Sunday, May 26, 2024

13 Fair Trade, Sustainable Denim Brands: Perfect Fit Jeans for You and the Planet


Pull on a pair of perfect-fit jeans with these eco-friendly denim brands.

What’s better than a pair of perfect-fit jeans? A pair of sustainable perfect-fit jeans. Jeans are known for being one of the least sustainable items of clothing; the denim industry is incredibly resource-intensive and highly pollutive. But there are denim brands on the market that are producing blue jeans without causing harm to the planet.

The origin of blue jeans

You can thank German merchant Levi Strauss and his business partner, tailor Jacob Davis, for your favorite pair of jeans. The duo patented the first pair of blue jeans on May 20, 1873. Originally available in two styles — indigo-dyed blue and brown cotton “duck” — the trousers were reinforced with sturdy, copper rivets so that they would be durable workwear attire.

Fast forward to today and the global denim industry is booming. Worth $64.5 billion in 2022, the market is projected to hit $76.1 billion in 2026. You can now find a myriad of brands churning out jeans in just about any style of your fancy, from distressed high-waisted jeans to hip-hugging low-rise jeans embroidered in lace flowers.  But, despite their varied differences — from cuts to embellishments and everything in between — modern-day jeans are largely unsustainable.

The environmental cost of denim

Nowadays, denim fabric is still made out of cotton just like its predecessors — and lots of it. Unfortunately for the planet, cotton requires large amounts of land, water, harmful fertilizers, and pesticides to produce. To put this into perspective, a single pair of non-organic cotton jeans uses upwards of 1,800 gallons of water to make. A recent investigation found the bulk of cotton produced in Brazil under the Better Cotton certification was coming from growers linked to deforestation in the Cerrado wilderness, which covers 25 percent of the country.

sustainable gift upcycled jeans
Re/Done’s jeans are made from upcycled vintage Levi’s. | Photo by Maude Frédérique Lavoie via Unsplash

The dyeing process doesn’t rank any better in the sustainability department either. After cotton fibers are harvested and spun into yarn, they’re dyed with synthetically produced indigo — which imitates the coloring of natural dye extracted from the Indigofera plant. Jean brands largely switched to synthetic indigo because it was cheaper, quicker to use, and didn’t contain color impurities found in natural indigo dye. However, most synthetic indigo dyes are made from petrochemicals like petroleum and formaldehyde. These chemicals often make their way into the environment when jeans are washed. They also pollute the waterways surrounding denim factories.

In addition to sustainability issues, labor injustices are evident in the cotton — and subsequently the denim — industry, including slave labor and poor working conditions. “We know that some of the worst forms of exploitation, particularly forced labor and child labor, happen deeper into the supply chain, at the fabric mills, or at the cotton stage,” Gershon Nimbalker, the Advocacy Manager at Baptist World Aid Australia, told the Ethical Clothing Guide. “Sadly only seven percent of companies know where all their cotton is coming from,” Nimbalker continued. “And only 17 percent know where all their fabrics are coming from. And if they don’t know, there’s virtually no way for them to ensure that workers aren’t being exploited.”

Sustainable jeans

Granted, the best — and most eco-friendly — way to shop for jeans is to buy them vintage or secondhand. But if you’re intent on snagging a new pair, shopping from sustainable denim brands can help to lessen your purchase’s environmental impact. Ready to say hello to your new favorite pair of jeans? We’ve got the best brands to shop.

imogene and willie

1. Imogene and Willie

This husband-wife duo’s dream began when both of them found themselves jobless after their family businesses closed up. They had dreams to create something new. They put their idea to paper and in the wee hours of a chilly January day they hit send on an email sharing their dream with their closest family and friends.

They launched their brand with one single email and two products, an inaugural jean for women (Imogene) and men (Willie). Their goal to sell 250 pairs was met within just 3 weeks and the company soared from there.

Their dream to make the perfect pair of jeans to fit our imperfect bodies became a reality.  Their shop opened in Nashville, Tenn., with an accompanying repair shop. All of their jeans come with a 1-year warranty and inexpensive repair prices after that first year.  They believe in repairing versus replacing, and we are all about that, too! 

