Denim Industry Problems & Solutions in the Perspective of Sustainability

July 18, 2023

History and Background of Denim

Denim has a rich and storied history, originating in the city of Nimes, France. The word denim comes from the phrase "serge de Nimes," meaning “serge from Nimes” and was used to make a variety of durable garments such as military uniforms and work uniforms. The blue jeans that we are familiar with today were patented by Levi Strauss in 1873 in the United States, where it was primarily used to create workwear. Today, denim is a ubiquitous part of fashion, with a wide variety of styles and trends available for both casual and formal wear. Production has mostly shifted to Asia, with China being the leading exporter of denim fabric worldwide (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Leading exporters of denim fabric worldwide in 2021 (in million U.S. dollars) Source: Statista

Along with the rising concerns of the waste generated by the fashion industry, the denim industry has also been a topic of interest for its significant environmental impact and the social and ethical issues associated with its production. The need for more sustainable and ethical denim production practices has led to a growing demand for eco-friendly and socially responsible denim. 

Process of Making Denim

The denim-making process involves several stages, including cotton farming, spinning, weaving, dyeing, finishing, and garment construction.

1. First, cotton, the raw material used to make denim fabric, is harvested and ginned before it is spun into yarn. 

2. Then, Indigo dye gives denim its signature blue color that comes in many different shades. 

3. After the yarn is dyed, it is woven into denim fabric. 

4. Denim undergoes various finishing treatments to give it unique visual and textural characteristics like fading and fraying.

5. Finally, garment makers design, cut, and sew the fabric into a multitude of wearable denim items, such as pants, jackets, hats, and shorts.

Industry Problems

There are various environmental and social issues that can be associated with denim production: intensive water usage and water pollution. 

1. Intensive water usage - Making a pair of jeans is a water-intensive process with a high water footprint. Water footprint is the measure of the amount of water used to produce each of the goods we use. Did you know that it takes roughly 1,800 gallons to produce the cotton in one pair of jeans while 400 gallons is needed for a cotton shirt? In fact, it is estimated that in its entire lifetime, a pair of jeans can use up to 3,800 liters of water, including water used during the denim production process and in wash cycles at home.1

2. Water pollution - According to the UNEP, around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.2 Indigo dye gives denim its signature blue color that comes in many different shades.  After the yarn is dyed, it is woven into denim fabric. Denim undergoes various finishing treatments to give it unique visual and textural characteristics like fading and fraying. Indigo is not water-soluble so commonly it includes chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, and potassium permanganate that can pollute the water and be harmful to workers who are exposed to these chemicals.3 

Figure 2: Overview of the sustainability issues of the denim industry Source: Amutha, K. (2017). Environmental impacts of denim. Sustainability in Denim, 27–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-08-102043-2.00002-2 


In recent years, there has been development of innovative ways to reduce the environmental and social impact in the denim industry. 

1. Circular practices such as using recycled water and recycled materials in the production process as well as take-back programs to extend the lifetime of the products have become popular ways to tackle some of the industry’s pressing issues. 

2. More companies are also utilizing sustainable materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, and cellulose fibers to minimize the environmental impact from the materials used. 

3. Innovative technologies, such as foam dyeing, natural dyes, and laser processing are also being pioneered to reduce water and chemical usage. Traditional dyeing and finishing processes can consume vast amounts of water. Industry leader Wrangler has developed water-saving technologies such as "Dry Indigo," which uses foam to dye the fabric, reducing water usage by up to 100%. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that natural indigo dyes were able to secure over 90% dye fixation compared to the 70–80% of conventional methods, making it more effective at dyeing fabric and less harmful to the environment. Levi’s has also recently partnered with dye manufacturer Stony Creek Colors to pilot the use of plant-based indigo, which may reduce the amount of harmful byproducts. CO2 lasers used in finishing are an effective alternative to potentially dangerous and harmful processes like sandblasting for manufacturers to create visual and textural characteristics like fading and fraying and patterns in the denim fabric.

4. Practical frameworks like the Jeans Redesign Guidelines published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, set specific requirements for the durability, material composition, and recyclability of jeans, as well as guidelines for labeling and consumer education.

The prevalence of denim in fashion and its production processes raise important questions about our responsibility as consumers and as a society. Fortunately, the denim industry and fashion in general are making significant progress toward making sustainability being the norm. By adopting low-impact processes and following guidelines, the industry can reduce its carbon and water footprint. Innovative solutions are making it possible for an increasing selection of sustainably made denim products in the market. As consumers, it is important to understand the implications of denim production, support brands that make sustainable and socially responsible denim, and be mindful of our overall consumption.

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