The price of one pair of jeans—$70 and 2,000 gallons of water

Can fashion be sustainable?

Created date

August 21st, 2019
Four different shades of denim jeans

Traditional fabric dyeing consumed thousands of gallons of water, but new waterless dyeing technology can dramatically reduce water consumption. 

As we approach the dawn of a new decade, the hottest new trend in fashion isn’t short skirts or high heels, it’s sustainability. In other words, green is the new black.

Sustainability describes systems or processes that do not deplete resources or create unusable waste. Sustainability also includes respect for workers, communities, and, most of all, the environment. 

In recent years, “sustainability” has become a buzzword embraced by industries to assure consumers they aren’t harming the planet to bring their product to the marketplace. 

Americans are increasingly concerned about the environment with good reason. The United Nations predicts that if nothing is done to slow the world’s environmental destruction, there will be a global climate-related catastrophe as soon as 2040. The impact could include food shortages and rampant wildfires. Coastal cities could be submerged underwater. The coral reefs could become extinct. 

An unsustainable industry

Accepting an award for her long-standing commitment to protecting the environment, eco-friendly fashion pioneer Eileen Fisher told the audience, “The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry. It’s a really nasty business...it’s a mess.”

While there’s no telling if the fashion industry really is the second-largest polluter, there’s no doubt that by clothing the world the fashion industry is destroying it.

Microplastics are harming sea life at an alarming rate. The fashion industry is responsible for one-third of the microplastics being dumped into the oceans. 

In 2015, the fashion industry generated 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas—more than was generated by all international flights and maritime shipping combined. 

In that same year, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water in the manufacturing process. This figure is not all that surprising when you consider that from the cotton field to the store shelf, it takes over 2,000 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans.

Finally, there are the landfills. The average American discards about 80 pounds of used clothing and shoes per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 84% of those unwanted clothes (including donated garments) end up in landfills or incinerators. 

Led by sustainability innovators like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, it seemed like the fashion industry was committed to righting the environmental wrongs it has been responsible for. 

However, a recent report conducted by the Global Fashion Agenda, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and the Boston Consulting Group shows that the industry’s efforts are moving too slowly. 

In many cases, the technology just isn’t there yet or it’s far too expensive for many fashion brands to implement. 

The high cost of sustainability 

It’s a sad fact that sustainable products almost always cost more. 

Some industries have done a tremendous job of convincing consumers to go out of their way or dig deeper into their wallets for sustainable products.

Just a few years ago, many people scoffed at paying more for organic produce. In 2006, organic food sales totaled less than $20 billion. By 2018, that number reached a record $52 billion prompting Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, to declare, “Organic is now considered mainstream.”

People may not think twice about shelling out $15 for salad made with organic greens, but they are much more reticent about paying upwards of $400 for a sustainably produced sweater at Eileen Fisher. Even $99 seems like an exorbitant price to pay for a fair-trade, eco-friendly fleece jacket from Patagonia when a similar-looking if less ethically produced jacket can be purchased at Target for $34. 

Organic foods are good for the environment, and eating organic foods is a healthier option for people. When it comes to wearing sustainable clothes, people don’t necessarily see the immediate benefit for themselves. Furthermore, most Americans simply can’t afford $400 sweaters.

The same fashion industry report showed that more than a third of surveyed consumers said they have switched from their preferred fashion brand to another because they want to support companies that “credibly stand for positive environmental and/or social practices.”

It is a glimmer of hope for eco-friendly fashion. With a concerted communications campaign, the industry can increase consumer awareness. Once consumers fully understand what’s at stake, $99 may not seem as expensive. 

A new pair of jeans

Remember all those gallons of water needed to make one pair of jeans? Levi Strauss, the company that has outfitted everyone from miners to movie stars in their iconic blue denim, has introduced an innovative line of hemp jeans.

Hemp plants consume less water than cotton plants, but the course feel of hemp fabric has made the fabric unusable for clothing until recently. Recent advances in hemp-softening technology have made a world of difference. 

“This is the first time we’ve been able to offer consumers a cottonized hemp product that feels just as good, if not better, than cotton,” says Paul Dillinger, vice president of product innovation at Levi’s.

The company is also employing innovative waterless dyeing technology, allowing them to produce jeans using up to 70% less water than traditional indigo dyeing techniques. 

The hemp jeans retail for $128, while a similar pair made from traditional cotton cost about half that. It will be up to consumers to determine how much sustainability is worth. 

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