Who doesn't own a pair of jeans?
Invented in 1873 by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss (sound familiar?), jeans have gone from being the workwear of farm labourers and miners during the American gold rush to a staple of virtually everyone's wardrobe. In the UK alone we spend a whopping £1.6 billion every year on jeans (source: Kantar Worldpanel).
The things that make jeans "jeans" are their unique engineering and the tough denim fabric used to make them. Designed for the demanding needs of the likes of pioneer cowboys, the pants had to withstand a lot of wear and rough and tumble.
Since jeans became a fashion item in the 1950s, nearly every style "tribe" had customised the garment to make it their own - surfers used the sun to bleach their jeans; 1980s punks wore skin-tight chemical bleached jeans; we all wore stone washed jeans in the 1990s (remember the little bits of gravel in your pockets?); and more recently fashion has embraced the "distressed" jean look - slashed and grazed.
I've also heard that you can pay £330 for a pair of jeans with mud splattered over them for a "festival look", but the less said about that, the better...
I love jeans, but I also love the environment
I have some serious concerns about the way mainstream retailers are approaching the design and sale of jeans.
An item which was originally created to be strong, study and long lasting is having its life being deliberately shortened in the name of style.
Jeans - and other denim items such as shirts and jackets - are distressed using a variety of techniques including the use of corrosive chemicals, sandpapering, slashing with knives and, alarmingly, a machine that looks like an angle grinder...
There are literally thousands of blogs and videos online showing people how they can DIY the look using razor blades, tweezers, cheese graters and nail files.
There are tutorials demonstrating how to "destroy" denim.
I understand that there are trends, but why anyone would want to destroy and intentionally reduce the lifespan of an item of clothing is beyond me.
The making of any piece of clothing has an immediate environmental impact- a typical pair of blue jeans consumes 919 gallons of water during its life cycle (this includes the water to irrigate the cotton crop, manufacture the jeans, and the numerous washes by the consumer) (source: Levi Strauss & Co.).
Then there is the human impact....
Many people in clothing factories are still sadly subjected to low wages and poor working conditions. But worse still are the health implications that occur from manufacturing processes such as sandblasting denim.
Workers in sandblasting factories can develop the lung disease silicosis, which is caused when small particles of silica dust from the sand embed themselves within the lungs. It causes shortness of breath, coughing, weakness, weight loss, and is incurable.
So, rather than using precious resources to make a garments which are then deliberately damaged and weakened, thereby shortening their lifespan, surely we should be looking to design clothing from which we can get the most possible wear? With the lowest environmental cost?
In a world of fast fashion, where fads dictate that what was "in" yesterday is resolutely "out" today we need an antidote. A real solution to the waste that the mainstream fashion industry is not only causing, but actively promoting.
Well, luckily, things are changing
Innovators and visionaries are coming up with new, better ways of making and selling jeans.
I'm currently wearing-in a pair of jeans from Howies which have been made from recycled beer bottles, however my absolute favourites are my "Monkee Genes" . Jeans made from organic cotton by people who work in good conditions and who are paid a fair wage. I've had them for longer than I can remember and they have distressed themselves naturally over the years - looking better the older they get.
Huit Denim Co. in Wales has a very unique method of making sure that their jeans fit perfectly - they pay volunteers to pre-wear the jeans, which involves following a strict rule of no washing for 6 months, saving gallons of water.
Nudie Jeans Co. offer a free repair service for their organic cotton jeans as well as reselling second hand denim and recycling worn out items.
At Where Does It Come From? our jeans for kids are made from handwoven denim that has been created using virtually no carbon. The dyeing process is low water and the dyes are non-toxic. You can find out the creation story of your jeans too which helps inspire the next generation.
The future is these kind of companies.
Companies who are using organic cotton, transparent production processes and championing social responsibility. Brands which are recycling, reusing and upcycling. Business models which dramatically reduce the environmental impact of our favourite piece of clothing.
Strauss and Davis would be proud.