sustainable jeans denim guide

A Deep Dive Into Sustainable Jeans With The Experts From Outland Denim & Levi’s

Is it possible to produce sustainable denim? Is it possible to buy truly sustainable jeans? The messy intersections between fashion, the environment and it’s human collateral are something we’re turning over more and more when we’re curating our wardrobes and denim is one of the constant conundrums. For many, jeans are a sartorial workhorse. When you’re staring into the abyss of your closet at a loss, jeans are a reliable North Star to point any outfit in the right direction.

Unfortunately, denim is one of the most resource-heavy and environmentally damaging fabrics in the fashion industry. At first glance, the problem looks like cotton—denim uses a lot it and it’s both a very thirsty crop and is often farmed using harmful pesticides and fertilisers. Growing the cotton for a single pair of jeans might take up to seven thousand litres of water, not to mention the water used in dyeing and manufacturing, and then washing said jeans once they’re actually being worn. The health of the planet—and thus, us humans—suffers as a result of the over-farming and soil erosion caused by the demand for cotton.

So what do you do when the item that appears without fail on every single ‘wardrobe essential’ style piece is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the environment? According to James Bartle, the founder of the Australian sustainable denim brand Outland Denim, you take it and change the world with it.

“I think denim is the ultimate product that you will ever come across to change the world with,” Bartle explained to Syrup over the phone. “There’s a number of reasons for that. It’s the worst contributor within fashion to the environmental disaster that we face. Because it’s the worst, you now have the ability to be able to create significant change by innovation and changing the processing methods.” Did a lightbulb just go off in anyone else’s head just then, too?

Bartle explains that there’s actually so much opportunity to improve jeans sustainability because of how damaging conventional denim production can be. “That could be the way the fibres are grown, all the way through to the milling and the dyeing. And then there’s the washing and finishing processes and the kinds of chemicals that are used and the amount of water that’s used in those processes. That’s why denim is the ultimate change-maker: because it has such a negative footprint that we can make consistent changes and you see a drastic shift in that direction.”

Outland Denim is a unique and incredibly transparent company in so many ways that are up Syrup‘s alley. From end to end it’s clear Bartle and his team have sustainability and ethics at their core—the company actually owes it’s beginnings to a trip in Southeast Asia where Bartle saw first-hand the problem of human trafficking.

Outland Denim provides new opportunities to people who’ve faced this, “we equip them to be successful themselves, so they weren’t dependent or reliant on charity, so to speak. I don’t believe that charity is the answer to most of the things it’s used for.” He’s right and he should say it. 👏 As much as we’d hope our donations are helpful, there are many complex issues in the world that bandaid charity solutions simply aren’t effective in solving.

For Bartle, it was important that Outland Denim gave people the means to “forge their own way, be educated, earn living wages and get further opportunities.” Which is exactly what it’s doing, every item has the name of the garment maker who created the piece inside on the tags. (A far cry from the calls for help discovered sewn into Primark labels back in 2014.)

Syrup also spoke with Kate McDonell, the Lead Merchant at the small jeans brand you may have heard of, Levi’s. Unlike Outland Denim, who are building something people and planet friendly from the ground up, Levi’s has the challenge of being an older player in a fashion industry that is increasingly being held accountable by educated and conscious consumers.

McDonell explained to Syrup that “Sustainability is woven into everything we do,” and that it’s Levi’s “profits through principles approach to business, rooted in [their] legacy,” that guides them. “Our priorities are focused on conserving water, reducing the use of chemicals in the supply chain, cutting carbon emissions and creating charitable programs for garment workers,” explains McDonell. Additionally, “in response to the Paris Agreement, Levi Strauss & Co was one of the first companies to set science-based goals around reducing carbon emissions.”

Speaking with both Bartle and McDonell, it occurred to us that for deep, lasting changes to spread through the fashion industry, companies of all sizes have a role to play. While many of us have been on the #susty bandwagon for a while and have a Rolodex of our favourite sustainable fashion brands ready to go at all times, some people might never consider the sustainability of their jeans if it weren’t for a brand like Levi’s bringing it up. Further, brands like Levi’s and Bonds making these sustainability moves end up challenging everyone to do better. “As a company, we have used our voice to advocate for strong climate policies, as well as taken action to reduce our climate impact and push for industry-wide change,” McDonell told Syrup.

While these two brands are operating on very different scales, there are similarities in the way they’re addressing making sustainable jeans.

