It's hard to know which jeans you should be buying with all of the sustainable options available out there. But, I've created a mini list of the fibers you should be on the lookout for in your jeans. So let's dive in!
Tencel is a cellulosic fiber coming from tree pulp processed in a closed-loop system. It is a “greener” fiber than cotton or many other common textile fibers as it requires no pesticides to grow trees. An organic solvent is also used to dissolve the wood chips into a solution. The chemical used to dissolve these chips is very expensive so it is recycled after the process is complete. Not to mention Tencel is certified biodegradable and compostable too!
The production of Tencel only requires 1/3 of the process water needed for viscose and is able to capture, recycle and reuse over 99% of the water and solvents. Apart from production, the sustainably managed forests (from which the fiber comes from) only use rain-fed water to grow meaning no additional irrigation is needed.
REFIBRA™ is a revolutionary fiber made from cotton waste fabrics and Lenzing's renowned Tencel fiber. It combines the best of two worlds to create one of the most ecological wood-based fabrics on the planet! The upcycling of cotton waste into virgin TENCEL™ fibers offers the industry a solution to move us towards a circular economy in the apparel industry. Some of the brands that have implemented the fiber into their product lines are Boyish, Levi’s, DL1961, Reformation, KOI, Closed, Lucky brand, Citizens, Banana Republic and more.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, cotton crops consume about 2.5% of the Earth’s cultivatable land and comprise about a quarter of global textile production. Marzia Lanfranchi, founder, and director of the Cotton Diaries demystified the "thirsty crop" myth with Fashion Revolution by saying:
“I want to start by noting that there is a common perception that cotton is a “thirsty crop”. I only found out this during my travels with Cotton Diaries, because if there was one thing that infuriates cotton technical experts is this “cotton = thirsty crop” myth. Let’s clarify: yes, cotton requires water (like all crops), but it is actually considered a desert crop, with a deep root system that’s ideal for arid climates. Cotton uses about the same amount of water as other summer crops. It is salinity and drought tolerant and uses less water than rice, maize, soybeans, and many vegetable crops. The key sustainability issues with cotton and water come from management practices [like water depletion and pesticides]... The cotton and water issue is something that should not be simplified by the fashion industry and consumers by just switching to an alternative fiber-producing crop, where we might encounter another set of problems.”
So, Organic Cotton. Organic Cotton is grown with NO PESTICIDES but it is very hard to scale for mass quantities. Organic cotton reduces CO2 emissions by 46% and water by 85%, according to Green Story, compared to traditional cotton. There is an argument that this will take away from land that could otherwise be used to grow food, however.
BCI Cotton stands for BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE. This program trains smaller farms to grow and harvest their crops in an environmentally friendly way by following certain guidelines:
Use just the right amount of fertilizers
Use just the right amount of water for irrigation
Manage the planting such that water does not pool around the roots
Control the use of pesticides
Hemp is known for its ability to capture carbon from the air and can also decontaminate polluted soils. Each ton fo hemp cultivated takes 1.63 tons of CO2 out of our atmosphere! It also requires a significantly less amount of water to grow compared to cotton. However, it does require an intensive degumming process that requires a lot of energy.
Heard over on Sourcing Journal was the need for denim to cash in on CBD Infused fabrics! As everyone is hopping on the wellness train, the CBD industry is booming and we're definitely going to see the denim industry take hold of that.
Producing linen requires very little pesticide use, minimal water, and can even grow in poor soil. However, its labor-intensive manufacturing process tends to make it more expensive than other alternatives. Linen has also gained its sustainability cred because the ‘waste’ from production can be used to make linseed oil, a useful byproduct that keeps the entire flax plant in use!
Made from the stem of the banana plant, banana fiber makes one of the strongest and most durable fabrics! Its appearance is like bamboo, which makes it somewhat shiny. Not to mention it is lightweight, which allows it to replace lightweight synthetics for summer.
Recycled Cotton is the holy grail of fibers! I would love to see a world where it's possible to have 100% recycled and recyclable jeans in a closed-loop system. It is made using post-industrial & post-consumer cotton waste and can save 765,000 liters of water per ton of recycled cotton! However, the result of the recycled staple fiber becomes shorter than the original length and is therefore often blended with virgin cotton fibers to improve the yarn's strength. There are also always tradeoffs in using sustainable alternatives, for example, producing recycled cotton is quite energy-intensive, but overall the savings outweigh the negatives substantially.
I know a lot of you have concerns about buying 100% rigid denim, but there are now sustainable stretch options! Last year, Candiani launched the first biodegradable stretch fiber that can be seen in Triarchy, Stella McCartney, and Denham's collections, to name a few.
The biodegradable stretch denim is created using plant-based yarns, which are completely free from plastics and microplastics. This replaces the need for synthetic and petrol-based elastomers without comprising elasticity, recovery, and durability. Panted as Coreva, the yarn is made from natural rubber fiber and wrapped in organic cotton. SO for all you telling me you don't want to give up that lycra in your jeans, the solution is here!!
While I personally don't believe recycled polyester (rPET) to be a sustainable fiber, I do see both the positives and negatives with its use. With 65% of the clothing in this world being polyester, using rPET does offer a direct replacement. A 2017 lifecycle assessment found that rPET produces 79% fewer carbon emissions than virgin polyester. So using rPET as an alternative is the better solution. But, we still have the problem of shedding microfibres that eventually end up in our water supply and become a part of the earth.
Using recycled polyester for clothing also takes away from the bottling industry's closed-loop system. You can continue to recycle plastic water bottles, but when you turn these bottles into clothing, it stops there.
It's important for us to look for truly circular fibers rather than relying on recycled polyester, but rPET could be useful for items that don't need a lot of washing, like outer shells of winter coats or duffle bags, for example.
These are just some of my recommendations to look out for in your jeans, but there are also many other new innovative fibers that are constantly emerging and being researched (ex. yarns and fibers made from kelp!). I'll always share the most innovative and exciting news with you, so keep following along to see how the denim and fashion industry is coming closer to a sustainable industry.
Come back next week for a full post on the companies who have figured out how to make new fibers from your old clothes!
In the meantime, STAY DILIGENT FRIENDS!