The denim industry needs to make this big change now

denim sustainabilty

One of the ironies of our industry – the denim industry – is that we use a lot of water but manufacture our products in places we know don’t have water. If you don’t believe me, check out this unbiased report from the World Bank.

It identifies which countries have the most freshwater and if water was a primary concern, we’d be making jeans in my home Canadian province of Ontario where there are 400,000 lakes.

Instead, jean factories are in:

1. Los Angeles, where there is drought and recycling water laws are restrictively bizarre.

2. Bangladesh, where the EU provided duty free trade status.

3. Pakistan, where there is .0003% of the water in Canada.

Truth be told, the brands and retailers know there is no water where they make their jeans. They appear not to care because the price of the jean forces them to manufacture in countries with low labour costs regardless of the water supplier. Canadians labourers need too much money per hour to be on anyone’s radar. But what happens when water runs out?

I’m not sure how many people know indigo used to come only in powder form. Denim Mills using powder (70% still do) mix their powder up themselves which is messy, irregular (as in shading) and may I say old fashioned as well as water intensive?

water distribution diagram

Today less than 20% of the denim mills in the world use pre-reduced liquid indigo which is a massively more sustainable way to use indigo. I wonder, who checks if their denim fabric supplier uses powder or indigo? From what I know, not a single mill in Japan has ever used liquid. EVER USED IT! But the question is, does anyone care?

People in our industry seem more keen on talking about organic cotton – which accounts for 1% of the world cotton market – than on the filthy way indigo yarn is dyed and amount of water wasted for no reason.

Advance Denim by Archroma is another dye option that cuts down the use of water enormously. Do any of the mills in countries with no water run only on this dye? No. You’d think if your nation has no long-term water capacity your government might insist (for the benefits of their citizens) on preemptive measures to avoid running out. But nope. Not in Pakistan, not in India, not in Bangladesh, not China etc, etc, etc. The majority of denim mills use powered indigo and not Advanced Denim.

Credit: Greenpeace

Credit: Greenpeace

Why is this? Why are countries and cities without water making denim and jeans?

The reason – generally provided by the brands and retailers – is you are the cause. Apparently you, the consumer won’t pay for jeans if they are made somewhere that actually has water or you insist on getting jeans from Los Angeles. It seems consumers set high value for Japanese denim made from powdered indigo. It’s the consumers that demand everything to be done the way they are being done.

I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think consumers have a clue what’s going on with their jeans and were they aware, they would not accept the today’s global sourcing and production patterns.

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  • Irfan Aslam

    A very well written thought provoking note, we all need to work in this direction to give our new generation at least the similar planet that we live in if not better.
    Being in the denim industry for almost 14 years, I have come across many columns, great thoughts and remarkable events on this aspect of the industry. I have seen mills investing huge amounts on material and equipment but the returns were added costs only. Glad to see someone pointing out the right culprit and hope to see change

  • Shayna McDonough

    This article is written horrendously. The editor should be fired. The content was interesting, though.

  • It is a fact that the manufacturing of both denim fabrics and jeans require vast amounts of water – in addition to what already used to grow the cotton, of course.
    The change from powder indigo dye to a pre-reduced version may have a positive impact over the total usage, albeit not a drastic one (whether you add it upfront or afterwards, you still need to mix powder with water!).
    LA does not manufacture any denim at all, and a VERY small percentage of the global jeans production…
    Pt 1 TBC

  • Pt 2:
    Moreover, the manufacturing of both denim and jeans is under some kind of environmental control, in the West.
    In Asia, where most of the denim is nowadays made, and most of the jeans are also made, the situation is much more alarming, both from water availability and environmental issues (I would not worry much about Japan though, since their output is a drop in the ocean compared to their gigantic neighbours!).
    Water is a fundamental global issue, thanks for talking about it Andrew!

  • SJE

    This is an important issue. Water consumption in denim is a problem, but this article was a mess. The conclusions were drastic and without support, which is lazy when there are so many other great articles on the subject that could have been referenced.

  • Thanks for raising these issues, great article! In Bangladesh the groundwater level around Dhaka is rapidly declining. The textile industry, including denim finishing, is one of the contributors to that. The Partnership for Cleaner Textiles, implemented by IFC and Solidaridad, works with brands, factories, BGMEA and other stakeholders – including technology providers – to identify and implement improvements. Happy to share more information with those interested.

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  • Yimin Deng

    Hi! Thank you for this amazing article but I wonder if you could point me to sources that I can learn more about the sustainability of dyes used in denim (pre reduced liquid vs. powder)?