Are My Denim Jeans Bad for the Environment?
By Courtney Lindwall
Question: I've heard that producing denim is particularly bad for the environment. Do I need to give up my blue jeans?
Answer: Throwaway plastics and gas-guzzling cars are the typical consumer no-nos, but clothing also has oversize impacts on the planet and our health. And it's true — denim is one of the worst offenders.
Let's start with the fabric. Denim is made primarily with cotton, though it's now often blended with synthetic fibers like polyester. And though all fibers have their trade-offs, "cotton in general is a very thirsty crop," said Tatiana Schlossberg, a former environmental reporter at the New York Times and the author of Inconspicuous Consumption, a new book on the hidden environmental impact of our spending habits. Very thirsty, indeed: Producing just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton can require up to 7,660 gallons of water, depending on where it's grown. (In comparison, producing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes requires one one-hundredth of that amount, 76 gallons.) A cotton crop consumes a lot of chemicals too: 16 percent of all insecticides are used on the plant, and many of them pose significant health risks for farm workers and nearby residents.
Nowhere have the impacts from this process been more evident than in Xintang, a town in southern China. The denim capital of the world, it produces one in every three pairs of jeans sold. Because of limited regulatory oversight, by 2013 Xintang's rivers ran a deep blue and smelled foul, a result of manufacturers dumping chemical-laden wastewater directly into local waterways. Unsafe amounts of toxic metals like mercury, lead and copper have been found in the water, which residents rely on for drinking and bathing. Workers and residents have reported rashes, lesions, and, some locals believe, infertility. Denim also goes through a particularly energy — and water-intensive — and destructive — dyeing and finishing process, beginning with what gives the fabric its signature indigo color (originally a plant-based dye, but today largely replaced with a synthetic version). After dyeing, fabrics are repeatedly treated and washed with a variety of chemicals, like bleach, to soften, fade or texturize the fabric. Most of our favorite shades and styles — acid-washed, distressed, light-washed — require additional treatments and chemicals. All in all, producing a single pair of jeans requires an immense amount of water and energy and creates significant pollution.
"These clothes are cheap in the store because nobody's paying for this waste," Schlossberg said, adding that communities on the other side of the world will be footing that bill for generations.
Top, from left: Every morning, workers at a Xintang denim-washing factory must search through wastewater to scoop out stones that are washed with the fabric in industrial washing machines to make stonewash denim; wastewater discharged from a denim-washing factory in Xintang. Bottom: A Greenpeace campaigner takes a water sample from a polluted river near Dadun Village, Xintang, where the economy is centered around textile production. Greenpeace has found high levels of industrial pollution and has documented the effects on the community.
Lu Guang / Greenpeace
But the industry is transforming, however slowly. When the dangerous situation in Xintang came to light several years ago, China's central government ordered the local government to tackle the pollution issue. In response, between 2016 and 2018, 76 facilities, including 68 dyeing, printing and laundry mills, were shut down. According to Sina Finance, these shutdowns have caused more than 1 billion U.S. dollars' worth of local economic loss. But there are now encouraging signs: Some companies are rolling out new production techniques that significantly reduce water usage, and other brands are pursuing sustainability by powering their factories with renewable energy and recycling water.
Although some denim manufacturers are making smarter choices, most international corporations get away with disclosing little information about their production processes. "People need to demand that companies make their practices available. Because the information isn't there in the first place, people don't know what to ask," Schlossberg said.
Yiliqi, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is working to do just that. She said improving the clothing industry will require oversight, transparency and accountability. NRDC has worked with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in China, for example, to map and rank multinational corporations on their supply chain performance. Meanwhile, the Clean by Design program that NRDC created more than a decade ago provides a tool for brands to cut water, energy and chemical consumption as well as wastewater discharge from their supply chains. (Last year the program was transferred to the Apparel Impact Institute, a collaboration of industry stakeholders working to scale up the initiative.) The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has developed indices for measuring a products' environmental impact. And various sustainability certifications, including BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), Bluesign, OEKO-TEX and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), among others, can be used as branding and put on clothing labels, creating further incentives for companies to improve.
For individuals, Yiliqi said, "the fastest way to make an impact is to ask their brands to do better." It's also important to investigate the work a company is doing to reduce its impact before you buy its products. And if you're looking to change some of your shopping habits, here are some tips:
- Avoid overconsumption. Wear the denim you have as long as possible and forgo "fast fashion," which is a term for cheaply made, trendy clothing manufactured to last only a season or two.
- Take existing jeans in for mending when needed, rather than tossing them out altogether.
