The ultimate guide to sustainable denim

The first denim jeans were designed for miners and workers that needed a strong pair of pants, because they kept wearing them out. Needless to say, denim is made to last.

Lars Dinjens14 December 2020

Longevity in fashion design is one of the answers to reducing the negative impacts of the industry. Denim has been part of that solution for over a century. But as with most things in life, there’s a catch. And it's a big one. With estimates varying between 7500 and 10.000 liters of water needed for a single pair of jeans, denim is an extremely water-intensive process. That’s water that can be used as drinking water and is leading to water scarcity in cotton-producing countries.

The cotton problem

This huge amount of water that’s needed has two main causes. The first one is the thirsty cotton crop that needs a huge amount of water to grow. Conventional cotton uses more pesticides and insecticides than any other crop and is depriving ecosystems and the soil wherever it’s produced. The chemicals are also hazardous for the workers in the field who are in close contact with these chemicals on a daily basis. There's plenty of reason for change. But because cotton is economically of great importance to big cotton-producing countries like the United States, India, and China, the crop is heavily subsidized to compete internationally. This keeps the price artificially low and is one of the main reasons why 99% of global cotton is still produced this way. 

Because there's more demand for sustainable options, the alternatives are growing in popularity. Organic cotton is more labor-intensive and more costly, but also uses way less water, energy and is not damaging to the environment and workers. Supply and demand for Better Cotton Initiative cotton is increasing, which is a step in the right direction. Do note however that BCI cotton does not mean that it's organic. 

Chemical and water-intensive processes

The second cause for the huge amount of water needed to produce denim is caused by the finishing stages. Denim goes through wet processes where numerous steps like dying, softening, and bleaching occur to achieve certain styles. These steps need two things: water and chemicals. There is a big difference in how denim is treated and how styles can be achieved. Frontrunners in sustainable production are innovating with water-saving or even waterless techniques in their processes. But the most important step that brands can commit to is to strictly work with production facilities that have effective wastewater systems in place. This makes sure that no chemically active water flows back into the ecosystems.

There’s a lot more that can go wrong with denim production of course. Sandblasting is forbidden by most brands, but still happens. Workers can be treated horribly in cotton-producing countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and then there’s the usual mess the fashion industry finds itself in. Luckily there’s a huge market for second-hand denim and there're stylish ways to repair denim. MUD Jeans offers a lease option and Nudie Jeans offers free repairs for life. There’s plenty of options! So if you really need to buy new, at least consider purchasing from one of the brands that deserve your support. 

1) Mud Jeans
A

This Dutch denim brand is the frontrunner in sustainable denim production. Vegan, organic, circular, carbon neutral. We cannot recommend anything better than MUD Jeans. Be sure to check out the Lease a Jeans service. 

Shop Mud Jeans 

Read more about Mud Jeans

2) Nudie Jeans
B

Nudie Jeans is taking full responsibility for every aspect of its production process. The Swedish brand is pushing forward to become as sustainable as it can be, continuously innovating, and very transparent. Particularly excelling in water reduction, chemicals, worker rights, and free repairs for life! 

Shop Nudie Jeans

Read more about Nudie Jeans 

3) Kuyichi
B

Kuyichi rightly so takes pride in being the first completely organic denim brand. It’s also producing almost exclusively in Turkey where they keep a close eye on what happens in their supply chain. The Amsterdam based brand is a vegan brand and is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. 

Shop Kuyichi 

Read more about Kuyichi 

4) Kings of Indigo
B

Kings of Indigo uses almost exclusively more sustainable materials for its production. The brand also qualifies as slow fashion and is a vegan brand. Furthermore, the Japanese inspired denim brand has inspiring targets for carbon neutrality and exclusively recycled or man-made materials by 2025. 

Shop Kings of Indigo

Read more about Kings of Indigo 

5) Reformation
B

Not particularly a denim brand and only for women. But since the California brand is raising the bar in the fashion industry and offers a considerable denim collection, it made the list. 

Shop Reformation

Read more about Reformation 

6) Levi’s
C

If it weren’t for Levi Strauss and his associate in the 19th century, we might not have known jeans as we do today. Though the brand definitely produces a sturdy and high-quality pair, it has lacked behind in sustainability efforts compared to other brands on this list. 

Read more about Levi’s 

7) G-Star
C

G-Star is another Amsterdam based denim brand, but not the most sustainable option. There are ambitious targets though and G-Star is definitely showing serious commitments to change for the better. It’s just not there yet. 

Read more about G-Star

8) Guess
D

Guess used to be all about denim but has slowly changed focus to a more general fashion brand. The American company has made some efforts towards more sustainable practices. But there are too many issues and a very long way to go towards sustainability. 

Read more about Guess

9) Denham
D

Denham is a Dutch, Japanese inspired denim brand that has set the first steps towards transparency with a published factory list and information about its materials. There are also targets for a Fair Wear Foundation membership and more sustainable materials. But there’s just not enough information provided about its production process which leaves them at this spot in the list. 

Read more about Denham

10) Lee
E

Lee is an American denim brand and a subsidiary of Kontoor Brands, the company that also owns Wrangler. It’s unfortunate, but the company does not provide any relevant information about how it makes its products which poses huge risks and makes them one of the worst brands to buy from. 

Read more about Lee

11) Wrangler
E

Wrangler is also owned by Kontoor Brands which makes them one of the worst brands to buy from as well.

Read more about Wrangler

12) Diesel
E

Diesel is an Italian fashion brand that’s mainly known for it’s jeans. It’s also a subsidiary of OTB Group, a multinational company that owns a bunch of high end fashion brands. Yet, the company does not provide any information at all about how it produces its products. We don't recommend buying from Diesel.

Read more about Diesel

Secondhand

Denim has been around for over a century but has never been out of style. Save yourself some cash and consider one of these second-hand options. 

Shop Vestiaire Collective

Shop The Next Closet

Shop ThredUp

Let us know if have any questions, comments, or if you feel like a brand is missing from this list at hello@fairify.io

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