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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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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