From Fashion Staple to Environmental Concern: Unveiling the Dark Side of Denim

January 11, 2022 in environment, Sustainability

Article summary and Key takeaways: Denim production has a significant environmental impact, including high water consumption, chemical usage, energy consumption, waste generation, and carbon emissions. However, there are sustainable denim brands and innovative practices emerging to address these issues. Key takeaways include:

  • Denim is primarily made of cotton, with synthetic fibers added for strength and stretchability.
  • Denim production consumes large amounts of water and contributes to water pollution.
  • Chemicals used in denim production pose risks to human health and the environment.
  • The production of denim requires substantial energy inputs and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Denim production generates significant waste throughout the supply chain.
  • Several sustainable denim brands prioritize reducing water consumption, chemical usage, and waste generation.
  • Transitioning to organic cotton farming and exploring alternative materials can make denim production more sustainable.
  • Innovations in dyeing techniques and recycling initiatives can reduce water consumption and waste generation.
  • Denim waste contributes to landfills and water pollution.
  • Efforts are being made to reduce denim waste and promote a circular economy.
  • Eco-friendly alternatives to denim include organic cotton twill, linen, hemp, and Tencel.
  • Denim’s biodegradability is hindered by synthetic fibers and chemical dyes.
  • Research is ongoing to develop biodegradable denim options.
  • Calculating denim’s carbon footprint involves considering emissions throughout the supply chain.
  • Strategies to reduce denim’s carbon footprint include adopting renewable energy sources and optimizing production processes.
  • By choosing eco-friendly alternatives, supporting sustainable brands, and making conscious consumer choices, we can promote a more eco-friendly future for denim.

Is Denim Eco-Friendly?

Denim, a sturdy cotton fabric, is a staple in many wardrobes around the world. It has become synonymous with durability, comfort, and style. However, as concerns about the environmental impact of fashion continue to grow, it is important to examine whether denim production aligns with sustainability goals. In this article, we will explore the composition of denim, its environmental impact, sustainable denim brands, and eco-friendly alternatives.

What is denim made of?

Denim fabric is primarily made of cotton, which accounts for about 80% of its composition. The remaining 20% consists of synthetic fibers such as polyester and elastane, which are added to enhance its strength and stretchability. The cotton used in denim production is typically grown using conventional farming methods, which involve the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and large amounts of water.

Environmental impact of denim production

Water consumption and pollution

Denim production is notorious for its high water consumption. It takes approximately 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans, from growing cotton to finishing the fabric. Additionally, the dyeing and washing processes contribute to water pollution due to the release of toxic chemicals, such as indigo and sulfur dyes, into water bodies.

Chemical usage and pollution

Chemicals play a significant role in denim production, from dyeing and washing to finishing processes. Hazardous substances, including chlorine, heavy metals, and azo dyes, are commonly used, posing risks to both human health and the environment. The improper disposal of these chemicals can lead to soil and water contamination.

Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

The production of denim requires substantial energy inputs, especially in spinning, weaving, dyeing, and finishing processes. The energy used is often derived from non-renewable sources, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Furthermore, the transportation of denim garments from production facilities to retail stores or consumers’ homes also adds to the carbon footprint.

Waste generation and disposal

Denim production generates considerable waste throughout the supply chain. This includes fabric scraps, wastewater, and chemical sludge. Inefficient disposal practices can lead to environmental pollution and health hazards. Moreover, due to the durability of denim, discarded garments often end up in landfills, where they can take decades or even centuries to decompose.

Sustainable denim brands

Recognizing the need for more environmentally friendly practices, several brands have emerged with a commitment to sustainable denim production. These brands prioritize reducing water consumption, chemical usage, and waste generation. They also aim to improve the social and working conditions of garment workers. Some notable sustainable denim brands include Nudie Jeans, Mud Jeans, and Kings of Indigo.

Criteria for evaluating sustainable denim brands

When evaluating sustainable denim brands, it is essential to consider various criteria. These may include the use of organic or recycled cotton, water-saving and chemical-free dyeing techniques, fair labor practices, and transparency in the supply chain. Certification labels, such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), can provide assurance of sustainable practices.

Examples of sustainable denim brands and their initiatives

Nudie Jeans, a Swedish denim brand, is known for its strong commitment to sustainability. They offer a free repair service for their jeans, encouraging customers to extend the lifespan of their garments. Mud Jeans, a Dutch brand, operates on a lease model where customers can rent jeans and return them for recycling at the end of their use. Kings of Indigo, a brand based in the Netherlands, incorporates organic cotton and recycled materials into their denim production.

How to make denim sustainable

Sustainable cotton farming practices

Transitioning from conventional to organic cotton farming can significantly reduce the environmental impact of denim production. Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, minimizing water pollution and preserving soil quality. Additionally, supporting fair trade initiatives ensures that cotton farmers receive better wages and working conditions.

Alternative materials and fibers for denim production

Exploring alternative materials and fibers can also contribute to sustainable denim production. Some brands are experimenting with recycled cotton, hemp, and Tencel (a regenerated fiber made from wood pulp) as substitutes for conventional cotton. These materials require less water and have a lower carbon footprint.

Water-saving and chemical-free dyeing techniques

Innovations in dyeing techniques have the potential to reduce water consumption and minimize chemical pollution. Technologies such as foam dyeing and laser finishing offer alternatives to traditional dyeing and washing processes. Foam dyeing eliminates the need for large volumes of water, while laser finishing allows for precise distressing and fading effects without the use of harmful chemicals.

