sustainable fashion

How to Shop for Sustainable Denim

Photo: Getty Images/EyeEm

Jeans are ubiquitous, durable, and available at almost any price point. But they’ve become the poster child for eco-unfriendliness in the fashion industry (perhaps because they’re so ubiquitous). But such notoriety can invite invention; this weekend, Study Hall, a conference in L.A., is going to unpack what exactly is going on with denim. The conference is co-sponsored by G-Star, who have made great strides toward sustainable denim in recent years.

The conference will begin with a “pep talk” from Standing Rock activist LaDonna Brave Bull Allard about Mother Nature and water. Conversations, debates, and panels about colonialism and supply-chain issues in the industry — who is truly responsible for the broken system, circularity, and clear solutions — will follow. For those able to make it to the Ace Hotel in L.A. on Sunday, August 26, you can get tickets here. For those who can’t, we got the CliffsNotes on sustainability and denim from Céline Semaan, an academic and fashion designer who created Study Hall.

The Cut: Let’s talk about denim. What are the main issues with denim and sustainability?
Céline Semaan: There’s quite a lot with denim. It’s the most universal garment — you see it in refugee camps across the world and also on the runway. The problem with denim is not only its use of water — it’s about [1,800 gallons] and a pound and a half of cotton, which is a lot. It’s fine if we approach denim the way it was meant to be approached. In the beginning it was all cotton, you didn’t wash it as often, let it age, and repair it and patch it up, and so on.

The problem we see today is that we’re producing denim that is mixed with spandex or other polyesters that make them unbreakable, and they aren’t biodegradable anymore. When the denim is made with non-organic cotton, it’s made with lots of pesticides and chemicals that damage other crops. There’s also a lot of child labor and slave labor in the cotton supply chain. There are also chemicals used in the dyeing process because we’re not using natural indigo. We are not talking about these issues enough. These days we’re talking about it more; talking about it is great but finding solutions is better. Creating a system that works is necessary.

So when you’re looking at sustainability with jeans there are five big problems: the dyeing process, the water waste, chemicals and pesticides for growing cotton, ethical issues in the supply chain, and the carbon footprint of transporting jeans from one place to another. Is there one that’s more pressing than the other? Or would focusing on one be a kind of tunnel vision?
It’s tunnel vision. If instead of buying new denim today you bought vintage, or you kept your denim and fixed them, you are reducing the carbon emission by 40 percent. That’s a UN stat (along these lines). We don’t talk enough about not consuming. It’s always about what you can buy that’s sustainable? What can you consume that’s better for the planet? When in reality, not consuming is the most sustainable. Whether you’re renting or buying second-hand or buying off of Etsy, The Real Real, or Ebay, there are a lot of solutions available today to allow you to buy things that are not made fresh.

So, the most sustainable solution is not to buy new jeans. But if you are, what is the best option? Is it better to go with a cutting-edge new sustainable fabric, another kind of eco-friendly jean, or vintage jeans? It’s hard to say, “This is the one and only denim that you must buy,” because there aren’t enough criteria for us to judge that this is the one and only denim, that if you want to discard it, it can be turned into new denim. The G-Star that was released under Cradle-to-Cradle is amazing because when you’re discarding it, you can recycle it.

When you are purchasing denim, think about the end life. If you’re like, My goal is to buy something that would return to the Earth as food, then you need to go with grade-A organic cotton that’s dyed with non-chemicals. If your goal is help with plastic in the ocean, then buy denim that is made with plastic waste from the ocean. But then this denim cannot be recycled. It can be fixed and repurposed, but it cannot be turned back into a new denim as of today. Hopefully in a few years we’ll have the technology to turn it into a new fabric. I’m pretty confident that will happen. Or there will be something to address over-consumption in the long term or innovations that slow down production.

So … what is the deal with people not washing their jeans as a sustainable act?
I’m not a non-washer. I’m very conscious about my water use at home, but I’m not a non-washer. However, so many activists believe in non-washing so I will represent them. It’s these grandma tricks, like a hipster movement like going back to the roots of making your own pickles. You can put your clothes in the freezer to kill bacteria, and spray them with essential oils. There’s also just hanging them outside to put them in the air and clean them by just putting them in the air. There’s also sustainable laundromat in Brooklyn, Celcius, who use cutting-edge technology to wash clothes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

So, Why Are Jeans So Unsustainable?