the highs and lows of denim: how to save our rivers
Being more than 100 years old, denim is part of a worldwide history, and it is rare to not find several pairs of jeans in one’s closet, ranging from low rise to high waisted, slim fit to flare legs, dark blue to bleached. With brands such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler who built upon the traditional fabric for men’s workwear, jeans quickly became the piece that cool people would wear from the 1930s.
Fast-forward to today, in the US where denim originated, the average consumer buys four new pairs of jeans per year. It is hard to find a garment as widely worn and loved as jeans, just as people from every generation and culture would have deep emotional memories associated to it. It’s however been more than 30 years that denim brands have moved their production from the States to countries such as India, Bangladesh and China – whose city of Xintang in the province of Guandong is now considered the denim capital of the world – and permanently damaged their rivers.
Since the 1980s, denim factories have boomed in Xintang as 300 million pairs of jeans are manufactured there every year, which makes for 60 percent of China’s overall jeans production. So while US factories were slowly closing due to the lack of demand, Xintang’s East River rapidly turned dark blue and started smelling, as the water used in the production of denim is spilled into the river. Indeed making jeans involves a number of stages including washing for the cloth to look old and used, which uses just as much chemicals as the dyeing process. In Xintang, and more precisely Xizhou Village, the soil is now completely unfertile and farming has completely ceased, just as fishing has become impossible in the river’s dark waters.
In a documentary entitled RiverBlue: Can Fashion Save the Planet?, the filmmakers examine rivers around the world to show how they’ve been affected by the fashion industry. Soon enough, we see images of rivers completely covered with brightly coloured streams of foam caused by toxic dyes from textile manufacturing. Through interviews and shocking images, the film highlights the irreversible damages made by the fashion industry on the planet and on the people. In Bangladesh’s Buriganga, animal life has completely ceased while cancer is being diagnosed in whole villages alongside polluted rivers in China.
Everything isn’t as dark as it seems though and there is hope arising for the industry coming from innovative technologies and businesses. For example, the film points out to Milan-based company Italdenim that turns food waste into a thread coating that prevents the use of chemicals needed to dye denim, and in doing so, reduces the amount of water usage and pollution. G-Star Raw, on the other hand, creates denim made from waste plastic fetched from the ocean. Working with Bionic Yarn, they’ve managed to transform the plastic into yarns used in their denim production and clean the oceans in one fell swoop.
Smaller brands can also pave the way for a brighter future and raise awareness towards a fair and ethical supply chain. Ullac for instance is a young British brand producing denim in an eco-friendly way by first sourcing their material from organic factories such as Candiani in Northern Italy – the ‘Greenest Mill in the blue world’ – and using BCI cotton that encourages fair labour practices and minimises chemicals.
“We want to make dead nice, ethical clothes an accessible thing,” said the brand’s spokesperson. “We work with good people and ethical suppliers – every part of each garment comes from an independent producer, and we try to be as green as we can.” The Italian mill has also recently collaborated with German label Closed on its new A BETTER BLUE collection using sustainable fibres and recycled cotton washed and dyed with innovative techniques then listed on the inside of the jeans.
I believe we all have to make conscious choices, and by being transparent with the supply chain my clients are able to love the jeans not only for the reason that they fit (perfectly!), but because they are a sustainable product. – Anna Foster, Founder of E.L.V. Denim
At the same time, reusing old material can also be a way to fight against pollution and waste. East London brand E.L.V. Denim has built upon the huge amount of denim destined to landfill to create new, desirable pieces. Vintage denim is then deconstructed and reassembled into modern and sophisticated staples, while keeping its original function and appeal.
“Working from a policy of zero waste, two jeans become two new jeans, and because the new ones are made out of vintage denim, no two jeans are ever the same,” says founder Anna Foster. “I believe we all have to make conscious choices, and by being transparent with the supply chain my clients are able to love the jeans not only for the reason that they fit (perfectly!), but because they are a sustainable product.” The brand’s ethos is also to produce locally, and in doing so, to keep the carbon footprint of every pair of jeans to a minimum.
While denim manufacturing has had huge consequences on rivers in the past decades, there is hope that the textile industry can now get on a path that is both environmental friendly and more humane to the people working in factories. Big brands have to take a step towards fairer practices, but change can also come from consumers who have to ask for ethical products that don’t harm the planet. And instead of producing millions of pairs of jeans a year, we have to look at the potential of vintage fabric that can be reused or recycled. While denim is a mass-market piece of clothing that touches every generation and culture, there are many game-changing alternatives to chemical dyes and washing involved in its production that will hopefully be looked at in a serious and global way.