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Ever since Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss joined forces to create the first pair of jeans at the end of the 19th century, fashion has no longer been the same. Denim has become an inseparable part of our life—and our closets—transcending trends, seasons, and social status. Despite its cool looks and comfort, though, denim has also made a name of itself for being one of the most eco-unfriendly fabrics to manufacture.
Since cotton is the primary fiber used in denim production—an “ingredient” that needs large quantities of water and fertilizers (read: chemicals) to grow—it is estimated that just one pair of jeans requires anywhere between 500 to 1,800 gallons of water to produce, according to multiple outlets. Add to that all the additional dyeing and chemical treatments that give your favorite pair of jeans that classic indigo color, and you have a recipe for (environmental) disaster.
Fortunately, though, more and more brands commit to implementing sustainable practices into their production cycles—whether that’s reducing water consumption or recycling old pairs of jeans into new ones— and as a result, offer a product that’s not just high quality and looks cool but it also doesn’t impact the environment in such a detrimental way.
Amy Powney, the designer behind the British sustainable label Mother of Pearl, that offers denim as part of its No Frills collection, says it’s not just about using organic cotton and “ticking a box.”
“It’s about retraining the way you do everything. We have a holistic, 360-degree approach and look at our impact at every stage, from the fabrics to the people making the clothes, and we’re thinking about what happens when a customer doesn’t want them anymore,” she said.
Powney launched the #FashionOurFuture initiative that aims to “strike the balance between our love for fashion and protecting the planet at the same time” and to encourage consumers to adopt environmentally-friendly shopping habits.
Here, we rounded up some of the best companies to buy your next pair of sustainable jeans from.
When surfing champion Kelly Slater co-founded Outerknown, he was adamant about the brand not carrying any denim pieces because of how polluting the manufacturing processes are. Fast forward five years later, and the company that has always put sustainability in the heart of everything it does, has figured out ways to create jeans that are not just eco-friendly but also crafted from the world’s premium denim.
Outerknown sources the organic cotton for its S.E.A. Jeans line from the Milan-based Candiani mill as well as the Turkish Isko that also work with brands such as Citizens of Humanity, Nudie, 7 for All Mankind, Reformation, and Hugo Boss. The pieces are then sewn either in Los Angeles or a “green” factory in Vietnam that recycles 98 percent of the water used in production while the other 2 percent is turned into sludge for building bricks. The company also adheres to strict labor standards and was one of the first brands to pursue accreditation from The Fair Labor Association before it even started manufacturing its apparel.
Most recently, Outerknow launched a line of sustainable stretch denim that uses biodegradable natural rubber instead of synthetic, petroleum-based stretch.
The quality of the end product is so important to the company that if your jeans tear or wear out, Outerknown will repair or replace them at no cost.
We love: Outerknown Iconoclast High Rise Skinny
To buy: $248, outerknown.com
The New York-based DL1961 is constantly pushing the boundaries of what sustainable denim looks like. The company uses botanic fibers, organic and certified cotton, clean dyes, and energy efficient machinery to produce its denim collections for women, men, kids and, even, pets.
In August, DL1961 launched an ultra-sustainable denim capsule, Better By DL, that uses less than five gallons of water on average to produce each piece. The jeans are also free of rivets for easy recycling while the included hardware was made from repurposed and non-electroplated metal. Ozone washing methods and waterless laser technology ensure that the cool washes of the final product were developed in an eco-friendly way. The collection also includes an antimicrobial Swiss textile technology added to fabrics that protects against COVID-19.
We love: DL 1961 Better by DL Bridget Boot: High-Rise Instasculpt Jeans
To buy: $209, dl1961.com
Stylist Anna Foster salvages discarded denim from vintage warehouses across the UK and then reworks it into brand new, one-of-a-kind pieces in her East London studio. Everything from sourcing the fabrics to washing them and creating the new denim pieces is done by small, local businesses using zero-waste, sustainable practices. Even the branded leather patches on the jeans are made with discarded off cuts from an East London leather company.
And since we mentioned zero waste, Foster really is committed to the idea of leaving nothing behind. She re-purposes the scraps from E.L.V. Denim by donating them to a local artist who uses them to create denim art.
We love: E.L.V Denim The Straight-Leg Step-Hem Jeans
To buy: $365, neimanmarcus.com
Los Angeles-based brand Ética is one of the only apparel manufacturers fully certified for global impact, clean industry practices, and social responsibility. The company has invested in eco-friendly technologies that consume up to 90 percent less water, 63 percent less energy, and 70 percent less chemicals, and a lot of the detail work on its denim is actually done by hand. It also uses botanical dyes to make its cool vintage washes and the little freshwater that is used for production is later returned in a healthy condition to benefit community farmland.
