How hazardous is blue of the blue jeans?

Jeans have become a part of everyday life and have come a long way from workers clothing to high fashion. Originally designed for cowboys and miners, modern jeans became popular in the 1950s among teenagers, especially members of the greaser subculture. Jeans were a common fashion item in the 1960s hippie subculture and they continued to be popular in the 1970s and 1980s youth subcultures of punk rock and heavy metal. 

A good pair of jeans though fashionable and durable emit large amount of greenhouse gases during the manufacturing process. According to Zion Market Report, the global denim jeans market was valued at around USD 66.02 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach approximately USD 85.4 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of around 3.7% between 2019 and 2025. High increase in investments in the global fashion industry is anticipated to drive the global denims market in the future. In addition, the increasing influence of western culture on clothing style is likely to further boost the global denim jeans market over the forecast time period. The growing focus of the modern apparel industry on production, promotion, and marketing is projected to also fuel the global denims market in the future. In spite of foreseeing such flourishing scenario in denim industry, denim companies are facing pressure to change the methods of manufacturing jeans to tackle the environmental issues.

What really makes the manufacturing of denims so poisonous to people and planet?

A typical pair of blue jeans uses 919 gallons (3479 liters) of water during its life cycle. This includes the water to irrigate the cotton crop, manufacture the jeans, and the numerous washes by the consumer.Textile effluents containing indigo dye (main dye used for manufacturing of blue jeans) and other dye types make water toxic and unfit for human and animal consumption, and cause an imbalance in different aquatic ecosystem food chains. During the 1980s indigo was combined with sulphur dye to acquire new looks and effects. Later, in the 1990s, to widen the denim colour range (apart from blue), sulphur dye was used separately to obtain colours such as black, brown, olive and burgundy. The use of synthetic indigo and sulphur dyes pose serious effluent problems. Various researchers have identified the mutagenic effects of textile samples and wastewater. There is risk of disrupting the primary aquatic food chain when untreated indigo dye effluents are discharged into aquatic systems. The researchers reported that indigo might cause a potential health risk either by releasing toxic effects of other compounds or by being a non-genotoxic carcinogen. If the effluent contains higher concentrations of indigo and indigoid dyes, it would be genotoxic. 

Going ahead in the mechanical finishes, Pumice stone used in stone washing also requires a huge amount of water for removing the deposited pumice from the denim, while the effluent and pumice dust leads to environmental pollution. Sandblasting (a mechanical finish which uses sand containing silica has the risk of causing silicosis to the workers, and in Turkey, more than 5,000 textile workers have been stricken with this disease, and 46 people are known to have died.

At a glance manufacturing jeans in the conventional method may not seem to be a big issue in terms of sustainability, but if the size of the sector and the methods of production are considered, it will make a huge difference. You can imagine the impact of the denim sector on the environment, if all the jeans in the world are produced using eco-friendly methods. Today many denim companies today are striving hard to embrace greener methods and are also making efforts to develop new techniques of producing jeans, as a part of their business strategies to protect the environment.

How exactly are the manufacturers paving the road for greener denims?

Most denim manufacturers are using 100% organic cotton without using bleach.  They use two types of processes. One is the wet process wherein simple enzymes are used to decrease water wastage and the second is the dry method which uses various techniques such as scraping, whiskering, grinding and distressing. Instead of chemical dyes, vegetable dyes are utilized to get the authentic indigo shade of denim.

One of the world’s largest denim manufactures, ISKO, is changing the stats by weaving sustainability into everything. ISKO produces more than 300 million yards of fabric per year—enough to circle the earth more than seven times (on average, denim mills produce just 30 million). The wizardry lies inside ISKO’s Turkey based research and development facility, the first government-certified textile research center. It’s where the team dreams up cutting-edge fabrics with eco-consciousness always at the forefront. The company’s Earth Fit collection, the most responsible line of fabric, is made of raw materials including organic and recycled cotton and polyester made from recycles PET bottles.  They recently launched “Vulcano”, a process that gives fabric a natural-looking finish via laser instead of water, reducing usage. ISKO is also working on developing wearable technology for both denim and athleisure fabrics. They have a technology called “Recall” which actually prevents the so called baggy knee syndrome. The technology helps jeans snap back into shape after stretching out so that one does not have to wash and dry the denims to get them back to size.

India’s pioneers of denim, Arvind Ltd., have also embedded green thinking in the manufacturing of denims. In collaboration with Gaston Technologies and Indigo Mill Designs of the US, Arvind has co-developed and invested in a new dyeing technology (Gaston Foam Dyeing Technology) that disrupts the way Indigo dyeing has been done for the past 150 years. This technology is expected to reduce water consumption by almost 90 percent, compared with traditional rope or sheet dyeing technologies. Another technology implemented to reduce water footprints is ZLD (Zero Liquid Discharge) with a capacity to treat 17,500 million litres per day (MLD) of textile effluent. The effluent is fully recycled, and used in the process to replace the use of freshwater. Their expertise in the fiber blending and handling of a wide array of sustainable and non-cotton fibers such as linen, tencel, modal, biodegradable polyester, kapok etc, has enabled them to deliver 100 percent non-cotton-based denims, as well as 100 percent recycled denims. Today, of the 140 million meters of denim fabric and 7.2 million denim garments Arvind manufactures every year, approximately 60 percent has either sustainable fiber content and/or a sustainable process involved.

Advanced denim processes will soon seep down into many denim manufacturing companies and shall witness drastic improvements as a measure of environmental footprint to protect the environment. Rightly said, “Fashion fades but denim is eternal”.