Sustainability in our Clothing: Denim & Boots

Mikko (@Migigp)

“The best way to be sustainable is to look after and wear what you already have. When looking for new pieces – second-hand is the way to go! That’s been my strategy for as long as I can remember. When buying new, always consider who made it, what materials were used and do you really need it (room for improvement for me). Better for the environment and your bank balance, too!”

You may have already seen a million different articles on why the fashion industry sucks for our planet. It’s in the top three largest polluting industries in the world – and that doesn’t even include the water waste that goes into the cotton used to produce the lot of it. And unfortunately, yes, this does include your beautiful handmade denim and your custom leather boots – not to mention specifically in consideration to your Japanese denim. If you own some (you probably do, I mean, you’re reading this) it’s most likely using cotton from other countries as they don’t grow much cotton in Japan at all. This means the carbon footprint of your pair of jeans is nothing to laugh at, as the materials likely had to travel around the world to end up in Japan where the artisans put them together – for example, Fullcount using Zimbabwe cotton or special Warehouse & Co denim using a blended Texas cotton. The messed up part is that this is still better than most clothing practices around the world. Well, let’s talk about it – and why I try my best to use and buy less, especially when it comes to animal products like wool and leather.

Water & Denim
So, to grow the cotton that crafts one pair of denim it takes anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water1, and it’s also worth mentioning that the usual leather patch is not included in this number. The 1,000 – 2,000 gallons estimate is just from growing the cotton and not the production or washing and this seems to also be based on your typical fast fashion brand like modern Levi’s, GAP, or H&M. To keep a cow watered and fed for their leather, that’s much, much more water not included in the process – so just that small leather patch has a massive ecological imprint on the earth. I’m not here to tell you to stop wearing denim, but I think it’s time to reflect on how much of it we purchase. Realistically we’re in this community because we are huge fans of the stuff – I mean I fuckin’ love it, and I’m assuming you do too. We love denim because of how it ages, how it forms to our bodies and how we imprint our personalities into the wear and fades. It’s timeless. Perhaps instead of buying so much new denim… just wear what you have. Wash it when you need to, but not too much. I think that’s fair. Also holding massive corporations and brands responsible for their water usage is very important. We only have so much fresh water on the earth – I mean we are constantly being reminded of it by most scientific communities, so let’s not waste it on mass produced jeans. Support smaller brands and don’t buy junk. I’m not perfect myself, I buy a lot without thinking of the impact it has on the earth, but I also buy second hand when I can.

Industrial washing machine for denim. credit to Ryo from TCB Jeans

A Pre-faded Nightmare
Don’t even get me started on pre-washed denim. The amount of water used to get it to look worn-in is profound. There are some ways larger brands are finding to get the pre-worn look while wasting less water, like using lasers, but you won’t come by that often, and especially not with smaller makers as they don’t have access to things like this. Usually, the process used is the good ol’ fashion wash it ’til it looks worn in, which is called ‘rinsing’. This is is also used to shrink the jeans if the fabric is unsanforized. Another way artisans pre-fade denim is by hand-scraping, where sandpaper (and sometimes other tools) is scraped on the jeans between washing to get the worn-in appearance, but this is usually very labor-intensive. Stone-washing is another process where the denim jeans are washed with pumice stones, a 20-step process that uses a lot of water. Another rarer example that The Real McCoy’s recently did is ‘topping’ –
where the warp sheet is initially dyed with indigo, washed, and then dyed again, normally with sulfur. There are many other harmful processes that are used mostly by fast-fashion brands all over the world, like acid washing.

Samuel Trotman (of Denim Dudes)

The biggest environmental concerns of both stone and acid wash centre around water, in both the consumption, contamination and toxic discharge. It’s been well documented in the past that in certain denim-producing nations like China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, toxic indigo sludge has entered rivers and streams, creating damage to the local wildlife. Jordan Nodarse, denim expert and founder of Boyish jeans, a premium jeans label in LA championed for its sustainable credentials explains, “PP and acid washes are acid based. That means that they need to be properly neutralised to bring jeans back to a neutral PH otherwise the garments will irritate consumers skin. Also, bleach/chlorine/hypochloride kills the good bacteria in fresh water streams.”

I’ve been guilty myself of buying prefaded things in the past but I now own only one piece from a smaller maker. I mean, I get it – you want that specific faded look and you want it now. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that on the surface. Sometimes you don’t want to put it all the work but you want that nice icy blue denim, or the perfect crocking and fading like you’ve seen on Steve McQueen or the boys in ‘The Outsiders’, hell, even your favorite vintage pair of Levi’s. It’s typically best to avoid this trend altogether though, and just fade the denim yourself. Clothes look better when you wear them, not break them in with a machine or laser or whatever. Hop off the trend and let the leading denim brands know you want the dark stuff. Save water, energy, and unneeded pollution.

Why pre-worn can be best and what cows have to do with it
So, I’m plant-based / vegan, which means I don’t consume animals. This has affected my way of looking at clothing and made me hyper-aware of the environmental impact clothing material has. When it comes to denim, I will always buy first-hand as I want to support the makers. I justify the leather patch because it’s usually a byproduct of the agricultural industry and it’s nearly impossible to avoid. We could all be better at using more sustainable materials, I’d say – even the small makers we love. There’s a lot of good brands that use paper patches which function and age great. As for animal fibers, like wool, I will typically avoid those too and shop for second-hand. Keeping sheep and raising them for their wool uses massive amounts of water and land.2 As for boots like I mentioned, I only buy second-hand now. This is because the leather industry is not only insanely cruel but not at all sustainable.3 Because of the agricultural history behind boots, this makes them huge pollutants to water sources around the world, while using massive amount of water to get the leather in the first place.3 This is another example of me asking you to consider buying less footwear in general. Wear those damn boots to death! Resole them and take care of ’em! Buy second hand if you can! It’s unnecessary to have 20 pairs of boots and a detriment to the earth, and probably your wallet in so many ways. Sorry – not sorry.

my pre-loved John Lofgren combat boots

The elephant in the room is the alternatives are not pretty, either. What you typically run into when you buy ‘vegan’ footwear products is either plastic garbage which is worse than leather, or some sort of leather substitute which usually consists of creative ways to make a leather-like plant matter. These, of course, don’t typically last as long as a leather boot. You can see the problems we run into here – I would say the statistics lean towards wearing the hell out of the clothing you own and buying less. No one can ultimately control how many boots you buy, but you can convince someone why buying so many is probably not in their best interest if they want to see the earth habitable in the next 100 years. These are small steps we can take in the clothes we wear to live in a more sustainable future, steps that we can easily do. So when you see that next exclusive John Lofgren drop, or Viberg collab boot, stop and consider the massive amount of energy, water, and animals used to create the item. Whether it’s a cotton shirt, or a pair of jeans, or your Red Wing boots, there’s an insane ladder that it had to take to get to its final result – and behind that is a profound ecological footprint. So if you care, ask yourself – am I a part of this? What could I do better? Who can we hold accountable?

a Levi’s Factory 1964

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Published by indigo amateur

Just a guy who likes to talk about clothes.

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