Addressing denim’s #thirstrap

Because it was started with the intention of changing the industry (and the world) Outland Denim’s sustainable jeans are produced with people and the environment in mind from end to end. They use organic cotton, don’t use any harmful chemicals in any of their products, and they use less energy and less water as a result of the technology and processes employed to make their jeans.

A couple of specific examples Bartle explained to us was Outland Denim’s use of laser machines to achieve character on their jeans. (The all-important distressing that our dads continually make fun of. No, they did not “run out of fabric” making these jeans. 🙄) “There’s zero water use in that process. Instead of using harsh chemicals to get some of the distressing or using stone washing, you use these lasers and it burns out the pattens where they need to be.” If you’ve never seen this process before, it’s wild. Bartle calls it a “complete game-changer.”

As well as saving water and avoiding unnecessary chemical use, Bartle also notes the human benefits of the laser machine. “You don’t have silica in the air, which you get from sandblasting and those kinds of things, that are unfortunately still used in our industry.”

Much like Outland, Levi’s is also tackling water usage as a priority. “In 2007 we completed our first lifecycle assessment of a pair of 501® jeans, and this made the category’s water waste painfully clear,” explains McDonell. “Each pair required an average of 3781 litres of water in its lifetime. Cotton cultivation (68%) and consumer use (23%) were found to have the most significant impact on water consumption.”

Levi’s uses a few different strategies to edge their jeans over to the sustainable side, laser finishing and water-saving technologies being two key areas. Back in 2013, they created a whole-ass lab, the Eureka Innovation Lab, to create a hub for design, research and creative development, leading to advances in two of the technologies they use: Water<Less and Project F.L.X. “The introduction of Water<Less technology allows Levi’s to significantly reduce the amount of water we use in finishing a pair of jeans. We’ve saved over 3.5 billion litres of water,” says McDonell. Meanwhile, “Project F.L.X. is a laser-powered technology that digitises the design and development of denim finishing, allowing us to achieve efficiency and sustainability without sacrificing quality or craftsmanship.”

Levi’s also has good policies in place with regard to water use further up its supply chain. “Through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) we are involved in teaching millions of farmers smarter farming practices, such as how to grow more cotton while using less water and less harmful chemicals. They learn to grow more from less, thereby leading to increased pay. And better pay for farmers means they can invest more toward education and food for their families.”

Toxic – Britney Spears.mp4

As Bartle touched on, it’s not only the negative effect on the environment that sustainable jeans aim to mitigate, but also on people. It’s things like stone washing or sandblasting leading to silica building up in people’s bodies, and the chemicals being used that are absorbed by our largest organ (our skin) that we should be concerned about too. To that end, Outland Denim uses E-flow technology when creating its various denim washes. “It’s brilliant in that it uses nanobubbles that mist the washing agents over the fabrics, versus submerging it in thousands of litres of water. You can create these washes and effects while reducing up to 95% of the water used.”

They also use ozone technologies, “you use 60% less water but it also replaces the harmful bleaching chemicals,” explains Bartle. “When we have these really washed out products that use, you know, quite hideous chemicals to do get that look, this particular technology changes that.”

Since 2013, Levi’s has been taking steps to clean up the use of hazardous chemicals in the dyeing and treating of its clothing, aiming for the elimination of hazardous chemicals by 2020. (They’re on track, btw.) They’ve also open-sourced their Screened Chemistry program, which aims to understand the “potential health and environmental impacts of chemicals before they enter the supply chain, and to find alternatives for anything deemed unsafe.” Last year, they converged that “protocol with other apparel brands, including Nike, H&M and C&A, to define a single standard for chemical screening that is now overseen by the ZDHC Foundation – creating a holistic approach to tackling issues of hazardous chemicals and driving innovation in the apparel industry.”

We (do) need an education

Both Outland Denim and Levi’s also note that it’s not just everything that happens before a pair of sustainable jeans ends up on our legs that make them more planet-friendly, but also everything that happens to them after that. “We began work to encourage consumers to adopt care methods that use less energy and water,” explains McDonell. “Washing every 10 times a product is worn instead of every 2 times reduces energy use, climate change impact, and water intake by up to 80%.”

Bartle also highlights the importance of shifting individual behaviour. “The educational component has a flow-on effect as well. Because now people are being educated around how to conduct themselves and how to look after the environment and the benefits of producing products this way.”

