Let’s face it – The most versatile, ready-to-wear, no-need-to-wash garment in your wardrobe is easily a pair of jeans. But with all the hue and cry about ethical fashion, organic cotton, and fair trade, you may be wondering what sustainable denim brands are out there. Well, good news – that’s what this post is about. We’ve taken the stress out of sustainable denim shopping and put together seven fair trade brands we love.

So, What’s the Deal with Sustainable Denim & Fair Trade Brands?

Here’s the thing. Because of microplastic pollution from synthetic clothing, advocates of sustainable living support fashion with less synthetic and more natural fibers. So we’re talking about clothing made from cotton, alpaca, linen, silk, hemp and so on.

Denim fabric is primarily made from 100% cotton. It comes in shades of the well-known indigo-blue, although other colors are now acceptable, too. To make it a little more wearable, denim fabric is often blended with other materials such as elastane and polyester. 

There’s no doubt that denim is a fashion trend that’s here to stay. Dress your jeans up in boots and a trendy top, and you’re set for a night out. Throw on a baggy t-shirt and flip flops, and you can bum around the house all day. 

But behind the scenes, there’s more to your favorite pair of jeans and t-shirts that’s getting environmentalists flustered. 

It’s all about the cotton material that’s used to make denim. The use of cotton in the fashion industry has become controversial for the following reasons:

  1. Cotton is a water-intensive material to produce, consuming vast amounts of water from the farm to the final garment. Oxfam has estimated that it takes 20,000 liters of water to produce one t-shirt and a single pair of jeans.

 

  1. Also, the countries which grow cotton for the textile industry are often water-stressed, meaning they strain their freshwater reserve to grow the crop. Countries like India and Pakistan are among the top cotton producers but are also among the most water-stressed countries globally.
  2. Cotton is a chemical-intensive crop, requiring the use of pesticides and other chemicals due to its low tolerance to pests and diseases. The chemicals used in cotton growing are toxic and have an immense negative impact on the environment and the farmers. Nine out of the most common pesticides sprayed on cotton farms contain known cancer-causing compounds. This is prevalent, particularly in developing countries, where there is inadequate access to information.
  3. When it comes to cotton exports, exploitative trade has been the norm between buyers and exporters from developing countries. This ends up with farmers being paid peanuts, and not benefiting at all for their labor.
  4. Unethical treatment of workers: In textile and garment production, factory workers in developing countries are subjected to unfair treatment, underpayment, poor working conditions, and lots of injustices. Most of the time, the workers are denied their labor rights, and malpractices such as child labor also occur. 

These 5 points form the case for the shift to sustainable denim production, through organic cotton farming, ethical cotton production, and Fair Trade.

Sustainable Denim Brands

In short-listing the fashion brands for this post, we were looking at some essential must-haves for them to qualify as sustainable. Remember, our goal is to identify brands that produce eco-friendly denim. Here are our criteria to classify a brand’s denim as sustainable:

  1. Cotton for their production must be organically sourced. It’s an added plus if the cotton source is certified as organic. This means we should be looking out for organic certification such as GOTS, OCS, or BSCI.
    * GOTS means Global Organic Textile Standard, and is the leading textile standard applied worldwide, and is usually backed by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. Read more on the GOTS process and application here.
    * OCS, on the other hand, refers to Organic Content Standard and is a standard that verifies the amount of organic material in a final product. Also, OCS tracks the flow of the raw material from the source to the final product. There’s more information about OCS and how it applies to cotton here if you want to read up some more.
  2. Sustainable practices: Production processes that incorporate some if not all of these:
    -low waste
    -recycling and reuse
    -energy-efficient operations
    -non-polluting
    -water efficient
    -carbon footprint offsetting and efforts to achieve carbon neutrality

  3. Fair Trade certified cotton ensures that farmers and factory workers in developing countries are not exploited. So we will be looking out for those brands that practice fair trade principles, including the following:
    – Appropriate terms of trade and better prices paid to farmers
    – Decent working conditions for workers in developing countries
    – Local sustainability for the farmers and factory workers in developing countries
    – Support and engage in Ethical practices in their business and for their foreign workers too.
    – We will also highlight brands that have Fair Trade Certification.
  4. Community outreach, support for environmental conservation & protection, and similar initiatives are also a massive plus for brands.

