Dirty Denim & Climate Change – Your Thoughts?

I don’t often share denim news here as such as we’re more about the fashionable side of it, however I received this story this week and thought it was really interesting – so much so that I would love to hear all of your opinions on it. I know people and animals have been suffering hugely the last few weeks with all the natural disasters and my heart goes out to them, so could the way denim is made be contributing to global warming as part of a bigger picture? Check it out below.

Climate Week just took place and Green and Consumer Groups Hoped for Actual Climate Commitments from the Fashion Sector. Apparently it’s going to take fashion companies another two years to even set climate targets!

As some of the top business leaders and fashion brands converge in New York City for Climate Week, Filthy Fashion (a newly-launched campaign from Stand.earth in partnership with consumer group SumofUs), takes aim at top fashion brands including Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Express, American Eagle Outfitters, Wrangler and Lee – calling on them to commit to immediate and strong climate reduction targets now and take responsibility for their devastating climate impacts. Over 118,000 people have signed onto a petition asking jean companies to clean up their ‘dirty denim’ and commit to sustainable, substantive environmental goals and immediately begin addressing their greenhouse gas emissions created by denim manufacturing.

I know a lot goes into making jeans. On average it takes around 1,800 gallons of water (from cotton growing to finished garment) to make one pair of jeans, which is actually truly shocking, but I think the most pollution and damage comes from not just water wastage, but the disposal of the chemicals and dye. I’ve heard that there’s a river in Xintang (see here) which is actually indigo blue and flows into the ocean. Xintang produces 260 million pairs of jeans a year and the dye pollution left behind is devastating. River Blue is an organisation set up to try and control the pollution of toxins from jeans factories (check that out here) and hopefully it will start to have an impact on cleaning up the waste left behind. While most of us here buy our premium denim straight from California, there are still many which are manufactured overseas and they don’t have the same environmental laws, which is very worrying.

Today, some of these leading apparel companies–including Levi’s, Gap, Guess and VF Corp. (Wrangler and Lee)–announced their intention to set climate targets in two years through the Science-Based Target (SBT) project. Stand.earth and SumofUs call on these companies to go further in the face of the growing climate crisis. Real climate action requires committing to significant climate goals now for their entire supply chain and a move to renewable energy, as Mars and Apple have. While a SBT can be a useful tool, unless coupled with immediate action, bold targets and commitments to renewables, a weak SBT can also provide PR cover for climate laggards. According to reports from the Carbon Disclosure Project, denim and apparel companies ignore as much as 90% of the climate pollution they generate. Groups Stand.earth and SumOfUs are calling on companies to account for their supply chain, whether they own their factories or use contract manufacturers abroad.

From this story, it seems a lot of the pollution being focused on is the emissions and the waste, creating toxins. None of us know specifically if this is affecting climate change as the earth has been through many processes naturally on its own. There was a point when we were ice age for a while and that had nothing to do with humans, but I do know that all the extra heat we create and all the gasses that are going up into the ozone layer must at least be contributing to the warming up of the planet, causing so many dangerous natural disasters and the ice caps melting etc. If it wasn’t, I’m not sure that everyone would be making a huge deal out of it. It must be proven to have some influence and as humans, is it our responsibility to make that change? After all, we shouldn’t be destroying the very thing that keeps us alive.

“Hundreds of forest fires burn out of control on the Western side of our continent while hurricane after hurricane pummels the South and East and the fashion industry waits for someone else to address the climate crisis. Companies like Mars and Apple, which have each pledged a billion dollars for climate solutions, are responding. But every company must take action – it’s time for Levi’s, The Gap, Lee and Calvin Klein to lead,” said Todd Paglia, Executive Director of Stand.earth. “Manufacturing a single pair of denim jeans produces emissions equivalent to burning 44 pounds of coal. That is why, as part of our Filthy Fashion campaign, we created a ‘shopping list’ to help fact check commitments fashion brands make during Climate Week—warning these brands that PR-friendly but weak commitments will not cut it for the planet.”

“The world is quite literally under water and on fire right now as flooding and wildfire disasters sweep the planet,” said Liz McDowell, Campaign Director at SumOfUs. “Lives are on the line. Fifteen years ago, it might have been enough for companies like Gap or Nike to promise to set short-term emissions reductions targets, but today it’s simply not enough. The urgency is too high. In the absence of leadership from the Trump administration, apparel companies need to take meaningful action today to reduce the devastating climate impacts of their production around the world. Promising to make promises two years down the road just doesn’t cut it. And industry giants like Calvin Klein, American Eagle Outfitters, Guess and Express haven’t even come clean about the environmental footprint behind the clothes they make.”