And last but not least, the company has also committed to exceeding Fair Labor standards by providing its workers with living wages and health benefits.
We love: Etica Jett Jacket
To buy: $175, eticadenim.com
Agolde’s 90s-inspired denim is sold in some of the most prestigious retailers both here and across the Atlantic (think Net-A-Porter, Saks Fifth Avenue, Moda Operandi, and Liberty of London). Its uber-cool designs are also worn by celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid, and Cameron Diaz just to name a few. That’s because the brand is dedicated to offering a premium product that is equal parts stylish and good for the environment.
The LA-based Agolde sources its fabrics from around the world and then uses sustainable technologies such as ozone machines (that reduce water usage) and high-efficiency wash methods to ensure its denim pieces are produced in an eco-friendly way.
We love: Agolde Rio Zora denim playsuit
To buy: $290, net-a-porter.com
Citizens of Humanity
Celebrity-favorite denim brand Citizens of Humanity makes most of its apparel in factories in Los Angeles and Turkey where its employees handcraft each denim piece. From high efficiency washers to laser technology that also protects workers from being in contact with harmful chemicals, the company is committed to implementing water-saving methods in its production practices.
The result is a range of timeless and functional styles that can easily be dressed up or down. Another bonus—the brand is also known for designing extra-long pants that are ideal for tall people (supermodel and environmentalist Gisele Bündchen is a fan).
We love: Citizens of Humanity Flavie Ultra High-Rise Wide-Leg Jeans
To buy: $238, anthropologie.com
Re/Done’s founders, Sean Barron and Jamie Mazur, describe the brand they created in 2014 not as a “denim company” but as a movement—“ a movement to restore individuality to the luxury fashion space, a movement to keep heritage brands relevant, and a movement to create sustainable fashion.” So how do they do that?
Re/Done uses vintage pairs of Levi’s jeans, completely deconstructs them by hand in their Los Angeles studio and creates a new pair that’s completely unique.
So by repurposing old denim, using water-conserving production methods, no harsh chemicals, and recycled packaging, the company that also just launched its first sneaker collection, has managed to stay at the forefront of sustainability and cool design for the past six years.
We Love: RE/DONE 90s High-Rise Slim Leg Jeans
To buy: $265, matchesfashion.com
McCartney needs no introduction. She is one of the pioneers of sustainable fashion having founded her eponymous brand in 2001 as a “vegetarian label.”
McCartney is constantly pushing the limits of what a truly sustainable fashion company can look like by using new alternative materials for her apparel and accessories. She recently announced that she has teamed up with Candiani, a family-owned sustainable denim mill in Milan, to work on the world’s first bio-degradable stretch denim made from plant-based yarns that will make its debut in her fall 2020 collection.
We love: Stella McCartney the Skinny Boyfriend Jeans
To buy: $490, stellamccartney.com
James Bartle founded Outland Denim as a way to help vulnerable women who have experienced exploitation or abuse get their lives back. Pretty quickly, he realized that in order to really make an impact in people’s lives sustainable production had to go hand in hand with the company’s social mission.
Nowadays, Outland Denim has replaced some of the most harmful denim manufacturing practices with greener alternatives by significantly reducing the use of chemicals, water, and energy in its production.
And in terms of style, well, let’s just say that if Outland Denim is good enough for Meghan Markle, it’s good enough for us. The Duchess of Sussex was spotted in a pair of high waist jeans while she was touring Australia with her husband.
We love: Outland Denim Harriet Skinny Jeans
To buy: $195, outlanddenim.com
“When we started Nudie Jeans in 2001, we decided that environmental awareness and human rights would permeate everything we did,” wrote the company’s founder Maria Erixon in a book about the history of the Swedish denim label.
And since 2012, all Nudie jeans are made from 100 percent organic cotton. The label specializes in “dry denim jeans” for men that haven’t been treated or washed which of course reduces the label’s use of harsh chemicals.
The company also offers free repairs to its customers and has a reuse and recycle program that focuses on repairing and recycling old pairs of Nudie Jeans.
We love: Nudie Jeans Lean Dean Dry Deep Selvage
To buy: $280, nudiejeans.com
Founded by “the godfather of denim” Adriano Goldschmied in 2005 and relaunched in 2016 by British-born designer Karen Phelps, the LA-based denim label has attracted some celebrity attention (Kate Moss is a fan) not only for its cool and timeless silhouettes but also for the attention to details and impeccable quality of its products. Every pair is constructed in the label’s LA studio and is only available in small batches so overproducing—a major environmental pollution factor— is not an issue.
We love: Goldsign Nineties Classic High-Rise Jeans
To buy: $295, net-a-porter.com