It wasn’t easy to find them, but these are the brands that made our list:

  1. Kings of Indigo
  2. DL1961
  3. Marks & Spencer (M&S)
  4. People Tree
  5. Eileen Fisher
  6. Reformation
  7. Everlane


1. Kings of Indigo

Kings of Indigo are among the industry leaders when it comes to sustainable denim. In the founder’s words, Kings of Indigo aim to make ‘Clean Jeans.’ Tony Tonnaer, the founder of Kings of Indigo, talks about what drives the brand and describes what makes a ‘Clean Jean’ is in his own words. Take a look at Tony’s inspiring video here.

Kings of Indigo’s core objective is to lead the fashion industry in cleaning up and changing. They have come up with ‘5 Pillars of Sustainability’, which are derived from the brand’s core objective. 

These pillars are:

  1. Planet-friendly materials
  2. Water use
  3. Social responsibility
  4. Transport 
  5. Waste Conscious

Despite their fantastic collection of denim apparel, Kings of Indigo are proponents of ‘slow fashion.’ They limit the production of new designs to 2 seasons per year for their collections.  Also, Kings of Indigo practice sample production first before rolling out large quantities of designs. 

All this is to reduce the number of unsold clothes at the end of each fashion season. Find their collections on their online store or Well Made Clothes online.

Kings of Indigo Sustainable Denim Profile

 

  1. Certified Organic Cotton 
*Yes.

 

*Cotton they use only comes from sources that are 100% GOTS, BSCI, or OCI certified.

  1. Sustainable Production Practices
*YES

 

*They use recycled wool, recycled cotton & recycled polyester. The recycled polyester is from post-consumer PET bottles.


*Packaging of products is done in recycled paper

 

*Carbon footprint – They are in the process of implementing measures to achieve carbon neutrality.

  1. Fair Trade and Ethical Practices 
*YES 

 

*Guarantee worker safety in their factories & production locations.

 

*Social Responsibility & Transparency details here.

 

*Member of the Fair Wear Foundation, which supports ethical business practices and upholds a Code of Labor Practice for members.


2. DL1961 Denim Collection

To create the character and the different ‘washes’ of the jeans, DL1961 uses two unique waterless technologies. They use a laser machine, as well as a unique ozone technique – more on these sustainable techniques here. This creates significant savings in the amount of water typically used to finish the denim designs. 

DL1961 has in place a major water recycling and treatment facility, which sees them recycle 98% of the water they use in their operations. The savings on the water that this has realized are huge. According to their website, DL1961 estimates that they saved over 892.5 million gallons of water in 2019 through waterless technologies and water recycling. Now that’s sustainable denim production, in my opinion!

This modern brand has crafted stylish collections for everyone – men, women, and children. They even have a maternity jeans collection, featuring designs with stretchy, comfortable waistlines for moms-to-be. Who says you can’t look good even with your baby-bump, right!

Denim for Pets

 

What I found unique about this brand is that they have a collection for pets. Imagine that! So you can dress up your dog in some cute denim pet jackets, and truly step out in style.

The pet collection features denim jackets that have:

    • Snap buttons for easy fastening;
    • Harness Hole that’s convenient to slip your pooches harness strap through for walks;
    • Available in different sizes, plus there’s a handy size guide that you can use to help select the correct fit for your pooch.

DL1961 Sustainable Denim Profile

 

1. Certified Organic Cotton  * YES

 

* Organic cotton used meets environmental standards and is certified by either of the following criteria:

GOTS, OCS, GRS or RCS

 

2. Sustainable Production Practices:  *YES

 

*Energy efficient operations, partially powered by solar energy.

 

*Laser & Ozone technologies are used to create ‘character’ & different washes. These are waterless approaches, creating huge savings in denim production for this brand.

 

*DL1961 recycles & treats 98% of the water used in its processes. This means less water is used in denim production, compared to conventional jeans. 

 

*Use of ‘clean’ dyes – DL1961 uses a lean form of liquid indigo that doesn’t have any harmful by-products. More about this special dye here.

 

*Carbon footprint – Use of solar energy for part of their operations results in the reduction of carbon released into the atmosphere.

 

*Utilizes an on-site self-power generating plant, with an in-built heat recovery system, means increased power saving & efficiencies in energy generated for their operations.

3. Fair Trade and Ethical Practises  *YES


3. Marks & Spencer (M&S)

Good old M&S are registered Fair Trade buyers, not just of cotton, but several other products, including their tea and coffee. As one of the largest clothing retailers in the UK, they take every aspect of sustainable fashion very seriously.

I first encountered M&S way back in 2013 when I had my baby, and my family gifted me M&S baby sleep-suits, bodysuits, and other baby clothes. I loved them! Fantastic quality clothing that doesn’t shrink, fade, or irritate sensitive skin. 

