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Is denim bad for the environment?

24 Aug 2022

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What is the true cost of denim? And how bad is it really to buy a new pair of jeans every year? We take a raw look at denim and ask, how sustainable are your jeans?

What is denim and how is it made?

Denim is a sturdy cotton fabric made from cotton plants. Cotton plants are spun into yarn, which is then turned into denim by using a twill weave. This yarn is an off white colour in its natural form, and is dyed using indigo dye to achieve the blue colour most often associated with jeans and denim products.

Denim was first produced in the city of Nîmes in France, and was originally called the serge de Nîmes. The word denim is an English colloquialism of the French term: “de nim.” By 1853, denim had gained popularity in the USA for its durability after Levi Strauss began making trousers for miners.

Whilst denim itself is generally 100% cotton, this does not mean that all denim products are 100% cotton. There are a few different types of denim out there:

  • Raw Denim: Raw or dry denim is fabric that is not washed after it is dyed. This creates a rougher and stiffer texture. This is how all denim starts off if it is left untreated.
  • Indigo Denim: Indigo dyed denim threads are weaved with white threads. This creates an effect where jeans are blue on one side, and white on the other (inside your jeans).
  • Stretch denim: Denim threads are weaved with polyester/nylon to create a stretch in the fabric. This is called a blended fabric. It can make clothes more comfortable as they have more flexibility, but makes it harder to recycle at the end of life as the two threads have to be separated.
  • Sanforized denim: This is denim that is treated so that it doesn’t shrink in the wash. This applies to almost all kinds of denim except for raw denim.
  • Acid wash denim: After denim is dyed with indigo, it is then treated with chlorine (bleach) and pumice stones to strip the colour back. This can create a marble-like effect.
  • Stone washed denim: Like acid wash denim, the fabric is treated after being dyed and is stripped back using pumice stones in the laundry. The result is a softer touch and washed-down look.
  • Hand scraped denim: Skilled tradesmen strip indigo dyed denim of its colour and change the texture by using ‘sandpaper’ to scrape the fabric.
  • Sandblasted Denim: Sandblasting is a garment finishing process where tiny sand grains are blasted onto the jeans under high pressure. It gives a result similar to hand scraping, but it’s faster and less physically exhausting to do.

The list goes on. In recent years, there has been lots of movement towards finding more sustainable alternatives to get that faded effect on jeans. Treatments such as Ozone Washing and the use of lasers are gaining popularity due to their more human and earth friendly processes.

Is denim environmentally friendly?

The short answer is no, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more environmentally friendly ways we can produce denim. Opting for raw denim or preloved denim is better for the environment than brand new indigo dyed denim and some other types of treated denim.

However, denim is a really durable fabric which means that it can last a long time if looked after well. You could wear the same pair of jeans for years and years, and even pass them on to another person when you no longer want them. This means that whilst the production of denim is often *not great* for the environment (to say the least), owning a pair of jeans you intend to wear for years isn’t necessarily a terrible thing from an environmental perspective. You should also look out for small batch makers who are very transparent about the steps they take to make denim in as environmentally friendly way as possible.

How does denim harm the environment?

To quickly summarise, the cotton crop and process of producing denim uses a lot of water. There are alot of numbers floating around out there, but it is estimated that as much as 10,000 litres of water are needed to make a single pair of jeans.

The growing of cotton also uses pesticides that can be harmful to the farmer and local land and waterways. Mono farming (where people try to grow the same crop year after year) like cotton farming also can lead to terrible soil diversity, making it eventually very difficult to grow anything on and building a need to find new land for crops.

The chemicals used to treat and dye denim can often be unregulated and again, leach into local waterways. These chemicals are harmful to people and vegetation, causing rashes and breathing problems for people.

Why are jeans unethical?

For similar reasons above, if denim is produced by a manufacturing company who isn't making a conscious effort to improve welfare conditions and environmental impact of their product, the farmers, garment makers and other people along the supply chain are often exposed to harmful chemicals which can lead to health issues. It is also likely that these workers and makers aren’t being paid a fair wage.

Are 100% cotton jeans better?

From a recycling perspective, yes. This is because it is much easier to recycle mono fibres. Blended fabrics need to be stripped back into the different types of yarn which can be labour intensive and very challenging (and often not even possible). However, cotton is a resource intensive fabric which means that 100% cotton jeans might have used more water and energy to produce. Look out for organic cotton jeans as they use less resources at the production stage.

How long does denim take to decompose?

100% cotton denim will take around 1 year to decompose in compost conditions. However, blended stretch denim will decompose in different stages. The cotton component will take 10-12months, but the nylon element could take 40 years, and polyester could take 200 years. This doesn’t consider things like rivets, zips and buttons which may never decompose.

When should you throw away jeans?

In our eyes, never. Jeans can be reworn for years and years, and can be creatively reimagined if damaged. If you truly believe you’re over your jeans, pass them onto someone else through resale or donation, or send them to a textile recycling facility (like Reskinned) so they can be disposed of responsibly.

How can I reuse old, vintage jeans?

Experiment with dying your jeans a new colour, adding patches to cover tears, and cutting jeans into shorts if the legs are too damaged.

Can old denim be recycled?

Yes, denim can be recycled. The cotton component of denim can be broken down into its natural form and repurposed. They could be turned into new garments (like jeans) or upholstery of furniture. Recycling denim means less need for new, which takes pressure off the environment, cotton farmers and textile manufacturers. Blended denim is more difficult to recycle and will often end up going through a mechanical recycling process which means it will be shredded and used for things like car stuffing.

How do you make denim sustainable?

We can make denim more sustainable through the decisions we make in manufacturing new denim. We can opt for organic cotton which uses less water and reduces exposure to chemicals that can be hazardous for health. We can try to steer away from blended denim. We can treat denim in ways that use less energy and chemicals, like Ozone Washing over Acid Washing. We can opt for preloved denim over new - both when buying jeans to wear or producing jeans for others to wear (like our faves over at E.L.V Denim).

What can preloved recycled denim turn into?

Recycled denim can be turned into insulation materials for buildings or things like cars. This type of insulation is usually made up of 85% factory scraps consisting of cotton fibres and natural denim. 500 pairs of jeans can completely insulate one home.

An example of innovative repurposing is Planq, who turn recycled denim into .Rezign® Veneer which is then used to make furniture.

100% cotton denim can be turned into Recycled Cotton, which can then be used for new products.


We’re going to be straight with you. Jeans aren’t doing great things for people and the planet. They are resource intensive and highly polluting, but that doesn’t mean we should cancel jeans altogether. They’re incredibly durable and can last you years…and plus, a great pair of jeans will truly make you feel great. Look out for preloved denim wherever possible and if not, support brands that make a transparent effort to reduce the impact of their product at every step of the manufacturing process. When you’re done with your jeans, pass them on to someone else, or find a textile recycling centre who can responsibly recycle them.

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