In 2018, over 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide, each unique in embellishments, imperfections, and character. The denim industry provides millions of people with jobs (the ethical issues of those jobs put aside), and has grown successful in the world of fashion since the first pair of jeans was patented by Levi Strauss in 1873. With the help of modern science, however, the manufacturing process leads to more and more chemical outputs.
The denim-making process is an extremely complex, almost endless process. From the moment an idea pops into a designer’s head to the day it physically ends up on shelves can take up to 18 months. ‘It’s an industrial process that requires a lot of inputs, and generates a lot of outputs,’ says Miguel Sanchez of Gavilan. He explains that growing cotton takes a lot of land, a lot of water, and energy. ‘It generates residues and effluents, things that aren’t very nice, that end up in streams,’ Sanchez says.
Spinning the yarn and preparing it for dyeing leads to the release of harmful chemicals, starch, and hundreds of litres of water. Heavy chemicals are dangerous to local ecosystems, as is the salt released during production of synthetic indigo, and the list goes on. ‘It looks wonderful and it’s perfect, but you have these dirty waters, child labour, people exposed to chemicals, and a lot of residues. It seems like a filthy business, but it can be done better,’ Sanchez says.
Improvements are definitely possible. According to the UN, sustainable business could unlock over $12 trillion. Its Sustainable Development Goals are set to be complete by 2030, but what steps are organisations, as well as consumers, taking to reach them?
'There are companies that are actually providing choices, but it’s going to take time. I don't think companies should be bashed or looked at in a negative manner, as long as they’re approaching this and being open minded in looking what to do,’ says Kerry Bannigan, founder of the Conscious Fashion Campaign. For instance, DyStar now use alkalis in their dyeing process, replacing the by-product of salt with pure water. Lenzing source their fibres from cellulose, a highly renewable and abundant biomass. Converse are recycling denim in their newly-launched Renew range. And although there’s no universal certification for sustainability, companies are specialising in certain aspects of it and showing their customers that they are, in fact, taking things seriously.
‘The fashion industry makes up four percent of the world’s waste. Whilst that is very frightening, it’s a very powerful influence. We decided to look at this in a positive light,’ Bannigan says. The Conscious Fashion Campaign acts as a bridge in communication between the fashion industry and the UN, aiming to educate, engage, and guide organisations towards the 17 STGs. She explains that while some companies are environment-focused and others are more on the human element, those objectives feed into each other and are important in reaching the goals. ‘The reality is that whilst consumers are looking to do better, whether they’re thrifting, vintage shopping, upcycling, recycling, or whatever they may be doing in their purchasing or lack of purchasing, corporations and organisations could be changing a whole supply chain,’ Bannigan says.
The Kingpins Show was created precisely to showcase the supply chain of products that go into jeans. ‘The show got more popular, and we realised that we have an additional responsibility to encourage the industry to do things in a better way,’ says Andrew Olah, founder of Kingpins. The trade show is the first to set standards for its exhibitors, from denim mills to chemical behaviour, ensuring compliance by 2020 and, in this way, giving a platform to organisations that care. Olah explains the importance of transparency when it comes to ethical behaviour of companies. ‘Everyone has to start [to improve] and everyone has to be really decent about what they’re doing and explain their schedule to their customers,’ he says. Kingpins Transformers:ED took place in Ravensbourne University, London, inspiring fashion students to take sustainability into their own hands, changing the world of denim for the better.
Responsible production and conscious consumption apply to much more than jeans, but they’re always a good place to start.