According to one study, the fashion industry is responsible for a whopping 3.0-5.4% of all global climate emissions when the full supply chain is considered. How crazy is that? I know there are numerous other factories and pollution to consider, but I had no idea that around 5% came from fashion companies. It’s quite shocking. Another rough analysis estimates that the global textile and apparel industry burned the equivalent of 291 billion pounds of coal in 2008 to produce more than 132 billion pounds of fabric—more coal than was mined last year in all of Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined. Now that’s crazy to me too!

Hopefully companies can look into finding renewable energy sources and a way to dispose of dye which doesn’t harm the water. I know brands like Levi’s have introduced their Waterless collection which is hugely beneficial on saving water, and other brands like REPLAY invented the laser technology so a wash is created via laser, which also saves water. We can only hope innovations are going to happen. So, the point of this article is not to scare you off buying denim at all as a lot of the smaller brands we buy from don’t seem to be targeted, but what’s your opinion on it? Do you think the fashion industry is responsible for contributing to global warming and all these natural disasters? Comment below and give your opinions. Find out more information here.

Main image credit: NPR.org.



  1. Henry Coppens
    September 22, 2017 / 3:03 pm

    Hi Lorna,

    My current job is sustainability director for a large company by South African standards – but with an international footprint.

    Most people harp on the overall carbon and greenhouse gas emissions down the entire supply chains. These emissions are said to contribute to anthropogenic (man made) climate change. Everything from Scope 1 emissions (those emitted in making the goods) Scope 2 (those of the goods and services purchased to make the goods – like the proportionate emissions from electricity used to make the goods and Scope 3 – those related other emissions that are related but not Scope 1 or 2, such as emissions from outsources activities like contracted transport.

    But what is usually not taken into account are the reverse of all these, namely the greenhouse gases that are actually ABSORBED in the materials used and goods and services.
    For example, say you purchase a pine table. The vendor, if he/she is good will tell you that the sum of Scope 1,2 and 3 emissions in making and getting the table to the shop from where you bought it is X kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of table.

    Now here comes the interesting bit. That table is made of wood and, about 50% of this wood will constitute the element carbon. The other elements are are oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen all combined with carbon in the compounds that make up the wood, but the main constituent of wood is carbon – that’s why wood burns so easily – it is the carbon in to wood coming with oxygen in the air to make carbon dioxide and comes with the release of heat – but this is by the way. ? Where did the carbon come from? Well, it came from the trees used to provide the wood. Where do trees get their carbon? Well, they get it solely from the carbon dioxide in the air. This is what trees and all growing plants do. They extract carbon dioxide from the air.

    So when you say product A has X kg/kg scope 1,2, and 3 emissions, you have to SUBTRACT from this figure all the absorptions associated with this product. If you do the sums for our table, you will actually find that the absorptions ARE GREATER than its emissions – so it is a NET ABSORBER of greenhouse gases – said to be carbon positive. This is effectively because you are locking up carbon in the wood of the table that WOULD OTHERWISE HAVE BEEN IN THE AIR – causing climate change etc.!!! So if you want to do your bit for climate change, BUY THINGS LIKE WOOD, PAPER (a very good one) and , wait for it, clothing made from growable materials like cotton. What is denim mostly made from? COTTON, baby, COTTON. So by buying denim you are effectively taking carbon dioxide out the air and locking it up in your denim, away from the atmosphere where it can do harmful climate change. (a pity skinny denim uses less cotton than flared!!!).

    So pack your cupboards with denim!!!!!!

    HST (having said this) one would still need to do the sums for denim clothing, but I am willing to bet that denim especially, because of its high cotton content, would be quite close to being carbon neutral (total emissions equal to total absorptions) – or may even be carbon positive like out table above.

    Of course that is not to say the water effluents in the production of denim goods is good. There are sadly where it is not as you have highlighted.

    Lesson in sustainability!


    • Lorna
      September 28, 2017 / 11:45 am

      Hi Henry!

      Thanks for sharing all of that info. I actually didn’t realise that before, so that’s really enlightening!

  2. anonimatovato
    September 22, 2017 / 5:19 pm

    Funny thing is that a ‘waterless’ denim like Levi’s probably cost more than regular denim.

    • Lorna
      September 28, 2017 / 11:46 am

      I think it does actually. I’m not completely sure, but it probably does cost more.

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