Everything starts in a field. Denim is made for the most part of cotton, which is a tricky crop, it requires a very specific climate (a long frost-free period, a lot of heat, and plenty of sunshine) and soil (sandy and fertile). Cotton drinks a lot of water, and since it is not a food, there are fewer limits on what chemicals can be used to farm it.
what & how
Everything starts in a field. Denim is made for the most part of coton, which is a tricky crop, it requires a very specific climate (a long frost-free period, a lot of heat and plenty of sunshine) and soil (sandy and fertile). Cotton drinks a lot of water, and since it is not a food, there are fewer limits on what chemicals can be used to farm it. It is easy to guess that the sustainability of cotton varies on how much water and how many chemicals are used on it.
There is a range of data on cotton usage of pesticides: it covers 2.4-3% of the world’s cultivated land, yet it accounts for 16-24% of the global insecticide use (source 1, source 2). Regardless of the exact value, we can agree that the use of chemicals is high.
Cotton has gotten a reputation for having a serious environmental footprint, but has been denim's primary fibre of choice since the dawn of its time. As we learn about cotton's environmental impacts, mills and manufacturers are looking to alternatives to reduce denim's reliance on cotton. But, for now, cotton is still the primary fibre in denim production and with good management, does not have to be so bad for the planet.
Cotton has become very industrialized and is mostly grown in monoculture (an area where only a single type of crop is produced) with heavy pesticide use. However, according to idh around 99% of the world’s cotton farmers across 70 countries are smallholders, who produce 75% of the 25 million metric tons of the global cotton production annually. Smallholders are farmers mostly living in developing countries that do now own large areas of land, often less than 2 hectares, rely on crop production for their livelihoods, and are very dependent on yields.
Another big issue in all of agriculture, and particularly in cotton, is the state of soil health. Cultivation severely degrades soil quality, meaning the amount of fertilisers it contains, the ability it has to absorb water and avoid runoffs, etc. Despite the global area devoted to cotton cultivation remaining constant for the past 70 years, cotton production has depleted and degraded the soil in many areas. Most cotton is grown on well-established fields, but their exhaustion leads to expansion into new areas and the attendant destruction of habitat.
At the end of the 19th Century, denim was only made of cotton, and was thick and durable. Things then changed in 1958 with the invention of Spandex, which is a stretchy version of polyester, allowing jeans to expand and get back to their original shape. The issue with all materials similar to spandex (lycra and elastane to name two) is that they are made of a synthetic polymer called polyurethane. Like all plastic-based materials, it is not renewable, as it comes from fossil fuels, and has a high environmental impact in terms of raw material extraction, and chemicals used in processing.
Now denim is mostly made of a combination of cotton with:
+ Polyester for durability
+ Spandex / Elastane / Lycra for stretch
+ Viscose / Rayon for softness
+ Thermopolymers for specific thermal properties
You want to avoid all the issues listed above, but are still confused on what fibres to pick? When choosing fibers is to use reclaimed materials (made from waste, from by-products of other processes, etc), recycled fibers that are microplastic free, renewable sources, fibers using regenerative farming methods, and have the potential to be recycled.
+ Regenerative Farming for Climate Positive Fibers that restore soil health. There are many methods for building resilient soils and we have our dedicated farmers to thank for that. Some methods include incorporating animals for grazing and natural fertilizers, building bio-diverse fields by planting trees, cover crops to conserve soil, rotating crops, boosting soil fertility with fungal compost, and methods for no-till cotton without any of the nasty chemicals! Growing this cotton literally reverses the negative impacts of traditional cotton growing and protects biodiversity!
+ Regenerative Organic Certified™ is a revolutionary new certification that ensures that farms and products meet the highest standards in the world for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness.
+ Organic Cotton is grown with NO PESTICIDES and non-GMO seeds, but is very hard to scale for mass quantities. But, currently only 1% of the world's cotton that is grown is organic cotton and with the influx of organic cotton products out there... something doesn't add up! Be sure to check for a certificate. For an in depth look at organic cotton click here.
+ FAIRTRADE cotton means that all farmers are guaranteed a living wage for what they grow and sell, and Fair Trade also helps them to reduce their impact on the environment by reducing the use of chemicals and adapting to climate change patterns.
