What’s the Lifecycle of Your Denim?

Hannah Nussbaum

Question: Where did your favorite pair of jeans come from? 

The ones with the super soft texture, the perfect back pockets, the faultless boot-cut shape that makes your legs look three inches longer.

Answer: they came from that cute denim boutique in your area. Or from the vintage consignment store you practically haunt. Or from yours truly, Buho, the godsend of an e-commerce marketplace that’s your new first-stop-shop when you need something that’s both cute and ethical.

But where did they come from before that?

The truth is, we often don’t think about the bigger picture when it comes to the clothes we wear every day. Things seem to miraculously appear on the shelf (or miraculously show up in a box on our doorsteps). It’s easy to think of garments as being these fully formed entities that were always ready-to-wear and tagged – that they grow on ‘bootcut denim trees’ and are expressly delivered to us by helpful denim storks. 

The analogy that works here is one that draws a connection between the fashion industry and the meat industry. Packaged in a plastic, sliced, and made presentable to the consuming public, it’s easy to forget that the innocent pink chicken breast in front of you was once a living and squawking bird. And while this isn’t a ‘GO VEGAN!’ blog post, the point being made here is that, with the items we use and consume every day, we are often fundamentally disconnected with the life cycles they go through before they end up prettily packaged in front of us.

Moving back from the topic of chicken breast to the topic of denim: what exactly is the life cycle of yours? Here we’re sketching it out, so you can be more intentional and aware when it comes to purchasing denim, taking care of it, and recycling or reusing it when it’s at the end of its life. 

Note: we’re taking our notes from an environmental life cycle assessment done by Levi Strauss and Co, in 2007. This is a broad survey of the denim life cycle, and it’s important to remember that it varies by brand. 

Step 1: Raw Material Production

Most jeans are made out of a combination of natural cotton fibers, synthetic materials, metal, and livestock derived leather. In order to produce these raw materials, a series of extraction and production process relies on fossil and renewable fuel extraction, including petroleum, coal, natural gas, nuclear fuel, electricity, steam, hot water, and liquid fuels. Fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals are used in this process unless your denim company specifies that it’s using only organic cotton. 

In other words, each tiny grommet, belt loop, and thread on your denim originates as a raw material with a production process that’s taxing on the surrounding environment. 

The general finding here has been that water consumption is one of the primary issues in raw fiber production. 

What can you do to ameliorate this?

Try washing your jeans less. Think every tenth use instead of every other use. This can reduce a pair of jeans’ overall water intake by up to 80%.

Step 2: Intermediate Textile Production

At this stage, the raw material is transformed into what we call ‘denim’. This encompasses a complex process of fiber extrusion, spinning, weaving, dying, finishing, molding, and treating with chemicals that preserve the fabric. 

This process usually involves factory work and human labor, so questions of ethical production are brought into this stage. Are the factory workers being paid adequately? Do they have benefits and healthcare? What about maternity leave? Are there children working at this stage of production? Is there gender parity? 

Step 3: Apparel Production

This is the stage in which the denim material is transformed into your garment, i.e, your trusty bootcut pair that you rock every autumn. This involves cutting, sewing, welding, seam taping, garment finishing, and garment dyeing. This process requires the use of process chemicals, dyes, and detergents, finishing chemicals, plus paper and plastic for packaging. 

Ethical labor standards are something to be aware of here, as well as land use, water consumption, and raw material waste (all of the bits and pieces of denim that are leftover after the garment has been constructed). 

Step 4: Retail and Product packaging

This phase of the process involves the finished jeans being packaged in plastic and transported to retail distributors, who then stock and distribute according to store policies. Product transport and packaging can involve overseas truck hauls or even cargo flights, so this stage can be incredibly taxing on the environment in terms of fossil fuel production. 

What can you keep in mind at this stage?

Buy local!

If you’re purchasing denim that’s been primarily produced in your region, this will mean a less invasive transportation process. It also means there needs to be less sturdy and resource intensive packaging (think about it: products need more packaging and protection for an overseas cargo flight than they do for a trip around the block). 

Step 5: YOUR USE!

This is the stage of your denim’s life cycle which sees them living in your closet (or being worn by you daily). Many of us make the mistake of thinking that once we’ve purchased an item, its sustainability story is over. Think again! This phase is actually one of the most critical when it comes to how sustainable and planet-loving a pair of jeans can be. 

What happens during this phase?

Wearing.

Washing.

Ironing.

Drying. 

Repairing.

If you’re washing and ironing and drying your jeans daily, you’re going to be making their footprint fundamentally more environmentally degrading then if your wash them infrequently, air dry them, and most importantly, repair them instead of throwing them in the landfill.

Which brings us to the last stage in the denim life cycle. 

Step 6: End of Life.

The most important thing to emphasize about this stage is that it does not have to be a landfill. Leaving your denim in a landfill contributes to land waste, greenhouse gas emissions, species degradation, the spread of disease, water contamination, chemical saturation into soil, and carbon dioxide byproducts. 

So what options should you opt for?

One of your options is to buy biodegradable denim.

Another option is to recycle your garment, either through bringing it to a consignment store or working with a textile partner that repurposes old fabric into new items. 

At BUHO, we're committed to a circular model of textile regeneration, so if you don’t know what to do with denim, SEND IT OUR WAY. We work with independent producers who will recycle it into something new.

So next time you slip on your fave boot-cuts, remember that it’s simply one phase in their (hopefully) long and sustainably-minded life cycle.

Keep up with us here to get more in-depth guides to sustainable fashion!