Why Your Jeans Suck & Ethical Alternatives For Every Budget

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My favorite pair of jeans is about to be retired, as the hole that first appeared last week is ever growing with each wear and wash. There's nothing quite like a good pair of perfectly worn-in jeans. I've met several people who hate wearing jeans-- we're not friends.

Kidding! But honestly, I don't understand them. I could live in jeans...actually I basically do. Having spent two summers working in developing countries that frown on women wearing shorts, jeans have been my go-to staple in all seasons.

So I put together this post with the low down on how jeans are made, including the unethical conditions and harmful processes frequently used in their production, my favorite budget-conscious way to buy jeans more thoughtfully, and some of my favorite ethical jean companies!

FIRST THINGS FIRST: Why Jeans Matter

Each year, 1.24 billion jeans are sold worldwide, bringing in 56.2 billion dollars in sales. In the U.S alone, the denim market results in 13.6 billion dollars, with sales from women's denim making up 62.3% of that revenue. To make all of these jeans, 2.7 billion meters of denim is produced annually. 96% of U.S consumers own at least one pair of denim jeans, with the average American woman owning seven and the average American man owning six. When compared with pants, shorts, active pants and shorts, dresses and skirts, the denim market has the biggest market share.

That is why jeans matter. That is why you should be thinking thoughtful and critically about the jeans you buy. As a consumer, and especially as a U.S consumer in this instance, how you spend on jeans can significantly impact the global industry as a whole.

With an industry as dirty, harmful and large as the denim industry, change is needed, starting like, yesterday. What makes denim so harmful? I'm glad you asked...

THE PROCESS: How Jeans are Made

Step 1) Farmers Grow the Cotton

Approximately 20 million tons of cotton are produced each year. Cotton is one of the most water wasting crops. It takes about 20,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of cotton which is only enough to make one pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Insecticides and pesticides are used heavily on the crop; not only do these harmful chemicals poison the farmers that have to work with them, but they run off into the ground, poisoning the water sources and frequently entire villages that don't have the proper tools to purify the water. Although cotton only accounts for 2.4% of the global crop land, it accounts for 35% of pesticide and insecticide sales. (Source)

Step 2) Farmers Pick the Cotton

Step 3) Farm equipment processes it, twists it, and rolls it on spools

Step 4) The yarn is woven into fabric

Step 5) The denim is cut and seamed by hand

Step 6) Workers piece together the various parts

Step 7) Workers complete the major stitching, add buttons and grommets

Step 8) The minor stitching is completed

The workers completing all of these steps are frequently paid only pennies. Rather than receiving an salaried or hourly rate, they are paid for each piece they successfully complete. However, the piece rate is always staggeringly low, with even the most experience and skilled workers unable to earn a decent living wage to provide basic necessities like food and education for themselves and their families. They are often forced to work overtime without any additional compensation (time and a half doesn't exist in places like these) and in unsafe and inhumane working conditions. In Bangladesh alone, 1,143 people have died and 3.669 have been injured working in the garment industry in the last four years. All for what? Our clothes.

Step 9) The jeans are distressed

The distressing processes often uses a process called sandblasting. Sandblasting is linked to deadly lung diseases and caner.  The practice has caused numerous deaths. Although it’s often “banned” by Western brands, the reality is that the practice is still wide spread in countries like China. Even if jeans are not sand-blasted and distressed by hand instead, factories are often not ventilated properly resulting in workers inhaling the tiny, toxic particles all day long. If the jeans need to be lightened, potassium permanganate is used, another highly hazardous chemical. Workers are almost never provided with the proper equipment needed to work with such harsh chemicals.

Step 10) The jeans are pre-washed

Step 11) The jeans are tagged and shipped

So what companies use these harmful practices? Good question. Unfortunately, the easier question to answer is what companies DON’T use these harmful practices. Companies like Target, Walmart, Forever 21, H&M, TJ Maxx, Ross, Levi’s and hundreds of others receive extremely low scores when it comes to ethicality. The next time you go to buy a pair of jeans because they’re super cheap (Forever 21 sells jeans for as little as $5.27) the question to ask is why are they so cheap?! The answer almost always is because the person in a developing country that’s making them is working in terrible conditions and is barely being paid.

How to Buy Jeans More Thoughtfully

So hopefully by now you’re convinced of the need to shop more ethically and to spend your money more wisely. Below are three ways you can do that, regardless of your budget.

A BUDGET-CONSCIOUS ALTERNATIVE: Pre-Loved

But if you’re anything like me, you don’t have a couple hundred bucks to spend on a pair of jeans. The next best alternative? Buying pre-loved (second-hand)! For years, all of the jeans I’ve bought have come from a thrift store...it takes a little bit of hunting, but that’s part of the fun, right? The jeans are unethically made using the processes I discussed above, but by buying second hand, rather than new, you are reducing the demand for new jeans and you’re not directly supporting the companies who turn a blind eye to the horrific conditions clothes are made in. Also, by extending a piece of clothing’s life by 3 months, you can reduce the carbon, water and waste footprints by as much as 10% (Source).

When I purchased my jeans from a local thrift shop over a year ago, not only was I keeping them out of the landfill, but I was reducing their carbon, water and waste footprints tremendously, and I wasn’t directly supporting companies with horrific ethics...all for just $10!

AN INNOVATIVE ALTERNATIVE: Mud Jeans

Mud Jeans is tackling the pollution problem that the fashion industry creates in a incredibly innovative way: leasing jeans. The idea is that you lease a pair of jeans for one year, and then at the end of the year return them. MUD will recycle those jeans into new jeans, and give you a 10 pound voucher (about $12USD) to be used toward your next order. You pay a “membership fee” of $25USD up front, and then $9.20USD each month for a year. At the end of the year, send them back and get a brand new pair! They have all of the basic styles and washes for both men and women. I LOVE how they are making ethical jeans accessible; while I don’t have money to buy two or three pairs of jeans at $150 each, I can totally handle $10 month. MUD Jeans uses organic and recycled cotton for their products, their factory workers get paid fair wages and work in safe conditions, they use 78% less water and emit 61% less CO2 than industry standards, and they use innovative technologies to dye and distress the jeans so workers aren’t exposed to harmful particles or chemicals. They are also a certified B Corp.

A LUXURY ALTERNATIVE: G-Star Raw   

G-star Raw offers Men’s and Women’s denim in any style or wash you could want. They use only sustainable fabrics, including ones like organic cotton (certified organic cotton doesn’t use any harmful pesticides or insecticides!), recycled cotton and recycled polyester. Through regular, detailed and independent audits they ensure all workers receive living wages, they make sure that there is zero discharge of toxic chemicals, and they are actively working and innovating to reduce the amount of water and greenhouse gases needed to produce their products. Through their foundation, they actively give back to the communities they work in! Prices start at $150.

Kaitlin EbelingComment