Sustainable Denim Showdown: The Best Brands and Why
What do cowboys, casual Fridays and Canadian tuxedos have in common? Denim, of course. Denim, initially created as durable workwear for manual labourers has become a universal staple in nearly every person's closet for decades. With no indication of our denim habits slowing down, the environmental impacts of our increased demands are having a sizeable negative effect on our waterways, non-renewable energy and toxic waste.
With research showing a single pair of jeans using up to 2900 gallons of water, and 4.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, denim is one of the biggest polluters in apparel manufacturing (a major climate villain in it’s own right). So what’s a denim lover to do?
Luckily these 10 ethical clothing brands have got us covered by producing ethically made, sustainable denim, using innovative practices that reduce the environmental footprint of their jeans.
Levi'sIconic denim brand Levi’s began in 1853 as a workwear brand, offering farmers, railroad workers and gold miners a stronger alternative to the standard light cotton trousers that would easily tear during vigorous physical labour. Originally using tent canvas to manufacture its pants, the brand quickly shifted to using denim and has built a lasting legacy of classic blue jeans ever since.
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Introduction of WATER>LESS DenimThe brand launched it’s WATER>LESS collection in 2011 with the mission of reducing water usage by 98% during the manufacturing process. Since then, Levi's team has come up with more innovative ways to reduce water usage (like using bottle caps and old golf balls to soften the denim, a process that typically uses massive amounts of water to achieve optimal results). The brand has also committed to using even less water in manufacturing facilities located in regions with a high water poverty index. Another particularly beautiful thing about Levi’s approach is that they openly offer their techniques and sources to other brands seeking to be more sustainable. Well done, Levi’s.
NudieNudie began with a mission of bringing back the old fashioned, traditional denim once used by labourers and farmers. This “raw” denim is untreated and made to be broken in over six months (or longer!) to get that perfect custom fit.
On top of having a taste for tradition, the team behind Nudie has an equal passion for sustainability, pointing out that technically the most sustainable option is to not wear any clothes at all (hence, “Nudie”), but if you do happen to find yourself in need of something a little less drafty and a little more publicly appropriate, Nudie jeans are the way to go. The brand works with only organic, fairtrade or recycled cotton, in addition to this, they have turned their sustainability efforts to consumer patterns by offering free repairs, reselling pre-loved jeans and creating their ‘Rebirth’ project which uses 20% post consumer recycled materials to make new designs.
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Warp+WeftA family owned business, Warp + Weft have been in the denim game for over three decades using an eco friendly mill that serves as one of the worlds largest textile manufacturers.
Warp + Weft are in line with others on this list by reducing their water usage by 98%. In addition to cutting water usage, the brand pushes their sustainability efforts even further by opting to use Dry Ozone technology instead of toxic bleaches on their denim, as well as sourcing toxic free dyes (touting the “most eco friendly of all indigo dyes” from a well known manufacturer in Germany). In addition to reducing water usage and cutting out harmful chemicals, Warp + Weft sources the base of it’s denim (cotton, Lycra and Tencel) from the U.S, significantly reducing the c02 emissions typically occurred when purchasing materials from overseas. Bonus points for making sustainable denim at an accessible price point (under $140).
KuyichiKuyichi was born in 2000 during a trip to Peru to research the cotton industry in hopes of developing a system that supported local farmers to grow organic cotton in exchange for a fair price. When the founders realized that fashion brands weren’t interested in paying extra for a sustainable product, they decided to build a brand themselves.
Nearly 10 years later Kuyichi (named after the Peruvian god of rainbows), remains one of the only brands to use 100% organic cotton in their denim line. Although organic cotton is extra water intensive, Kuyichi utilizes recycled cotton as much as possible by shredding and re-spinning previously used cotton into yarn which is used to make new denim products (with their percentage in each piece being as high as 29%). Kuyichi also gets credit for using 60% less C02 emissions compared to traditional cotton (thanks to their exclusively organic content).
Bi-Annual Transparency ReportIn addition to its sustainability practices, Kuyichi has also made a pledge to transparency with a bi-annual release of its list of suppliers and factories (which includes factory certifications and worker count). Overall, Kuyichi is a great alternative to traditional denim.
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BoyishOne of the youngest brands on our list, Boyish was founded in 2019 by Jordan Nodarse, one of the same masterminds that helped Reformation launch their sustainable denim line, named the brand for its ‘tomboy’ aesthetic and use of traditionally masculine silhouettes and fabrics.
Boyish prides themselves on their transparent approach to denim, allowing customers to see everything from chemicals and fabric to where they purchase their raw materials from. Most notably, Boyish uses just one third of the water of traditionally manufactured jeans, sustainably sourced hang tags and even hardware. Now that’s commitment.
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Frank and OakFrank and Oak is a homegrown Canadian brand that has gained a cult like following for it’s minimalist styles and subtle palettes. From it’s launch in 2012, founders Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani have prioritized quality essentials with intentional manufacturing practices which has led the brand to seek increasing levels of responsibility as they grow, introducing eco-conscience materials and achieving a Benefit Corporation accreditation all within the past few years.
While their entire line has some sort of eco-conscience aspect, their denim in particular hits a home run by using recycled polyester sourced from discarded plastic bottles, in combination with eco friendly alternatives to harmful traditional dyes and a significant reduction in water use.
KowtowWhile Kowtow isn’t exclusively a denim brand, but they sure do it well. Launched in 2006 with a commitment to preserving the planet and protecting its people, Kowtow has created a beautifully curated collection of sustainable garments and accessories that have earned their place among eco-giants such as Everlane and Reformation.
Kowtow’s line of eco friendly denim offers fair pay to their cotton farmers (protected by a fair trade certification) and uses exclusively organic cotton in their manufacturing, in addition to dying it’s textiles using an organic wash recipe certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). The New Zealand based brand has taken its sustainability efforts to a new level by sourcing only sustainable, nickel free tacks (a component of traditional jean buttons) for it’s collection, making it a stand out on the list.
EverlaneEverlane is one of the first global brands to brand based on transparency, ethics and sustainability. With a cool minimalist vibe, they debuted their collection of sustainable basics in 2010. Since, Everlane has expanded to include other major apparel categories like shoes, loungewear and in 2017, sustainable denim.
While Everlane’s denim fits are classic, their manufacturing and process is something of a modern marvel, using LEED certified facilities that recycle 98% of its water, uses solar energy to dry the denim, and a five step water filtration system that safely removes any toxic dye chemicals from the processing water (which is the recirculated).
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Everlane takes sustainability one step furtherTo top it all off, Everlane is using the (unavoidable) toxic byproduct called ‘sludge’ (telling name) by sending it to a nearby brick factory where the product is mixed with concrete (to avoid leaching the toxins) and made into bricks to build affordable homes (at the time this is published, they have built ten).
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ReformationReformation was originally founded as a ‘side gig’ in 2009 by founder Yael Aflalo, who was inspired after returning from a work trip to a traditional apparel factory overseas and wanted to find out if there was a more intentional way of producing beautiful clothes. Over ten years later, Aflalo has followed her curiosity to build Reformation into a well loved brand for it’s flattering silhouettes and luxurious sustainable fabrics. Often praised for their line of beautifully cut limited edition dresses, Reformation proves they get more than just wedding guest attire right, with their line of classic denim.
The brand uses a mix of organic cotton (which is grown in rotation to give the soil time to recover nutrients) and TENCEL™ lyocell, which comes from the pulp of trees and is processed in a closed loop cycle to make their form flattering styles. This in addition to their “climate credits” (carbon offsets) which can be purchased with your order.
PatagoniaThe granddaddy of all socially responsible brands, Patagonia has been innovating the textile space since 1973 when avid outdoorsman and environmentalist, Yvon Chouinard began making climbing equipment that would damage the vertical landscape of his climbing routes. Shortly after Chouinard began manufacturing outdoor apparel to compliment his climbing equipment and accidentally began a legacy of the most innovative and conscious apparel brand in the world. With the design philosophy of making every piece strong enough to last for the rest of their life, it’s no shock that Patagonia makes high quality, thoughtfully sourced denim pieces worthy of passing down to your future children.
In addition to manufacturing denim that lasts decades, Patagonia uses organic cotton grown in the USA that is dyed with a bio based formula derived from natural indigo (the original blue jean dye). On top of that, Patagonia’s innovative processes use at least 84% less water than standard denim. Now that’s an heirloom the kids can get excited about.