On the list of wardrobe must-haves, denim scores high. A wardrobe remains incomplete without a comfortable pair of denims. Forget the ubiquitous jeans. Most wardrobes include denim jackets, skirts, shirts and even saris made from denim. Denim has become perhaps the most essential fabric that lends a certain character to the closet. Changes in design and pattern have not been able to push denim out of the fashion loop.

What makes denim distinctive is the good amalgamation of comfort and style. But denim has been blamed for the environment damage it has caused. The denim industry, labelled as one of the dirtiest, is changing for the better. Environmental pollutants involved in denim washes are gradually being replaced by green methods of production.

As part of the Greenpeace Detox campaign, several apparel and footwear brands and retailers have shown their commitment to guide the textile and apparel industry towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by year 2020. Eco-friendly denim has become the new rage as customers choose organic and environment-friendly garments over chemically treated ones. Consumer awareness regarding eco-friendly textile is on the rise. Customers, aware and self-accountable, are shunning away from toxic denim.

Opening to innovations

The latest innovations that go soft on the environment include dyeing methods that save water and energy and result in less waste. Contemporary denim manufacturers use comparatively eco-friendly concentrated sulphur dyes. The chemical structure of sulphur dyes helps them to bond better with cotton. This method does not involve rinsing. Instead, the dye is oxidised with effective fixing agents to make it stay on the denim. In contrast to conventional indigo dyeing, this method saves approximately 92 per cent of water, 87 per cent of cotton waste and 30 per cent of energy. More enzymes are used in the denim finishing process. This process not only improves the final product, it also results in less energy consumption and less pollution.

Levi Strauss was one of the first brands to introduce ecologically aware technology in denim production that reduces the amount of water used in finishing the garment by 28 per cent. In some other garments like jeans, denim jackets, etc this goes up to 96 per cent. Adjustments in finishing process like removing water from stone finishing and combining multiple processes reduces the amount of water.

0he brand has also launched denim made from plastic bottles. Swedish label Nudie jeans has also launched post-recycled denim rugs. The brand also uses 100 per cent organic fabric to produce variety of denim articles like jeans, bags, shirts, et al. The zero water technology, ozone processing for lighter shades, laser wash that uses no water at all and increased use of less toxic chemicals in denim, are some of the ways in which denim is transforming into a green industry.

Swedish retail giant H&M also launched jeans made from recycled, donated clothing. This range of denim utilises 20 per cent recycled cotton, which is the uppermost limit that can be used without impacting the quality of the finished product.


Denim Club India has also developed a range of garments made out of handloom denim. This collection is designed to ensure minimum wastage of fabric and the complete garment requires minimal stitching. Many independent designers endorse green denim. Indian designer Deepika Govind launched organic denim collection for men and women. Scotland's Dawn Ellams advocates replacing cotton with Lyocell, a fibre from wood pulp. This can trim down the carbon emission associated with cotton and this also leads to less wastage of water.

The new methods associated with denim production are concentrating on reduced water consumption, saving energy, using less or no chemicals, improved quality, strength and finish and reduced volumes of wastes.


Denim industry is notorious for its water wastage and the usage of chemicals. According to National Geographic magazine, a single pair of jeans needs 11,000 liters of water between production of the raw material and the finished jeans. This staggering figure indicates that there is an urgent need for the denim industry to change the negative water footprint. Also, conventional indigo dyeing for denim results in a large amount of cotton waste. The huge size of production lines which are meant for passing the cotton threads makes wastage unavoidable. When the colour of denim is changed, the fibres remaining in the machines are discarded. 

Though some major denim brands in business have changed the production process in view of protecting the environment, many companies in developing and underdeveloped countries continue to apply the traditional approach in producing denim. Many brands use harsh chemicals like hypochlorite and permanganate to get the fashionable washed-out effect.

Some of the denim brands operate in underdeveloped and developing nations, as laws in these nations do not ban use of toxic chemicals and rules regarding water usage are also flexible. Although health hazards associated with chemicals are grave, companies tend to exploit labourers unabashedly. In spite of the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of organisations in 15 European countries dedicated to improving working conditions and supporting the empowerment of workers in the global garment and sportswear industries, sandblasting to produce faded denim continues. According to a report entitled Deadly Denim, large factories in Bangladesh exporting jeans overseas continue to use sandblasting. The process causes fatal lung disease.

Countries like India, China and Mexico, where denim is produced in large quantities are facing the consequences of ignoring environment concerns. Mexico has not taken contamination of water following disposal of denim waste too seriously. As a consequence, Mexican some rivers have literally been dyed blue. It is important for brands to work on their environmental credentials to gain customer loyalty.


According to a ShopSmart study, an average American woman owns seven pair of jeans. If that is any yardstick, consider the huge consumption of denim worldwide since denim is popular virtually everywhere. If brands do not adopt ecologically sound methods of producing denim, it will definitely hurt the image of brands besides causing serious damage to the environment.

Global landscape

Conscious denim collection of H&M, Levi's eco-friendly jeans, Dutch brand Mud Jeans, Second Denim Co (Yoga Jeans) and Loomstate are doing well to make the denim industry more sustainable. Eco-sensitive consumers are often well-informed and thanks to the rising number of such customers the scenario in developed countries is changing. Nevertheless, companies that have given contracts to underdeveloped and developing countries struggle to ensure ethical production. In countries like India, China and Bangladesh, local manufacturers tend to ignore ethics. So, regardless of the stand a brand takes, if the denim production process is outsourced to underdeveloped and developing nations, the production process remains conventional.

Lack of support from developing nations and unavailability of natural/organic products like natural indigo or organic cotton are a potential threat in impeding growth of eco-friendly denim. The consumer behaviour also largely remains unchanged, as many consumers tend to overlook green aspect of denim.

So, although denim has come some distance in becoming a greener fabric, it still has a long way to go.


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