Recycling and upcycling initiatives in denim manufacturing

Implementing recycling and upcycling initiatives can help reduce waste and prolong the lifespan of denim garments. Some brands collect old or unwanted jeans, which are then recycled and transformed into new denim fabric or repurposed into other products, such as bags or accessories. These initiatives promote a circular economy and minimize the need for virgin resources.

Denim waste and pollution

Statistics on denim waste generation and disposal

Denim waste is a significant issue in the fashion industry. It is estimated that around 60% of all fabric produced in the denim manufacturing process ends up as waste. In 2019, the global denim market produced over 1.2 billion pairs of jeans, resulting in vast amounts of textile waste.

Impact of denim waste on landfills and water bodies

When denim garments are disposed of in landfills, they occupy valuable space and do not easily decompose. The dyes and chemicals present in denim can leach into the surrounding soil and water, polluting the environment. Additionally, the production of denim waste contributes to the depletion of natural resources and exacerbates the fashion industry’s environmental footprint.

Efforts to reduce denim waste and promote a circular economy

Various initiatives aim to reduce denim waste and promote a circular economy. Brands are implementing take-back programs, encouraging customers to return old or unwanted denim garments for recycling. Some companies are also exploring innovative techniques to break down denim fabric into its constituent fibers, allowing for the creation of new textiles without compromising quality.

Eco-friendly alternatives to denim

Introduction to alternative fabrics and materials

For those looking for alternatives to denim, several eco-friendly options are available. Some popular choices include organic cotton twill, linen, hemp, and Tencel. These fabrics offer similar qualities to denim while minimizing environmental impact.

Comparison of eco-friendly alternatives to denim

When comparing eco-friendly alternatives to denim, factors such as water and energy consumption, chemical usage, and biodegradability should be considered. Organic cotton twill and hemp, for example, require less water and pesticides compared to conventional cotton denim. Tencel, on the other hand, has a significantly lower carbon footprint due to its production process.

Pros and cons of each alternative

Each eco-friendly alternative to denim has its pros and cons. Organic cotton twill offers excellent breathability and durability, but it still requires significant water and energy inputs. Hemp, on the other hand, is a highly sustainable option due to its minimal water and pesticide requirements, but it has a coarser texture compared to denim. Tencel provides a soft and smooth feel while contributing to a lower carbon footprint but may not have the same level of strength as denim.

Biodegradability of denim

Factors affecting denim’s biodegradability

Denim’s biodegradability is influenced by various factors, including the composition of the fabric, dyeing techniques used, and the conditions in which it is disposed of. Synthetic fibers and chemical dyes can hinder the biodegradation process, making it difficult for denim to break down naturally.

Research on biodegradable denim options

Researchers and industry experts are actively exploring biodegradable denim options. Some studies focus on developing denim made from natural fibers, such as bamboo or lyocell, which can decompose more readily. Others are investigating ways to create biodegradable dyes that do not negatively impact the environment.

Challenges and limitations in achieving biodegradable denim

Despite ongoing research, achieving fully biodegradable denim remains a challenge. The performance and durability of biodegradable alternatives may not yet match that of conventional denim. Additionally, the transition to biodegradable denim on a large scale would require significant investment and changes in production processes.

Carbon footprint of denim

Calculation of denim’s carbon footprint

Calculating the carbon footprint of denim involves considering the emissions generated throughout the entire supply chain, from raw material extraction to transportation and garment care. This includes the energy used in production, the carbon dioxide released during chemical processes, and the emissions from transportation and distribution.

Factors contributing to denim’s carbon emissions

Denim’s carbon emissions are influenced by various factors, such as the energy source for production, transportation distances, and consumer behavior. The use of fossil fuels during manufacturing and transportation contributes significantly to carbon emissions. Additionally, factors like frequent washing, drying, and ironing of denim garments by consumers also impact its carbon footprint.

Strategies to reduce carbon footprint in denim production

To reduce the carbon footprint of denim production, brands can adopt renewable energy sources, optimize production processes to minimize waste and energy consumption, and prioritize local sourcing. Encouraging consumers to adopt more sustainable garment care practices, such as washing denim less frequently and in cold water, can also contribute to reducing carbon emissions.


In conclusion, denim production has a significant environmental impact, primarily due to its water consumption, chemical usage, energy consumption, waste generation, and carbon emissions. However, sustainable denim brands and innovative practices are emerging to address these issues. By choosing eco-friendly alternatives, supporting sustainable brands, and making conscious consumer choices, we can all play a role in promoting a more eco-friendly future for denim. Continued research and innovation in sustainable denim production will further drive positive change in the industry, paving the way for a more sustainable fashion landscape.

Question 1:
Answer: Denim jeans can have a negative impact on the environment due to their production processes and use of resources like water and chemicals.

Question 2:
Answer: Some eco-friendly alternatives to denim include organic cotton jeans, hemp jeans, and recycled denim.

Question 3:
Answer: Denim jeans are not biodegradable as they are typically made from cotton fibers that do not break down easily.

Question 4:
Answer: The carbon footprint of denim varies depending on factors like production methods and transportation, but it can be significant due to energy-intensive processes involved in manufacturing denim fabric.


About the author 

Jordan Miller

Hi there, I'm Jordan! I graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Environmental Policy, but my real education has been in the field, turning theory into practice. My days are filled with implementing sustainable solutions and teaching communities how to embrace an eco-friendly lifestyle. I believe small changes can make a big impact, and I'm here to guide you through every step of going green.