- The production of blue jeans, one of the most popular apparel items ever, has for decades left behind a trail of heavy consumption, diminishing Earth’s water and energy resources, causing pollution, and contributing to climate change. The harm done by the fashion industry has intensified, not diminished, in recent years.
- The making of jeans is water intensive, yet much of the world’s cotton crop is grown in semiarid regions requiring irrigation and pesticide use. As climate change intensifies, irrigation-dependent cotton cultivation and ecological catastrophe are on a collision course, with the Aral Sea’s ecological death a prime example and warning.
- While some major fashion companies have made sustainability pledges, and taken some steps to produce greener blue jeans, the industry has yet to make significant strides toward sustainability, with organic cotton, for example, still only 1% of the business.
- A few fashion companies are changing their operations to be more sustainable and investing in technology to reduce the socioenvironmental impacts of jeans production. But much more remains to be done.
Eternally current and always fashionable, blue jeans are among the most-worn articles of clothing on Earth, transcending time, trends, and social class. Their popularity is ubiquitous, so much so that legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent once declared: “I wish I had invented blue jeans. The most spectacular, practical, relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — everything I hope for in my clothes.”
Unfortunately for the planet, the production of this garment takes a huge environmental toll.
A single pair of cotton jeans consumes between 10,000 and 20,000 liters (2,600-5,300 gallons) of water along its supply chain. Add to that large doses of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, dyes and other chemicals that pollute soils and waterbodies, impacting wildlife and people, plus major energy expenditures that generate high greenhouse gas emissions.
Those consequences haven’t slowed sales, with more than 70 jeans-related garments sold per second, according to the Science and Industry Museum, a Parisian institution that recently presented the exhibition “Jean.” That equates to more than 2.2 billion items bought yearly.
While some companies are acting as early innovators in sustainability and have taken steps to make blue jeans “green,” the majors of the fashion industry, though declaring themselves committed to sustainability and to “the Jeans Redesign” circular economy guidelines, still work with oil-derived synthetic fibers and with conventional cotton, while chasing the idea that more production is always better.