Beyond having the broadest range of trendy clothing for the family, M&S are involved in initiatives that ensure:

  • Sustainable materials sourced from responsible suppliers are used for their clothing.
  • Fair wages, better working conditions, and ethical treatment of workers at factories and cotton farms of their suppliers.
  • Environmental protection – maintaining their carbon neutral status, supporting their suppliers to reduce their carbon emissions. M&S is working to further reduce its carbon emissions by 90% by 2035. 

Looking for Vegan Clothing? Not a Problem.

M&S has Vegan fashion options, which include synthetic footwear and accessories, made from strict vegan-friendly processes. If it has an M&S’ vegan’ label on it, you can be assured that the materials, glues, dyes, trims, and fillers are all vegan.

M&S Shwop Box

One of the Zero Waste things M&S came up with was a concept called The Shwop Box. This initiative was started in 2008 in partnership with Oxfam, and it’s seen over 34 million clothing items shwopped to date. 

Shwop Box is M&S’s solution to reusing and recycling unwanted clothes returned by customers. M&S accepts returned clothes of any brand into their Shwop Box, and passes them onto Oxfam, for their reuse & recycling programs.

Oxfam sorts the returned clothing and prepares them to be resold, reused, or recycled. Nothing goes to the landfill. The money raised from these sales goes towards funding Oxfam’s vital projects in communities facing extreme poverty and hardship. 

Shwop Box works into the plan to ‘Close the Loop’ in a sustainable fashion for M&S. It is also a part of M&S’s objective to become a Zero Waste business by 2025.

M&S Sustainable Denim Profile

 

1. Certified Organic Cotton  M&S is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which ensures that cotton production is done sustainably.  M&S sources it’s cotton only from BCI accredited farms.

 

M&S only uses cotton from proven organic & sustainable sources; take a look at how they go about that here.

2. Sustainable Production Practices:  *YES

*Between 2009-2017, M&S partnered with WWF to support cotton farmers in India to make the switch to organic cotton farming. This initiative saw 25,000 farmers get a certification as BCI farmers
*M&S became carbon neutral in 2012 and is continually working towards reducing emissions further, through several initiatives. More on the dedicated steps to reduce carbon emissions of their operations here.*Sustainable Palm Oil Sourcing – Palm oil is a highly controversial resource because of the threat palm oil farming poses to certain animal species, and the deforestation of tropical forests. M&S is sensitive to this situation and has implemented a sustainable approach to palm oil sourcing.
3. Fair Trade and Ethical Practises  *YES

 

*M&S is a Fairtrade partner, and several of its products are sourced from Fairtrade suppliers.

 

*They are also major advocates & practitioners of Fair wages and ethical treatment of workers. In their website, the M&S position is that they have ‘Zero Tolerance on issues such as  Modern Slavery, Child Abuse, Discrimination, and Harassment.’ 

 

*Find out more on what M&S are doing in championing fair treatment, better wages and working conditions for workers in countries like Bangladesh and India.

4. Environmental Responsibility Initiatives/ Giving back to Society *YES

 

*M&S is extending support to the NHS in several ways during the COVID19 crisis. Apart from financial support through NHS Charities Together non-profit, M&S has donated 4000 pajama sets, branded t-shirts, care packs, and lots more to support health care workers in the UK during the crisis. 

 

Check out what else M&S is doing and how you can get involved here.


4. People Tree

People Tree launched its premier collection of 100% organic cotton denim jeans in 2018 and haven’t looked back since. The shift to organic cotton has realized significant savings in water consumption. Compared to conventional denim production, People Tree estimates that they utilize about 87% less water producing denim from organic cotton.

People Tree are proponents of ethical production. They support local communities in the countries of manufacture like India and Bangladesh so that the locals can improve their livelihoods. 

One way that they do this is through employment creation, hiring locals to work by hand with traditional artisan skills such as: 

  • Weaving
  • Embroidery
  • Knitting, and
  • Hand block-printing

Hand-made fabrics and garments require a much higher workforce. For instance, handwoven fabric uses nine times more labor than that woven by electric looms. By choosing to use this manual approach, People Tree creates employment for more people, and more families can improve their livelihoods. 

Are you interested to know more about People Tree’s hand skills initiative? Take a look at how it works and videos of the amazing artisans at work here

People Tree Sustainable Denim Profile

 

1. Certified Organic Cotton  *YES

 

*They use organic cotton that is GOTS certified.

2. Sustainable Production Practices:  *YES

 

*Use of low impact dyes that are free from harmful Azo chemicals

 

*Plastic-free processes; plastic-free packaging

 

*Use of hand-skills in aspects of garment production means that less carbon is released into the atmosphere, compared to electric garment production.

