Skip to content

4 steps to a more sustainable jeans habit

It's time to start thinking about substance over style.

Jeans may be everyone's favorite leg-wear, but they are controversial from a climate standpoint. Denim production is notoriously polluting, water-intensive, and wasteful. Trendy jeans that have been heavily distressed or sandblasted or torn tend not to last long, and end up in landfill, unable to be recycled because of polyester blended in or too many accessories and chemical finishes added to the fabric.

There has to be a better way to enjoy jeans, which were traditionally built to last and withstand years of hard wear. While some key players in the denim industry have begun transitioning to healthier, cleaner production methods (think Lee, Levi's, Mud, and Nudie Jeans, whose initiatives are described in this Guardian article), most of the responsibility still falls to shoppers to make smart choices. Here are some suggestions for buying good denim, what to look for, and how to care for it.

1. Go second-hand shopping.

In the words of Anna Foster, founder of E.L.V. (East London Vintage) Denim, “There are more jeans than people in the world.” Make the rounds of your local thrift stores and you'll find more jeans than you can possibly try on. This is single most effective way to reduce your fashion impact, to buy second-hand products that would otherwise go to waste. Extend their lifespan, delay the methane emissions, save yourself lots of money, and slow the demand for virgin resources.

2. Choose the most natural material.

Less processing means a smaller environmental impact. Avoid jeans with fancy finishes, glitter, and superfluous rivets, as well as jeans that have been bleached, sandblasted, or acid-washed. Opt for raw or dry denim instead, which has not been washed or treated. It will look stiffer and newer initially, but will break in with use over time. If you buy second-hand, though, you might already get some broken-in raw denim, which is ideal.

3. Look at the label.

Avoid stretchy jeans because these cannot be recycled, due to the cotton being blended with polyester. Tamsin Blanchard wrote in the Guardian, “One hundred percent [cotton] means the denim in your jeans can eventually be recycled.” Admittedly, I struggle with this advice because stretchy jeans fit me better than pure cotton ones, but they do not last as long because they tend to be thinner and wear through at the thighs. It takes much longer to find a great pair of 100% cotton jeans, but when I do they're a real treat.

4. Wash less. Way less.

Levi's CEO made news headlines in 2014 when he said his jeans hadn't been washed in a year. Hiut Denim has a No Wash Club that people can join only after they haven't washed their jeans for at least six months. From their website:

“Some of the real diehards have gone 12 months and more without washing their jeans. Like the best clubs, it has become a real badge of honour. And so it should. The longer you can leave a new pair of jeans without washing them, the more beautiful a pair of jeans you will have at the end of it.”

Instead of washing, try airing out your jeans on a clothesline and using a deodorizing spray or wiping with a wet cloth if needed. The freezing idea proposed by Levi's in 2011 has been debunked, as it doesn't kill off bacteria; however, Smithsonian Magazine wrote that “the bacterial load doesn't seem to be much affected by how often you go between washings. A somewhat unscientific experiment by a Canadian student found little difference in the bacterial load between one pair of jeans worn for 15 months without washing and another pair worn for 13 days.” When you do wash, use cold water and natural detergent and hang to dry.

It's time to start thinking about substance over style.