“One thing that we’d say as a brand is you can’t separate people and planet. If we say we care about the environment, it needs to start with people,” he explains. It’s true. There is no other species on earth that’s so deeply affected the planet’s natural systems while deluding itself that it’s a distinct and separate entity from it. “When you educate people about the impacts of their everyday actions and then beyond in industry, that’s when you can make much greater change than just producing a sustainable, so to speak, ‘sustainable’ product. The reality is, none of us has created a 100% sustainable product. But that’s what we need to do. And that’s what we’re going to continue to work towards doing. Creating products that leave the earth in a better position as a result of being created than if they hadn’t been.”

Could we ever achieve regenerative fashion?

After griping with Bartle about our own worries about greenwashing within the sustainability space, we asked him if he thought fashion that was regenerative was possible. Watch this IG story highlight for the quickest overview for what lives rent-free in our heads.

“It is possible, it is so possible. That’s what it needs to be,” Bartle told Syrup. “Slow fashion to me is like the devil. It’s a dirty word. It’s not the answer. It might be the best thing we’ve got on an environmental level right now, but it’s certainly not the answer. And the reason is that it is going to create and does create fewer jobs. And with fewer jobs, there’s less income, more poverty, the oppressed become more oppressed, and there are even studies that can link slavery to environmental degradation.”

“It’s not as simple as, ‘buy less,’ the answer is to buy more. But we’re not at that point where we can do that. We need much more innovation in the space so we can create solutions to textile waste that don’t degrade our environment. And we need to be able to create better ways of producing while managing energy and water. Innovation, finding new technologies, finding old technologies, and better ways of producing—it’s going to come down to people being willing to pay what it costs to do this. And we and many others are working towards some of those solutions. And I think that we’re getting close.”

If you’re about to reexamine your entire closet, stay calm. The way to move forward is by wearing, caring for and loving the jeans you already own. Take in the pair that’s too loose instead of rushing to buy a new pair. Try cuffing or distressing jeans that you’re getting bored of. And when you’re actually in the market for new sustainable jeans, these are Syrup‘s top picks.

Sustainable Jeans & Denim To Shop Now

We’re big fans of when sustainable brands collaborate with traditionally ~fashun~ ones and this Outland Denim x Karen Walker jacket might be the most beautiful example we’ve seen so far. Like all of Outland Denim’s products,  the Goldie Jacket is constructed using organic cotton and dyes, vegan and made by people being paid fair wages in safe working conditions.

Outland Denim x Karen Walker Goldie Jacket, $289.00 from Outland Denim.

A new Levi’s offering we’re supremely into their new wide-leg style: the High Loose Jeans. Think of her as an updated ’70s-esque gal, ideal for pairing with band tees or crop tops. McDonell explained that “in our most recent Wellthread collection, we worked with re:newcell, to create denim pieces made with organic cotton and Circulose®, a breakthrough material made from worn-out jeans. In addition to using recycled materials, each part of the jean—trims, thread, etc.—was carefully calibrated to allow the jean itself to be fully recycled, marking a significant milestone in the fashion industry’s transition to circularity by showing that a circular economy is possible.”

High Loose Jeans, $149.95 from Levi’s.

Aussie designer Kit, behind the sustainably-minded label KITX has just launched her regenerated denim line with her first piece: the Future From Waste Denim Skirt. The pieces are made from denim salvaged from charity, and each piece has been washed and unpicked and then repurposed and redesigned into exclusive one-off designs. One if you absolutely can’t stand showing up wearing the same thing as someone else.

Future From Waste Denim Skirt, $395.00 from KITX.

Armedangels is a German brand with some serious commitments to sustainable jeans. They produce denim from 100% organic cotton, dye with artificial indigo containing no toxic solvents, and lighten their denim with modern laser and ozone washing technologies. We love to see it.

AARO Tapered Fit Denim, approx. $160 AUD (currently on sale for approx. $97 AUD) from Armedangels.

New Zealand-based label Kowtow is a long time favourite of sustianable fashion lovers in the antipodes, and their sustainable jeans offering is no exception. The range is made from 100% organic cotton, free from chemical sprays and genetically modified seeds. The nickel-free tacks are OEKO-TEX certified and it’s washing and dying is done using Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) compliant processes. Oh, and the jeans look timeless too.

Core Jeans, $229 (currently on sale for $109) from Kowtow.

Monisha Rudhran (@monishamay) is a writer and chronic Pisces. Formerly at Syrup, she's now a Digital Content Producer at ELLE and marie claire Australia. She’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.