, yet they are often hard to understand, use or even find. It took over a year for Mëune to find a way. Still, here we are!

To be sustainable and ethical, we are tackling all the aspects: the raw material that goes into our fabric, dyes and dyeing agents we use, the conditions of the factory that produces, as well as our production speed and quantity. We choose to work with the Candiani factory in Italy, which is helping us to achieve all of this.

Let us walk you through our process.

·         The raw material:

We use 100% GOTS certified organic cotton, with no elastic or any other blends to make denim. Our factory in Italy sources cotton directly from fair trade certified farmers, located in Telangana (India). 

While organic cotton is not without its flaws, it is grown on small-scale farms, without any synthetic pesticides or chemicals, making it safer for the farmers and the environment. This cotton also needs less water and energy. 

·         Dyeing:

Candiani factory developed a dyeing technique they call Indigo Juice, to achieve the faded denim colour we all like. They use OEKO TEX certified indigo, in a mix of non-toxic agents. Along with the Indigo Juice, the factory also uses kitotex as a mordant (agent that makes the dye stick to the fabric).

This dyeing process alone saves an estimated 33% chemicals, 25% energy, and 15% water.

If you want to read in detail about this dyeing technique, check Candiani factory’s sustainability report

·         Washing:

Once done, the denim fabric is washed in a nearby laundry, in Piombino Dese. They use Ozone technology developed by Jeanología. This further saves up to 65% of water, 20% of energy, and 80% of chemicals. 

·         Production conditions:

The factory is situated just outside Milano, in Parco Del Ticino that has a status of a natural reserve. Because of this, it is operating under strict environmental regulations. The factory is known as “the greenest mill in the blue world". We also made sure that everyone working there is fairly paid.

·         Production speed and quantities:

It takes on average 3 months to produce our denim jackets, including the embroidery that goes on them. We take pride in this slow process and have no intention of speeding it up. We are also very cautious about the amount we produce. We work with a pre-order model, which allows us to only make the jackets that we know we will sell. This way there is no overproduction and extra waste.

Credit: Canva

As said, it took us a long time to do this, in an industry that is not structured for a sustainable nor ethical business. However, we aren’t stopping there. We are actively looking to improve our process and further reduce our impact. In the future, we are looking to possibly replace organic cotton with more sustainable materials, like hemp and linen, or even recycled materials.

In the meantime, we would love to hear from you! Tell us: how do you like to wear your denim? 

Written by Tena

About Tena:

I'm an anthropologist, activist, and ethical fashion writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I'm endlessly curious and restless, and always looking to challenge the way we think about fashion, style, and sustainability. Through my writing business, Thinking Threads, I work with small to medium ethical brands, helping them redefine the standards of the fashion industry, one word at a time.
You can catch up with me daily on Instagram or Twitter, or visit my Website to see more.
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