How Joyous are Jeans

Who doesn’t have a pair of jeans, or two, or ten? They are the ultimate piece of clothing of the twentieth century – workmen wear jeans, students wear jeans, our mums and dads wear jeans, the Kardashians and the Beckhams wear jeans, royalty wears jeans: we all wear jeans! 

You’ve probably all heard that growing the cotton, which jeans are made from, and irrigating the plants has an eye-wateringly bad impact on the ecosystems the places where it is grown. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

Here are some estimated figures for how bad things are:

  • Growing cotton takes 6% of all agricultural chemicals used globally (of course, clothes other than jeans use cotton as well)
  • Growing cotton takes 16% of all insecticides produced globally
  • Cotton is a thirsty crop, and it takes over 7,000 litres to produce just one pair of jeans. That is water that is diverted from the natural streams and rivers where a rich diversity of life depends on it.
  • Approximately 70% of lakes and rivers across Asia (where much of the world’s cotton is grown) are polluted by the toxic chemicals and waste water produced by the textile industry.
  • If you like the “well-worn look”, the denim may have been treated by sandblasting. Although banned in some countries, this still happens and has been linked to lung disease in textile factory workers.
  • The CO2 emissions for a pair of jeans is about 6kg


But we can’t go around with bare bottoms – we need to wear some trousers! And these figures don’t tell the whole story. Here comes the good news.

Denim is incredibly hard wearing. That is actually why it became very popular first for workmen’s clothing in the early twentieth century (farm workers, gold prospectors, miners, ranchers etc), before gaining mass market appeal in the second half of the twentieth century. So if you stick to your favourite pair of jeans and wear then and wear them and wear them until they fall apart – then get them repaired and wear them some more, the overall environmental impact will be minimised.

What is unforgiveable is buying new pairs, wearing once or twice, then never wearing again. Don’t do that!

Over the lifetime of a pair of jeans, their repeated washing actually contributes as much to carbon emissions, and uses as much water, as their initial production. All that hot water and soap, week after week after week. Of course, it does depend on how dirty they get and how often they are washed.  There is some advice that washing jeans less frequently is a good idea – denim aficionados say it’s less damaging to the fibres. Levi’s CEO, Chip Bergh – let’s face it he should know a thing or two about jeans – says you should never wash a pair of jeans. Really? Yes really. Watch this

If you are grossed out by the thought of this, you can spot clean marks with a toothbrush, leave out in the fresh air to get rid of any smells, or put in the freezer overnight to kill any itty bitty bacteria that may cause pongs.

When you do wash your jeans (we will all probably feel like doing it at least once a year), then don’t tumble dry. Heating all that air just to achieve artificially what you can usually achieve naturally by putting outside or on an airing rack indoors in a few hours is not necessary. The tumble drying probably contributes as much to carbon dioxide emissions as the production and washing.

What else can you do to cut down on the negative environmental impact of jeans? Get them repaired, so you can wear some more. Stitch on a patch yourself – denim jeans really lend themselves to this look. Some fancy shops will offer a repair service, or recommend a specialist repair partner. They may even update the style a bit – a rip down the side may be covered up with a contrast stripe.

When you have come to end of your use for them, donate or sell second hand so somebody else can continue to get some wear out of them. And think about buying second-hand yourself.

So, how joyous are a pair of Jeans? If you wear them over and over until they are worn out, then repair and wear them some more; if you cut right down on the times you wash them and never use a tumble dryer; if you buy second-hand; if you donate or sell what you no longer want for somebody else to wear a bit longer; then they are very joyous. Phew, the world can keep wearing Jeans!