2. Nudie Jeans

This Amsterdam-based brand focuses on timeless design and sustainability. Using organic denim and recycled materials it creates jeans that last and through its repair program jeans that have a second and even third life.

Before circulatory was the buzzword it is today, Nudie Jeans was leading the way. Once its jeans do reach the end of their lifecycle Nudie takes them back, recycles the materials, and creates something new out of them. The patches are frequently used in their repair shop and denim is upcycled in items like bucket hats.

3. Buck Mason

Sasha Koehn and Erik Allen started out as neighbors in Venice, Calif., and became business partners in 2013 with the launch of their label Buck Mason.

They set up shop in a 350-square-foot garage. While Sasha built the website, Erik created the line’s first jeans and tees. Quality being at the forefront of their business model, they teamed up with a local family factory to create small batch runs of their unique items. They create classic pieces that will last much longer than just a season and always remain in style.    

4. Citizens of Humanity

This brand needs no introduction, but many consumers might not know about its commitment to sustainable denim. This LA-based team manufactures in a city that understands the importance of sustainability and conserving water due to the drought-ridden landscape.

CoH uses recycled and organic cotton, both of which use substantially less water than traditional denim. The laser-cut styles reduce waste and they invest in high-efficiency washers.

5. Boyish

Our go-to source for vintage-inspired, high-quality jeans, Boyish produces jeans with one-third of the number of resources as traditional jeans, by using recycled material. It’s also dedicated to eco-friendly packaging. Boyish also uses Dystar Indigo dying which has 80 percent fewer sulfates than most treatments and their dyes are plant-based.

All of the materials are organic certified and they frequently create collections out of deadstock fabrics, to divert materials from landfills.

6. Amour Vert

The affordable slow fashion brand Amour Vert paired with Agolde denim to create its collection of sustainable denim. All the denim is crafted at its factory in Los Angeles, using organic and recycled cotton. The factory is one of the only vertically integrated denim product facilities in the United States and the process uses 80-90 percent recycled water for its denim processing.

7. Reformation

Reformation is a beloved ethical clothing brand and has a number of celebrity fans, including Taylor Swift. Its vintage-inspired jeans are made from organic cotton and Tencel. Its denim processing saves thousands of gallons of water annually. The jeans are sewn in a fair trade factory in Turkey.

8. DL1961

DL1961 is a family-owned clothing brand that has been creating sustainable denim since 2008. The team oversees the entire process from fiber to finished garment to ensure quality and good worker conditions. Many of the garments are made from recycling old denim. The process breaks down old denim into smaller pieces which are then woven into new yarn and new jeans.

khloe kardashian b corp2
Courtesy Good American

9. Good American

Khloe Kardashian launched Good American in 2016 to offer cleaner denim products to women of all shapes and sizes; 70 percent of women wear a size 14 or above, the company says. The brand’s efforts have earned it B Corp status and a diehard following. It uses sustainable and recycled cotton, Tencel, and other eco materials in its range.

10. Warp + Weft

Warp + Weft provides incredible, size-inclusive, sustainable denim. The family-owned brand has been around for three decades and is obsessed with the perfect-fitting jeans. The sizes range from 24” to 48” waists. The company factory saves and recycled 98 percent of the water it uses through its vertical manufacturing option.

11. Neems

Can never find the right fit when it comes to jeans? Neems is here to help. The consumer sends in their measurements for Neems to make a custom pair. Made-to-order clothing cuts down excess inventory and allows for less fabric waste. Neems jeans are also made from sustainable Tencel.

12. Outerknown

Outerknown creates fair-trade denim for both men and women. Its S.E.A. jeans are made in one of the world’s cleanest denim factories. Fun fact: the brand was also one of the first to use the now popular Econyl fiber, which is made from recycled fishing nets.

13. Sezane

Sezane is known for its eco twist on Parisian chic. Its denim range is made from GOTS certified cotton and recycled polyester. The company’s clothing upcycling has given a new life to more than  13,000 garments saving them from landfills in the process. It has also donated more than  4 million euros to help charitable organizations and thousands of children.

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