I’m sure these words used in the same sentence invoke some shock and confusion. I can admit that I never thought I would be using them this way — how could denim possibly result in anything harmful or unsafe? Well, the durable, reliable and timeless fabric that we all love has more secrets lined within its fibres than you may think. This is precisely why we need to open up a dialogue about fast fashion — specifically examining the denim industry and the impact it continues to have on our environment and its precious water resources.
I only truly discovered the real dangers of the fashion industry when I spent a year travelling throughout Asia between 2015 and 2016. It was on this trip that I witnessed the negative impacts of consumerism firsthand. I had never been confronted with the implications of my actions as a North American consumer, and the trip was more than a “let’s go find myself” experience to say the least. While manoeuvring around garbage heaps (clothing included) at every corner, with the occasional cow or two munching on a pair of shoes, I was confronted with some very unsettling realizations. I had to ask myself, “How did these clothes end up in these garbage mounds, and how are these materials ever going to disintegrate?” Oh yeah, they’re not. They’re here for good.
Clothing - VSP & Common Sort
Furniture - Noah Orcan-Ceasar
Creative Direction - Keesha Chung & Taysha Brown
Article - Taysha Brown
Styling - Taysha Brown
Set Design - Keesha Chung
MUA - Olivia Taylor
Photographer - Gillian Mapp
Models - Syd Beaumont, Nadine Mos, Keesha Chung
SEE BY CHLOE top, $398 at VSP, vintage jeans
Levi’s pockets top, vintage Levi’s jeans, $30 at Common Sort
I realized that our clothing consumption and disposal were polluting our planet. While the data to measure fashion’s global footprint is limited, it has been noted that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. I’d like to discuss the environmental impacts of our clothing consumption in relation to a garment that has been at the epicentre of popular culture since 1873 — a piece that we can all relate to and assure won’t get tossed out like the next trend. Denim is where it’s at, and no matter what any trend forecaster predicts, it’s here to stay. However, there’s more than meets the eye: there’s a rigorous and wasteful process that is required to produce a single pair of jeans.
Here in Canada, we are oh-so blessed to have vast bodies of water covering our prosperous land, and I’m sure y’all eager beavers are yearning for that weekend to dip your toes in rooftop pools or escape to lakeside cottages. It’s fair to say that we are all fans of that good ol’ H2O, am I right? More importantly, we need to remember that we do not have an infinite water supply. Canada holds 20% of the world’s fresh water supply, but only 6.5% of the world’s renewable fresh water, and much of it is up North, far away from big cities.
The dirty denim industry, as I like to call it, engages in several practices that have negative environmental repercussions. We’re letting this trickle through our waterways and pollute our beautiful mother earth, and we’re using large quantities of water to produce just one pair of jeans. Through a life cycle assessment, we can examine the process of a single pair of jeans from cradle (raw material extraction) to gate (garment distribution). Throughout this process each aspect is analyzed, including cotton production, fabric production, garment manufacturing, transportation and distribution, and consumer care. The major area of concern is cotton cultivation, because of the large amounts of water needed to harvest cotton yields with competitive results.
American Apparel jacket, Gioroano jeans, $20 at Common Sort
Vintage jacket, R13 jeans, $198 at VSP
What’s more worrisome is that it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, and nearly three quarters of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land. To make matters worse, 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, and yet it accounts for 24% and 11% of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively. With the use of these unsafe agricultural chemicals, we’re contributing to the degradation of our ecosystems, which become polluted from the untreated runoff wastewater from cotton farms. The life cycle alone for a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans requires 3,781 litres of water.
Consumer care habits, depending on washing frequency and equipment, also create a huge impact on the environment. One of the easiest ways to decrease your water consumption is by simply washing full laundry loads, and washing less. Plus, if you’re buying raw denim you know that’s supposed to be chilling in the freezer or soaking in minimal water anyways.
Alas, the wasted water conundrum doesn’t end here, my friends. We still have the various pesticides and other harmful chemicals that are used in cotton and fibre production including fibre dyeing, washing, and re-washing to get the desired denim blue jean colour. Once this colour is achieved, the water used in the dyeing baths are discarded into the environment, releasing toxic wastewater into our waterways from the dye and contaminants from the natural cotton fibres.
However, with cotton cultivation and consumer care at the forefront for most sizeable impact areas on the environment, there are more ways we can help reduce the implications of these negative processes than you may think. We can start off small as suggested earlier, and make some minor changes in our laundry routines. That means washing on cold, washing less, line-drying, using more efficient washing machines, putting your raw denim in the freezer if you’re feeling wild, or simply switching to an eco-friendly detergent so that we are putting less pollutants back into our waterways. It’s that easy.
Vintage GUESS Jeans Dress, $35 at Common Sort, vintage jeans
Vintage top and vest, MM6 jeans, $248 at VSP
Left: Markoo top, $178 at VSP, vintage bottoms Right: American Apparel shirt, Gioroano jeans, $20 at Common Sort
The biggest challenge is to decrease our overall shopping consumption for new jeans and clothing in general. As you saw with the respective denim-on-denim looks (or Canadian tuxedos, if you wish), it’s fashion savvy and economical to buy secondhand denim. Using all secondhand pieces, we were able to create multiple looks (that are all gently used) without any signs of secondhand wear and tear. The good news is that we can care for our clothes and make them last! In doing so, we can then pass them onto the next person, whether that’s through a clothing swap with friends, shopping at thrift, vintage, or consignment stores, and even repairing or distressing those pieces that struggled a bit along their life cycle journey. Our aim should be to extend the life cycle for the denim we already have available to us, rather than supporting industries that are continue to harm the environment. We can shift our focus to the ways in which we can deal with current issues regarding denim production, and let the professionals continue to find more sustainable technologies for the future.
The reality is: one in ten people in the world don’t have access to clean water, and one in three don’t have proper and sanitary plumbing. I’m thinking we should stop moping about rooftop pools being at full capacity or missing out on cottaging, and focus on solving issues that we can control. So please, do yourself a favour, do your homework, and then drop some knowledge on all your friends.