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.
- The Environmental and Human Cost of Making a Pair of Jeans ... ›
- What You Can Do to Make Your Clothing Ocean Safe - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Tips for a More Earth-Conscious Wardrobe - EcoWatch ›
- Blue Jean Fibers Found Polluting Arctic Ocean, Great Lakes - EcoWatch ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.