3. Fair Trade and Ethical Practises  *YES

 

*Fair Trade Certified

 

*People Tree creates employment in rural communities by using skilled local artisans to produce beautiful products through hand:

-weaving, 

-knitting 

-block-printing and 

-embroidery 

 

*Transparency in Manufacturer details

4. Environmental Responsibility Initiatives/ Giving back to Society *YES

 

*Partnering with Give Back Box to collect donations of used clothing and unwanted household items.

 

*Collaboration with BBC Earth to support environmental protection initiatives such as Ocean Protection. People Tree creates awareness about vulnerable species by designing dedicated collections about each vulnerable animal.

 

*People Tree Foundation was created as an offshoot of People Tree, and it supports both humanitarian and environmental initiatives.
The foundation has three main aims: 

 

i)To promote environmental projects & support organic cotton farming.

ii)Reduce poverty, especially in developing countries

iii)Campaign to create an empowering environment for Fair Trade & Sustainability.


5. Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher is a Certified B Corp brand that makes denim that’s ‘responsible by design.’ Their clothes are made using sustainable materials and processes to have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. 

Eileen Fisher incorporates two Zero Waste principles into its value chain – Renew and Waste No More.

  1. Renew – This reuse concept is one of Eileen Fisher’s closed-loop initiatives. They encourage people to return their gently used EF clothes, and the clothes that are in perfect condition are given a new lease of life, cleaned and resold. Those that can’t be reconditioned for sale are repurposed into artworks.
    Due to the current Covid-19 crisis, the company has temporarily closed Renew operations and is encouraging buyers to hold onto their clothes for the time being.
  2. Waste No More – This reuse concept is styled around ‘Beauty of the Discarded,’ seeking to find ‘The Potential of the Repurposed.’ This arm of Eileen Fisher is essentially a design studio created to do something useful with post-consumer clothing.
    The artists & designers repurpose unused or discarded scraps of materials and damaged clothes, creatively transforming them into the following products:
    – Wallworks
    – Panels – acoustic and aesthetic
    – Garments
    – Other objects
    Find out more about the exciting Waste No More Process and get an idea of how it all comes together here

Eileen Fisher Sustainable Denim Profile

 

1. Certified Organic Cotton  *YES
2. Sustainable Production Practices:  *YES

 

*Circular Production aiming for minimal waste operations through and ‘Waste No More and ‘Renew subsidiaries of Eileen Fisher.

 

*Use of Bluesign certified dyes. Bluesign approves only those products that are safe for the environment, the workers, and customers. 

 

*In addition to Organic Cotton, EF uses other responsible fibers such as:

-Recycled nylon, polyester & cashmere

-Tencel

-Organic-Linen

-Responsible Wool

3. Fair Trade and Ethical Practises  *YES

 

*Supporting local communities through training and dedicated work to enable them to earn a living for their families.

 

*In Peru, EF also gives no-interest loans to locals who want to buy knitting machines and expand their businesses.

 

*EF conducts audits worldwide of its factories and manufacturing partners to assess compliance with Fair Trade ethical standards.

4. Environmental Responsibility Initiatives/ Giving back to Society *YES

 

*Signatory of the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, which participating brands commit to moving the fashion industry to a more circular one.

*EF gives financial donations to support several environmental and human rights causes. Non-profits such as Green Tree, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Organic Farming Research Foundation are among past beneficiaries. You can view the full list here.


6. Reformation

If these jeans make me look anything like the model here, then I have nothing further to say: The picture is worth 1000 words right there!

Seriously though, Reformation is a top sustainable brand, especially concerning the use of sustainable processes, as well as the materials for textiles. Some of these materials include:

  1. TENCEL™ Lyocell – manufactured from Eucalyptus trees
  2. Viscose – made from wood pulp
  3. Linen
  4. Recycled Cotton 
  5. Organic Cotton
  6. Recover® yarns – processed from recycled clothes and fabric waste
  7. ECONYL® is – 100% regenerated nylon constructed from post-consumer plastic
  8. Recycled Cashmere
  9. Alpaca wool
  10. Deadstock and Vintage fabrics

Reformation Sustainable Denim Profile

 

1. Certified Organic Cotton  *YES

Reformation uses organic cotton that has either GOTS or OCS certification.

2. Sustainable Production Practices:  *YES

 

*Reformation uses predominantly sustainable materials, such as those listed in our preamble.

