For almost 150 years, jeans have been the staunch of fashion: virtually everyone, everywhere, owns a pair.
They’re tough and versatile, but they also contribute greatly to fashion’s not-so-enviable reputation as one of the world’s most polluting industries.
Now, a British charity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, hopes to change that by encouraging clothing companies to subscribe to its “Jeans Redesign Guidelines”, and it could change the design of jeans as we know them.
For one thing, the list says that metal rivets should be “designed” or “minimized.” Metal studs were the basis of Levi Strauss’ patented design in 1873. Known as the “XX” pants, they were later named 501. Rivets were originally used to reinforce jeans in areas where they could break, but modern seams were It has been made purely decorative.
Many of the best jeans in the world are being made in Japan. Credit: Chris McGrath / Getty Images AsiaPac / Getty Images
The new guidelines, which are part of the charity’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, state that jeans must withstand at least 30 home washes, be made of “cellulose fibers from regenerative, organic, or transitional growing methods,” and be free of dangerous chemicals. Sandblasting, stone finishing, and the use of potassium permanganate (an oxidizing agent that fades denim) are also prohibited.
“The idea is to extend the life of your jeans for as long as possible,” Make Fashion Circular leader Francois Souchet said in a phone interview, “and (make) everyone in the supply chain start asking: ‘How can you redesign this product in your second life?’ How do I reduce its environmental impact and do it ethically? ‘ “
A brief history of blue jeans
The history of modern jeans begins in 1853, when a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss brought denim to the United States.
After moving to San Francisco to open his own dry goods business, Strauss began supplying the fabric to a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis. The fabric proved popular with workers, cowboys, and miners as it was more suitable than traditional work clothes to withstand harsh conditions. Davis specialized in denim pants, and then created a reinforced pair with copper rivets placed in the pockets and flies.
Denim pieces reveal practice points. Credit: DON EMMERT / AFP / AFP / Getty Images
The pants evolved over the course of the next century, from blue collar garments to navy uniforms, then to signifiers of rebellion and youth angst, pop culture, and beatniks. They have enjoyed the endorsement of celebrities such as John Wayne and Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, but also Elvis, Paul Newman, Jefferson Airplane, Marvin Gaye, Brooke Shields (in their iconic Calvin Kleins around 1980), Tupac and Pharrell.
In their transformation, blue jeans have maintained an almost equal appeal. They have been reinvented as luxury items and, almost simultaneously, fast fashion. In doing so, they also took an important part in the manufacture of clothing, and ironically, since they were initially created as long-lasting clothing, they became almost disposable.
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“What was once one of the most durable items in our closets is now something we buy and manufacture in downright disturbing volumes,” said Anika Kozlowski, assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. . . “Which has led to significant environmental impacts.”
A high environmental cost
Traditionally, jeans are made of cotton. Although natural and biodegradable, the fiber comes from one of the “thirstiest” crops in the world. In addition to the water needed to grow cotton, it is used more for dyeing, rinsing, and finishing to achieve the classic look of denim, which comes from weaving indigo-dyed cotton yarn (warp) with white cotton (the weft).
This process involves blasting abrasive materials at high speed through an air compressor to clean and shape the surface of the denim. It can have extremely detrimental effects on both the environment and the workers who make jeans. Sandblasting has been shown to cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease that is often fatal.
A model walks the runway during New York Fashion Week in February 2019. Credit: Sean Zanni / Getty Images North America / Getty Images for John John / Res
“Taking steps towards a greener supply chain has become almost inevitable,” said Kozlowski. “There are as many problems with the sector as there are currently.”
H&M Group, GAP, C&A, Lee Jeans and Reformation are some of the labels that have pledged to join Jeans Redesign. More are expected to follow, with the first pieces created using established guidelines to hit stores next year.
Levi’s has not registered, but the company, and other big names like Wrangler’s and G-Star Raw, have taken steps to reduce its environmental impact, whether it’s reducing water use, developing more sustainable blends, or working with more manufacturing plants. small to ensure ethical cultivation and processing methods.
A model presents a creation for Balmain in March 2018 in Paris. Credit: FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP / AFP / Getty Images
New technologies have been helping brands to review their production and supply chains. The Spanish factory Tejidos Roy, for example, has created a waterless dye system, along with Indigo Mill Designs and the US-based Gaston College Center for Textile Technology. USA, which uses 100% less water in the tincture, 89% less chemicals and 65% less energy.
“But that’s still a small niche across the industry,” said Dio Kurazawa, head of denim at trend forecasting agency WGSN and co-founder of The Bear Scouts, a platform that unites brands with sustainable manufacturers. “Too many companies simply have not committed to changing as much as necessary, even though innovation is there. Part of this is due to cost, in part to lack of will.”
More work is required to reduce the environmental cost of denim, according to Souchet of Make Fashion Circular. “Jeans were an obvious entry point for such an effort,” he said. “The denim industry has already made quite a few efforts to improve its manufacturing process. It is aware of its own problems. Our guidelines want to build on that, to create better alignment throughout the supply chain.”
One of the most exclusive dressmakers in the world.
Brands participating in Jeans Redesign must submit annual reports to show their progress. But both Kurazawa and Kozlowski are skeptical about the long-term impact of the program.
“I personally don’t think the rules are going to change much,” said Kurazawa. “Manufacturing countries need help with infrastructure and living wage payments for factory workers. Initiatives, like these guidelines, have little (in the sense) of measurable results, in that regard.”
Kozlowski said that while the initiative is laudable, what is needed is more supervision.
“I think the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s drive for sustainability is excellent, but the problem is that there is no governing body that guarantees the implementation of the standards,” he said. “The supply chain is global, so it is really difficult to enforce control.”