Forever and blue jeans
I love my jeans, and wear them until they are no longer socially acceptable. But even then—it just doesn’t seem right to throw them in the trash. So I have piles of old denim waiting to become the next—what?
Just this week, our Climate Program Director here at OEC mentioned a cool innovation: a company collecting old jeans to make building insulation.
Wow! My jeans can get new life as an energy-efficiency tool. And because my job is finding ways to reduce toxics in the environment, I very much like this alternative to insulating materials that contain toxic ingredients. (See this handy comparison of insulation choices by the Green Home Guide). Buildings insulated with denim can be warmer, quieter and result in better indoor air quality, too.
My favorite jeans won’t last forever. But the chance to find useful purpose for them when I can’t wear them anymore is exciting. Simply recycling my jeans doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility for what it took to make them, however. Manufacturing jeans can be really hard on the environment, using toxic chemicals and dyes, energy- and water-intensive cotton, and a lot of water in the factory. A pair of Levis 501s uses 998 gallons of water in its full lifecycle, 70% of which goes directly to growing cotton.
The good news is that the industry is slowly changing. Alex Penadés of Jeanologia estimates that, in the past three years, the amount of jeans using more sustainable processes has grown from 16% to 35%. Organizations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition are bringing companies together to change practices. What’s in it for companies? Reduced risk and greater efficiency. What’s in it for me? Less harm to air, water, climate and communities.
What can you do to lighten up the impact of your denim?
Buy second hand. When you get your “pre-worn” jeans at the thrift store, you’re not only reducing the impact of new clothes, you’re diverting material from the waste stream!
Buy responsible. A number of brands have made commitments to reduce water and toxic chemicals in processing and to use responsibly-grown cotton. You can reward these companies with your shopping dollars. OEC suggests you research your favorite brand, and look for commitments to reduce water use, reduce toxic chemicals, and reduce climate pollution. The Better Cotton Initiative members and Sustainable Apparel Coalition are good places to start.
Wash your jeans less often. Most people in the U.S. wash their jeans after wearing them twice. By wearing them ten times, you can chalk up a 77% reduction in your water and climate impact. Manufacturers actually recommend washing less to extend the life of your jeans. One manufacturer also advised throwing your jeans into the freezer instead of the wash to kill bacteria—but CNN debunks that strategy.
Recycle your jeans into insulation! Cool! Or warm. Visit bluejeansgogreen.org to find out where you can drop off denim to be turned into insulation. You can also recycle a wider range of clothing through gemtextrecycling.com. Also check out Portland Metro’s tool to find resources for safe disposal of almost anything!