How jeans became one of the most polluting garments in the world

Blue jeans evolved from being the uniform of cowboys to a symbol of rebellion, and are now the most popular — and possibly the most polluting — garment in the world. Fashion expert Pedro Mendes explores the 150-year history of jeans and the 'authenticity' they are supposed to represent.

It takes around 7,500 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans, according to the UN

Around 7,500 litres of water is required to make a single pair of jeans, according to the UN. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

* Originally published September 13, 2019.

You probably own a pair of jeans. Or several. And some, if not all, came distressed in some way.

This "authentic" look — a symbol of the working class — is part of what has made jeans so popular. But that look is artificially produced. And our need to have so many pairs of distressed jeans has, by several accounts, created an environmental crisis. 

"Where [jeans] really have a huge, negative impact on the environment is in terms of their water usage and then their water pollution," said sustainable fashion journalist Alden Wicker.

Wicker says the genetically modified cotton used largely in fast fashion jeans production is an extremely water-thirsty crop. Making denim softer and lighter in colour also requires large amounts of water. Add to this, the dyeing of cotton fibres, which involves chemicals — some toxic — that are sometimes dumped into waterways in developing countries.

Distressing jeans also endangers workers.

"They're inhaling these fumes, it's coming into their skin because they're touching these toxic dyes all the time and then the dyes are being washed off of the floor and into drains," Wicker said. 

The process of sandblasting to produce that worn-in look can also lead to silicosis in the lungs.

By some estimates, nearly one billion pairs of jeans are produced each year. (Lakruwan WAnniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

Filling landfills is the other problem with jeans, especially the stretchy kind. The synthetic fibres mean the jeans do not decompose and can't be recycled. All of this adds up to massive environmental and social impacts.

Perhaps if the sheer number of jeans wasn't so high, it wouldn't be such a problem. By some estimates, there are millions, if not, just over one billion pairs of jeans produced every year. And it's said about half of the world's population is wearing jeans every day.

"Jeans are so ubiquitous. You can find them in any country," said Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume at the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

"And you can find them in the wardrobe of any person, no matter their gender identity, their race, their age, their size."

How jeans took over our wardrobes

How did we get to this point?

Jeans began as true workwear in the late 19th century. Worn as overalls, they were heavy, durable outerwear for miners, railway workers, and other labourers. They started to move away from function into symbol thanks to Hollywood westerns in the 1920s and 1930s. (Actual cowboys rarely, if ever, wore jeans).

After the Second World War, jeans became a symbol of rebellion, as associated with biker gangs and, again, their Hollywood portrayal. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights and counterculture movements used jeans as symbols of the poor and working classes.

Pop singer Lionel Richie in the mid-1980s posing in his jeans. (Getty Images)

But through this evolution, however, denim was sold "raw," with little washing or distressing. That changed in the 1970s through to the 1990s with the introduction of various types of pre-washing and the addition of synthetic fibres. People were no longer willing to put in the work to turn these stiff and uncomfortable trousers into a personal symbol of their working class status.

So what can we do, if we don't want to be part of the problem with jeans?

Since it's hard to tell greenwashing — companies appearing to be more environmentally friendly than reality — from ethical, like using less water or sustainable cotton, the best thing you can do is to buy less, but buy better. Do your research to find jeans that are as "raw" as possible and age them yourself.

Documentary host Pedro Mendes does this by buying his jeans from Toronto custom maker Ben Viapiana. 

Denim designer Ben Viapana focuses on quality and craft so each pair of jeans are made to last for years. (Submitted by Pedro Mendes)

Reality check

But a bit of a reality check. There are still chemicals and water involved, no matter how "natural" you go. Plus, the first few wears will be uncomfortable, as unwashed and untreated denim is very stiff. But over a bit of time, and some washing, they will soften and shape to you. This way, they will also develop a truly authentic patina, a look of age, based on how you wear the jeans. And you should wear the jeans for as long as possible.

"Jeans freak" Ruedi Karrer​​​​​​ is trying to make a case for raw denim. He runs the Jeans Museum in Switzerland where he collects jeans that show "denim evolution" — the natural fading and aging of raw denim through actual wear, not artificial distressing.

"For me, jeans are very attractive. And every denim evolution, every fading, is a little bit different," he said.

He currently has over 8,000 pairs of jeans, sent in from fans around the world.

Ruedi Karrer is the founder of the only independent denim museum in the world. The Jeans Museum, based in Switzerland, houses over 14,000 jeans and denim jackets. (Submitted by Ruedi Karrer)

Karrer hopes to inspire, especially young people, to forgo fast fashion and invest in their jeans. Instead of purchasing authenticity, they can make it themselves.

Guests in this episode:

Alden Wicker is a freelance journalist with a focus on sustainable fashion.

Emma McClendon is the associate curator of costume at the Museum in New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.She's also the author of Denim: Fashion's Frontier (Yale Press, 2016).

G. Bruce Boyer is a menswear writer, historian and journalist. His podcast Unbuttoned is hosted and produced by freelance journalist Pedro Mendes.

Ben Viapiana creates custom denim in Toronto.

Ruedi Karrer is the founder of the Jeans Museum in Switzerland. He also works as a geographer for the government of Zurich.

* This episode was produced by Pedro Mendes.

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