- Shop at thrift stores, which extends the life and reduces the carbon footprint of each pair of jeans, or swap with friends.
- When you do buy new, opt for durable items that will last years instead of months.
We don't have to forgo this American classic — it just needs a makeover.
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Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.
But this November, he plans to cast a "protest vote" for a write-in candidate or abstain from casting a ballot for president. A determining factor in his 180-degree turn? Climate change.
Fractures Among Young Climate Conservatives<p>While young conservatives have united around the urgency of climate change, they remain divided over how to bring their concerns to the ballot box. Some embrace right-wing <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-attacks-republican-convention/2020/08/24/434e5b46-e66d-11ea-970a-64c73a1c2392_story.html" target="_blank">attacks</a> painting Biden as a "tool of the left" and find his climate agenda "radical." Others can't find a way to justify voting for Trump, even if it means breaking with their party.</p><p>Patrick Mann from Orange County, California, voted for Trump in 2016. But today, he's leading Aggies for Joe at Texas A&M University and is co-founder of Texas Students for Biden. </p><p>Mann grew up watching wildfires ravage his home state, nearly forcing his family to evacuate in 2017. The GOP is failing to "meet the moment" for climate action, Mann said. He's hoping Biden will deliver on a promise to "<a href="https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/caucus/2020/01/06/joe-biden-democrat-president-iowa-caucus-restore-soul-our-nation/2806422001/" target="_blank">restore the soul of our nation</a>." </p><p>Taylor Walker from Pensacola, Florida, is also determined to make her voice heard on climate, including by casting her first-ever vote for president—but not for Biden.</p>
A False Equivalency<p>Young climate conservatives may fear climate denial and delayed climate action, but more than that, they fear the growing political momentum around the Green New Deal, the massive spending it entails and <a href="https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/" target="_blank">Biden's citing of it</a> as a "crucial framing for meeting the climate challenges we face."</p><p>Many don't want to split with their party to support a Democrat whose <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/757220130/joe-biden-on-bipartisanship-gun-control-and-regrets-over-inaction-after-a-traged" target="_blank">allegedly bipartisan intentions</a> they doubt. If stymieing what they consider a radical green agenda means re-electing a climate change denying president, so be it. </p><p>"I'm scared of climate change, but I'm also scared of the Green New Deal and what it means for America," said Ben Mutolo, a republicEN spokesperson and junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. </p><p>Mutolo felt encouraged by former Ohio Governor John Kasich's <a href="https://www.rollcall.com/2020/08/17/kasich-speech-to-democratic-convention-follows-years-of-building-conservative-credentials/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appearance</a> at the Democratic National Convention, but he still struggles to see himself voting for Biden. Though the candidate paints himself as a <a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-08-12/harris-biden-different-generation-similar-political-instinct" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">centrist,</a> Mutolo believes he's "cozying up to the ultra-progressive left." </p><p>Mutolo, who wants to see market-based climate solutions like a carbon tax, feels torn between a candidate whose climate plan relies on taking an "<a href="https://joebiden.com/environmental-justice-plan/#" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">All-of-Government approach</a>," and one with no efforts to reign in global warming at all. <span></span></p><p>Leiserowitz said he appreciated how a conservative might feel Biden's climate plan "doesn't jive with their limited government, free-market approach."</p><p>But he sees a strong distinction between voting for a presidential candidate with a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan</a> that includes large renewable energy investments, which have <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/politics-global-warming-april-2020/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bipartisan support</a>, and a candidate trying "to take the country in the opposite direction, towards more fossil fuels."</p>
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Toxins in water produced by cyanobacteria was likely responsible for more than 300 elephant deaths in Botswana this year, the country's wildlife department announced on Monday.
How Did Cyanobacteria Poison the Elephants?<p>Cyanobacteria are microscopic organisms common in water and sometimes found in soil. Some cyanobacteria produce neurotoxins.</p><p>The cyanobacteria "was growing in pans" or watering holes, the principal veterinary officer of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Mmadi Reuben, told reporters.</p><p>Reuben said the deaths had "stopped towards the end of June 2020, coinciding with the drying of pans."</p><p>"However we have many questions still to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only? We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating," added Reuben.</p><p>Similar elephant deaths have also been recorded in neighboring Zimbabwe.</p>
Climate Change to Blame?<p>Not all cyanobacteria are toxic but scientists say varieties dangerous to humans and animals are occurring more frequently as climate change drives up global temperatures.</p><p>Southern Africa's temperatures are rising at twice the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p>
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