A pair of jeans, for example, needs up to 10,000 litres of water to be made. The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest inland lake in the world, has largely dried up, in part due to intensive cotton farming in Central Asia for use in the EU. Staggeringly, there are around two billion pairs of jeans being bought each year. But it was not always this way.
Back in the 1850s, when denim was exported to the US from the French town of Nimes, hence the name “de Nimes,” it was seen as a sturdy fabric for miners. It wasn’t until over 100 years later that jeans found their way into the counter-culture and then the mainstream. Now the industry has become part of the environment crisis, and understanding how denim got here is crucial to cleaning it up.
How denim pollutes
Denim doesn’t just use a lot of water, it’s a damaging pollutant too. Levi’s estimates that a pair of their jeans emits 33.4 kg (73 pounds) of CO2 into the atmosphere, the equivalent of driving more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) in a car. That’s largely because denim is produced in countries like China and India where coal is the main source for electricity. Denim’s trademark blue color is mostly achieved by using a synthetic indigo dye that’s linked with toxic chemicals such as cyanide, known for its use as a poison. To avoid paying for wastewater treatment, companies dump these chemicals into rivers. A study from 2019 found textile dyes from factories in Bangladesh in crops grown nearby.
Working in a denim factory can also be fatal. Take sandblasting for example. This method uses high pressure hoses to spray sand against denim to create a worn look that has become popular with consumers. For workers who inhale the small particles of sand, the process can cause a deadly lung disease called silicosis. At just 15, Bego Demir worked in a denim sandblasting factory in Turkey where he knew over 120 people who died from silicosis.
“After 8 years of working in sandblasting, half of my lungs don’t work anymore,” he told DW. Demir, who coordinates Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) in Turkey helping to outlaw sandblasting there in 2009, now wants to expose the process that replaced it — the use of potassium permanganate. In a 2019 report for the CCC, Demir found that Turkish workers in denim factories using potassium permanganate had early onset asthma and skin irritation. He says potassium permanganate is still being used in denim production around the world. Attitudes might be changing. In 2020, a poll conducted by US consultancy agency McKinsey & Company asked shoppers in the US and Europe whether the COVID-19 pandemic had changed their relationship with fashion. The results showed that 67% now considered sustainable materials an important factor when purchasing new clothes.
Some brands are responding by investing in alternative denims. For example, Tencell — a biodegradable fabric made from the cellulose of wood pulp taken from trees grown in sustainably managed forests — has contracts with popular denim brands such as Levi’s, Closed and Kings of Indigo. Candiani, a company based near Milan, Italy, has created a stretch denim from natural rubber called Coreva, which is capable of biodegrading in six months without releasing toxins into the soil. Candiani’s website calls it “a game-changer for the denim industry” because “it contributes to an end of life solution.”
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle