Denim is without a doubt one of the most popular fabrics across the world. However, its production is not without consequence.


At the beginning of denim jeans time, back in the mid-nineteenth century when Levi Strauss and the tailor Jacob W Davis started making trousers out of denim, mainly as sturdy workwear favoured by miners and cowboys, denim was made from cotton and the distinctive indigo dye came from the Indigofera tinctoria plant.

At the turn of the century, a synthetic indigo dye was developed, and by 1920, its use had far surpassed the use of the original plant, raising the production of denim to a new high. Soon, jeans came in all shapes and forms, and with further technological developments, reached a far broader clientele than those simply interested in workwear, soon becoming a staple in everyone’s wardrobe and a garment praised by celebrities the world round.

Today, denim is ubiquitous: it is used in jeans, jackets, skirts, tops, bags and even shoes. According to a study by P&S research, the global denim market is worth some $56.178-billion, and it’s expected to hit $79.211-billion by 2023. To put things in perspective, that’s more than a trillion rand at the current exchange rate.

That popularity has also produced troublesome results where the environment is concerned, especially when it comes to water usage, the chemicals used in the growing of non-organic cotton as well as the chemicals used in the treatment of jeans.

Consider that on average, it takes some 700g of cotton to make a pair of jeans, and that amount of cotton requires some 5.6 litres of water to grow. Then, there’s the fact that these days, it’s also mixed with spandex and other polyesters, which give stretch and strength, but are non-biodegradable. Add a distressed look to the denim, and you have another layer of chemical processing.

In 2005, a “round table” initiative led by WWF and supported by major stakeholders in the cotton industry started work towards finding more sustainable solutions for cotton farming.

The result was the Better Cotton Initiative, which was officially launched in 2009. Six principles were agreed upon for sustainable cotton farming:

  • Crop protection through limited use of pesticide and herbicide;
  • Efficient use of water, which means that farms or smallholdings must implement water management practices with emphasis on ground water and water body pollution;
  • Soil management through the enhancement of soil fertility, soil nutrient replacement and minimisation of erosion;
  • Conservation of natural habitats to enhance biodiversity;
  • The preservation of fibre quality; and
  • Decent work and fair wages, which means no child labour, no forced labour, no discrimination, plus minimum health and safety requirements for workers.

By 2014, Woolworths teamed up with WWF-SA and Green House to find the most sustainable way to produce jeans for their business, and in 2016 Woolworths joined the Better Cotton Initiative.

Since then, Woolworths has radically transformed its fashion business and over 80% of the cotton sourced is from sustainable sources, such as BCI. What this means for the chain’s RE: jeans offering is that it has become far more sustainable, with a majority of the range now incorporating BCI.

When it comes to production, more eco-friendly methods are used to get those fashionable looks. Washed-out looks are now the result of ozone-washing, a much less chemically intensive process that transforms air from the atmosphere and transforms it into ozone. This ozone can then be used to “wash down” denim. All of this is accomplished in a zero discharge process without water or chemicals and with a considerable reduction in the steps required to produce conventional denim.

The distressed look is also no longer the result of a chemically intensive process. Instead, laser technology is used to create abrasions, tears and breakages on denim.

The global apparel industry still remains one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. While we would all do best to reduce the amount of clothes we buy, the reality is that the demand is not decreasing just yet. So it is initiatives like these, which result in higher quality products, as well as a reduction in the use of the planet’s resources, as well as a reduction in the output of toxic chemicals, that will get us closer to a sustainable future.

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