 

*Use of non-toxic dyes with Bluesign or Oeko Tex certification

 

*They have also invested in green building technologies, to minimize waste, water, and energy footprints.

 

*They publish a quarterly sustainability report for purposes of accountability.

 

You can view the comprehensive discussion on Reformation’s sustainability practices here.

3. Fair Trade and Ethical Practices  *YES

 

*Reformation carries out periodical factory audits to ensure that ethical standards are upheld for factory workers.

4. Environmental Responsibility Initiatives/ Giving back to Society *YES

 

*Partners with Canopy Style to support their forest conservation initiatives.

 

*Reformation has been carbon neutral since 2015. To help others offset their carbon emissions, Reformation has partnered with NativEnergy and Arcadia

 

Through these initiatives, Reformation facilitates the purchase of Climate Credits to support NativEnergy.

 

They also help you switch to sustainable wind energy through Arcadia.

 

*To achieve their carbon offsets, Reformation has partnered with the

i) Brazilian Rosewood Amazon Conservation Project

ii) Bonneville Environmental Foundation 


7. Everlane

Everlane’s sustainable denim approach is one of ‘Radical Transparency in their own words. They aren’t only transparent about the materials they use and the sources; they are also transparent about the wages paid to their workers. 

Everlane even provides a cost breakdown of the inputs that go into each garment and is open about the markup they put to arrive at the selling price. That’s pretty radical!

The sustainable denim footprint of Everlane’s denim is literally from farm to store. Right from sourcing organic cotton from fair trade farms, to sustainable and closed circle production processes at the factories, Everlane sets high compliance standards for all their partners.

Everlane Sustainable Denim Profile

 

1. Certified Organic Cotton  YES
2. Sustainable Production Practices:  YES

 

*Everlane sets sustainability & efficiency standards for its production partners to follow. 

 

An example is the Saitex International factory, which manufactures denim for Everlane. Saitex recycles 98% of the water it uses in its production processes.

 

In addition to clean water, they also use  Clean energy and practice Clean waste approach.
You could read up more on the different factories Everlane partners with here.

3. Fair Trade and Ethical Practises  YES

 

Every Black Friday, Everlane donates their profits to initiatives that improve the lives of their factory workers.

 

*Everlane carries out a factory audit that assesses fair wages, reasonable working hours, and working environment. 

 

Everlane requires 90% compliance with the standards from the factories before they enter a partnership with them. Find out more about the factories Everlane works with here.

4. Environmental Responsibility Initiatives/ Giving back to Society YES

 

*Everlane designed a collection dubbed ‘100% Human’, to support the protection of human rights, and to remind everyone that we are more alike than similar in the world.

*To support Covid-19  initiatives, Everlane is donating 100% of the profits from this collection to Feeding America’s Covid-19 response Fund. 

 

*We found this to be so inspiring because statistics show that 1 in 9 people in America faces hunger every day. Head on over to Everlane’s 100% Human trendy collection and support this worthy cause.

Just One More Brand Making a Difference:

Here’s one more brand that uses sustainable methods to create their denim products:

ABLE Fashion – Empowering Women: 

ABLE is a fashion brand based in the US, but with manufacturing footprints in several countries including:

  • Ethiopia (where it all started)
  • India
  • Mexico
  • Brazil

ABLE’s amazing story had humble beginnings, selling handwoven scarves made by Ethiopian women rescued from the commercial sex industry. Demand was so high for the scarves that they sold 4000 scarves in just two months. ABLE then decided to expand its product offering to include shoes, leather bags, clothing, and jewelry.

ABLE has a strong commitment to empowering women, believing that women invest twice as much into their families compared to men. It’s therefore not a surprise that 95% of the ABLE workforce are women.

ABLE’s Sustainable Denim Profile

 

  1. Sustainable Production Practices
YES
  1. Fair Trade and Ethical Practices 
* YES

 

*Upholds practice of worker safety, equality, and fair wages in their manufacturing partners.

 

*Strong on women empowerment – 95% of the staff are women.

 

*Transparency on the wages they pay their employees

  1. Environmental Responsibility Initiatives/ Giving back to Society
*Support Cancer Research; In 2019, they donated 10% of their sales (28th – 31st October 2019) to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation

We Would Love to Hear From You:

What other brands of sustainable denim have you heard of or worn? 

We know our list is not exhaustive, so we would love to hear from you. Please share with us your experiences in the comments section below.

Ready to Live Consciously?

Have you started living consciously? Are you involved in any Eco activities? We would love to know: Drop us a line on any of our Social Media handles and share your thoughts and experiences with us.

Let’s Do This Together!

 

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