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Boyfriend, bootcut, flared or frayed: your guide to buying sustainable denim, whatever your style

Photography By Bogomil Mihaylov

Whatever your style of jean, if you’re like me, you’re always searching high and low for denim icons to rouse your interest (is a mood board too much?). 

I’ve mused over Jane Birkin’s super flares, James Dean’s straight leg, and Jennifer Aniston’s late 90s boyfriend jean, but finding the perfect pair of jeans is a personal process. You’ll know when you find “the one”.

Our insatiable desire to dress in denim results in over two billion pairs of jeans produced worldwide each year with a substantial environmental and human cost. Being a cotton-based fabric, it’s a particularly thirsty crop. It can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton (it’s looking like my jeans need more water than me…). On top of that, pesticides and synthetic chemical dyes contribute to extensive water pollution and health risks. So, are there sustainable alternatives?

Yes – there are some brands stepping up and using innovation to curb the denim industry’s detriment to the environment. In my search for more sustainable denim options, I discovered Nudie Jeans, Outland Denim, MUD Jeans, Afends and Kuyichi, and on a smaller scale, Neuw Denim, who recently launched ZERO, their first sustainable denim range.

Now that I know how easy it is to buy sustainable jeans (in store, online or secondhand), and how good my new organic cotton pair feels (thanks to Nudie Jeans), there’s no going back to unsustainable denim.

Four ways to shop sustainably if you’re a jean fiend

First up, do they fit?

You can find the most sustainable jeans from an entirely eco-conscious brand, but if they don’t fit perfectly, what’s the point? Jeans are a staple; they are the most versatile item in one’s wardrobe. So, if they aren’t comfy and don’t suit your shape, chances are you will go out and buy another pair, and what’s the good in that?

Secondhand is second to none

When it comes to denim, secondhand is not only more sustainable, but cost-effective. Most conscious brands will proudly promote this on their website  Everyone loves their jeans a little more when they have been worn in, softened and feel like home. Imagine grabbing a pair that doesn’t take six months to feel like that? Voilà.

Fabrics, fabrics, fabrics…

Look out for the most common fabric used in sustainable jeans: organic, Fairtrade or recycled cotton. Suss the product’s tag and make sure you keep your eyes peeled for the percentage used. What other fabrics are they blending it with? Alternatives can be hemp, which requires less water, and new fibres like Lenzing’s TENCEL™ (made from tree pulp) and REFIBRA™ (cotton scraps plus wood fibre). Otherwise, a quick google search of the fabrics on the tag can be an easy guide.

Eye on chemical dyes

Many brands use harmful chemicals during denim’s dyeing process. Azo dyes, for example, can sometimes release carcinogenic amines that risk workers’ health and safety and create large amounts of water pollution. Look for companies using natural dyes (a company should be transparent about this, otherwise, be wary).

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