The suggestion that wearing jeans can help us to be more sustainable might sound like wishful thinking, when we start to think about the environmental impacts that go into the making of a pair of jeans. Denim is made of cotton, which requires notoriously large amounts of water and high quantities of pesticides in its growth. As cotton is turned into denim jeans, it leaves a significant carbon footprint, as most jeans are mass-manufactured, cotton is woven into denim in power loom plants, and jeans are then transported all over the world for sale, as generally jeans are not made in the same country they are bought. Once bought by consumers, the ways in which jeans are washed and dried means that the impact upon the environment continues to be detrimental. Despite all of this, our love affair with the basic blue jeans shows no signs of going away.
So rather than suggest that we ditch the denim, research that I have carried out into current jeans wearing practices (in collaboration with Prof. Daniel Miller as part of the Global Denim Project instead shows us that there are ways of wearing our jeans that can actually be seen as sustainable.
There are of course those denim brands which are more ethical in their production (such as Nudie Jeans and Bishopston Trading jeans), but factors such as price, convenience, style and perception of fit may stop many people from even considering these labels. Whilst choosing to buy jeans that are sustainable in terms of their production (in terms of both cotton and also how and wear they are shipped) is no doubt a positive move in terms of developing more sustainable fashion, it is not the only thing you can do. There are ways in which we wear and wash our jeans that can help and that are already part of our relationship with denim anyway.
So how is it possible to be ethical and still wear jeans? Research that we carried out into why jeans are such a widely worn item of clothing in the UK (seen in the book Denim: the Art of the Ordinary), has pointed that one of the ways in which jeans can help us to be more ethical lies in the fact that they are in many ways anti-fashion. To be in fashion means that you have to wear clothing that is of the current season, of the ‘now'. By definition, what is in fashion is constantly changing. One of the key challenges posed for our current consumer society is how ‘fast' fashion has become as items are replaced on the shelves of the high street almost weekly. It is assumed that for consumers, clothing has become disposable as their tastes change all the time. Blue jeans buck this trend.
If we were to compare a pair of standard blue jeans today to the first ever pair of Levis in the late 19th century, it is amazing how similar they appear. Even if there are of course changes in styles and the processes applied to denim, the similarities over time are striking. Despite some of the best attempts by designers and fashion to get us to change styles or ditch the denim, consumers still cling to the same old styles.
Being anti-fashion means that jeans can offer a unique possibility to be ethical.
What we found in our research into jeans wearing, is that many people were ‘accidentally ethical' in how they wore and washed their jeans. Our research found that one of the reasons that people love their jeans is how they are able to develop a personal relationship to them. Because of the ways in which denim wears down, as the hard material softens and goes white where it rubs against your body, the jeans take on your body shape. The more you wear jeans, the more personal the jeans become. People we spoke to were often disappointed when the jeans fall apart before they want them to; the challenges then become for producers to make denim that lasts longer.
So even if you don't realise it, wearing jeans can be accidentally ethical. Both in terms of how long people want to keep them and also as we found, jeans tend to be washed less often that other items. This is both because of people being more acceptable of jeans as ‘scruffy', and also as washing them loses that ‘soft' personal felt that many people seem to so like. Given that laundry is one of the most unethical aspects of clothing consumption this all helps to make a case for jeans being sustainable.
So if you want to carry on wearing your jeans, and want to do your bit for the environment - don't wash your jeans very often, relish their ability to be scruffy, soft and personalised. Keep your jeans until they are falling apart on your legs and tell the stories of the adventures and life you have lived in them - don't accept the fake lived in look that designers present to us with ‘distressed' jeans. It might take longer to wear them in, but you will love them all the more.
You can find out more about the history of cotton and the environmental and ethical issues surrounding it at a new exhibition at Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery. COTTON: Global Threads tells the global history of the production, consumption and trade in cotton. It runs until 13 May 2012.
Sophie Woodward's book Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary is published by University of California Press and can be ordered from their website: http://www.ucpress.edu/
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