+ E3 Cotton is the only cotton program that breeds their own cotton seeds allowing for full traceability all the way back to the plot of land that cotton was grown on. All e3 cotton farmers sign up and commit to grow cotton more efficiently and decrease the impact on the environment. Their cotton is certified and verified through independent audits, which allows E3 to track specific environmental and social measures back to an individual farmer.
+ BCI Cotton stands for BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE. This program gives smaller farms guidelines on how to grow and harvest their crops in an environmentally friendly way through:
+ Using just the right amount of fertilisers
+ Using 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. It also requires a significantly less amount of water to grow compared to cotton. Hemp is a wonderful fibre! It can be blended with cotton, to have a durable and strong 100% renewable fabric. We hope that one day hemp can become the substitute to polyester to give strength to cotton jeans and allow to increase the amount to recycled cotton they can contain.
+ REFIBRA™ is a revolutionary fibre made from cotton waste fabrics and Lenzing's renowned Tencel fibre. It combines the best of two worlds to create one of the most ecological wood-based fabrics on the planet. The recycling of cotton waste fabrics into virgin textile. TENCEL™ fibres offers a practical solution to move us towards a circular economy in the apparel industry.
+ Recycled Cotton is the holy grail of fibres! I would love to see a world where its possible to have 100% recycled and recyclable jeans in a closed loop system. When using a recycled material, you can avoid all the sourcing and processing steps required to make virgin material from scratch, so the impact is nearly 0! Of course it depends on the waste product you start with, whether you have to wash it and dye it again, and what processing steps are required. On average 765,000 litres of water can be saved per ton of recycled cotton! Re:Newcell and Infinited Fibre are two companies who have successfully chemically recycled cotton, a wildly exciting development for circulating textile waste! They are able to turn used cotton and viscose into new biodegradable pulp, from which new fibers are extruded, and can continue to be recycled over and over, creating a truly circular economy. This is a very new technology, but has been gaining scale through brand partnerships like Levi's. Cotton can also be recycled mechanically, which has a lower processing impact and requires less specific technology, but this reduces the length of the fibre, which is a measure for its strength, so it is currently only possible to include 40% recycled cotton in a new fabric.
But! Never forget about the human impact. More on that over at Cotton Diaries.
+ COREVA™ is an innovative technology developed and patented by Candiani Denim that uses a plant-based yarn obtained from natural rubber to replace synthetic, petrol-based yarns. Made from organic cotton wrapped around a natural rubber core, the result is a yarn that is completely plastic-free and biodegradable. By replacing conventional synthetic and petrol-based elastomers with a new, custom-engineered component, Candiani has created an innovative stretch denim fabric – without compromising the elasticity, physical qualities, and durability of jeans.
+ Tencel is a cellulosic fibre coming from tree bark. It is a “greener” fibre than cotton or many other common textile fibres as It is grown in a sustainable manner - no pesticides are required to grow the trees, and most of the time they are rain fed. Trees are grown and processed at a rate that allows them to recover, and are FSC certified. An organic solvent is 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.
+ Biomimicry has been of very high interest to me, so much so, that I wrote a whole article on it here!
Let’s reward these farmers!
Want to focus on the social impact of cotton? There are incredible farmer cooperatives and initiatives out there!
Seed2Shirt is a vertically-integrated apparel manufacturer that works from the ground up — literally — for a transparent, diverse, and ethical supply chain created specifically to bring value back to the African diaspora communities they source from, via their Farmer Enrichment Program. This Program began with organic cotton farmers of Burkina Faso, who, in their transition to organic agriculture, were facing issues of soil nutrient depletion, less abundant yields, and less profit. Today, Seed2Shirt works with 8,400 organic cotton farmers (58% of which are women!) in 5-year partnership models, and with Black-owned production companies throughout the US — ensuring consideration of people and land throughout the *entire* process.
Certifications to Look For:
+ REGEN ORGANIC (ROC)
+ CLIMATE BENEFICIAL
Need help finding a supplier or getting connected directly at the farm level? Contact Simply Suzette here.