Ruth MacGilp

The journey of jeans: what's your fashion footprint?

7 min Read
Close up of a pile of folded blue denim jeans, dark on the bottom and light on top

The fashion industry is responsible for 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, more carbon than the aviation and shipping industries combined. In fact, the annual fashion footprint of the average UK household is equivalent to the carbon emissions from driving a car for 6,000 miles. An estimated two thirds of the environmental impact of a garment is weathered at the raw materials stage, largely due to the soaring success of synthetic fibres like polyester which are derived from oil. However, each link in the supply chain has a carbon cost, so as a shopper, you have the power to make significant reductions at each phase of the product life cycle.

It’s not just what you buy, but how you wear it, care for it, and dispose of it at the end of life. Here, let’s explore the journey of a pair of jeans to consider the carbon footprint of a universal wardrobe staple.

How to shop sustainably

First up, which denim brand do we choose to part our hard-earned cash with? These days, it can be difficult to decide whether a retailer is sustainable or not because everyone is shouting loud about their green credentials. But when it comes to denim, the key question to ask is what your jeans are made of.

Most denim is made from cotton, which is a notoriously resource-thirsty fabric. A single pair of jeans requires around 20,000 litres of water and colossal amounts of nitrous oxide-releasing pesticides to produce. So if you can, look for brands that use organic cotton instead, such as M.i.h Jeans or Nudie Jeans. Watch out for synthetic (read: plastic) fibres in the mix too. For example, skinny fit jeans often contain elastane to give them stretch, so opt for thicker, more hard-wearing options to ditch the fossil fuels used to produce these plastic-based fibres. You can also support brands like ELV Denim which use recycled and reclaimed materials, or look for local brands in your area to help reduce the carbon footprint of transporting jeans all over the world.

Even when they are both made from cotton, producing a pair of jeans has 4-5 times the carbon impact of producing a t-shirt, because they require a much heavier weight of fabric. What’s more, the process of dyeing denim into our favourite shades of indigo and black leads to toxic water pollution from textile treatment plants, as shown in the 2016 documentary RiverBlue. The shocking film also shows the lesser-known impact of jeans that have faded colours, distressed rips, acid wash or other ‘worn in’ effects, all of which require chemical, energy and water intensive processes.

One of the best ways to shop for sustainable denim is to buy second-hand, so that no further resources need to be used up to make new jeans. Plus, you get the added bonus of saving money! As well as your local charity shops, some great options for second-hand shopping online include eBay, Depop, Vinted, Vestiaire Collective and ThredUp. If you want to take your eco-fashion efforts one step further, skip the shopping altogether with alternative ways to access ‘new’ jeans. From clothes swaps with friends, to sharing and rental apps like Nu Wardrobe, to ‘leasing’ a pair of jeans with a brand like MUD Jeans, the most sustainable item in your wardrobe is the one that already exists.

Nabbed yourself a second-hand deal recently? Click the card below to track your sustainable action on the Pawprint app.

I bought second-hand clothes

Research suggests buying a second-hand item (which replaces the need to manufacture new) reduces its footprint by 82%.

Taking care of your clothes

Did you know that extending the life of a garment by just nine months could reduce its carbon impact by up to 30%? This could take many forms, including learning basic repair skills so that next time a button falls off or your jeans rip, they are not destined for landfill. Repair What Your Wear offers educational videos for a variety of easy mending techniques, or if sewing is not for you, try taking your clothes to a local tailor for affordable alterations.

One of the biggest factors in your at-home fashion footprint is how you wash your clothes. Up to 25% of the carbon footprint of a garment can come from the way we care for it. There are lots of small changes you can make in your laundry routine to help drive down this number, like avoiding dry cleaning and tumble drying, washing on a cooler temperature, using gentler wash settings, ensuring the load is full, washing inside out to reduce friction, and using a Guppy Friend or Cora Ball to reduce microfibre shedding.

Most importantly though, wash your clothes less! Many of us wash our clothes far too often, expending unnecessary energy on items that can simply be spot-cleaned instead. Love Your Clothes also has some great advice for washing, drying, ironing and stain removal, all with the aim of making your clothes last longer.

Recycling and reselling

Sometimes, our jeans are past the point of repair, we fluctuate in size, or we’ve just fallen out of love with the style. How can we dispose of our pre-loved clothes in a responsible and sustainable way?

It may seem like throwing a single pair of jeans in the bin can’t have a huge impact on the world, but with over 300,000 tonnes of clothing heading for landfill every year in the UK alone, small steps really do make a big difference. It’s vital that we do whatever we can to keep our unwanted clothes out of landfill to help reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions from waste. Fortunately, there are myriad ways to do so.

A go-to option is donating to charity, either directly to a shop, using charity donation pick-up bags or bins, connecting with local community organisations or using services like ThriftPlus. When donating, make sure that your items are in good quality, because anything not in a sellable condition can end up being exported thousands of miles away, or worse, discarded or destroyed.

Of course, you can also make a bit of pocket money by selling items with a decent resale value, particularly branded or designer goods. Alternatively, you can swap them with others using Facebook groups, swap events, peer-to-peer apps, or just sharing with friends and family - no shame in a good hand-me-down!

Another course of action is to try your hand at upcycling. Turn your old clothes into fabric face masks, hair scrunchies, cushions, bags, bunting or even just cleaning rags. Check out ReJean Denim for some inspiration on how denim can be given a new life through creative patchwork design.

Last but certainly not least is recycling. Recycling your clothes is more complex than you might think, because of the nature of textiles containing so many different fibres and other elements on clothes like metal zippers and rivets. It can also be hard to find appropriate textile recycling in your local area, but you can search here for facilities near you, try in-store recycling schemes at the likes of John Lewis and M&S, or ask your local charity shops if they have textile recycling pick-ups.

The stats on fashion’s colossal environmental impact may be alarming, yet as buyers and wearers of clothes, all of us have a part to play in shifting the narrative.

Building kinder clothing habits not only helps drive down our own personal carbon footprint, but also tells the wider industry that sustainable fashion matters. To measure and reduce your carbon footprint, try Pawprint today

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