Blue jeans: An iconic fashion item that’s costing the planet dearly

  • The production of blue jeans, one of the most popular apparel items ever, has for decades left behind a trail of heavy consumption, diminishing Earth’s water and energy resources, causing pollution, and contributing to climate change. The harm done by the fashion industry has intensified, not diminished, in recent years.
  • The making of jeans is water intensive, yet much of the world’s cotton crop is grown in semiarid regions requiring irrigation and pesticide use. As climate change intensifies, irrigation-dependent cotton cultivation and ecological catastrophe are on a collision course, with the Aral Sea’s ecological death a prime example and warning.
  • While some major fashion companies have made sustainability pledges, and taken some steps to produce greener blue jeans, the industry has yet to make significant strides toward sustainability, with organic cotton, for example, still only 1% of the business.
  • A few fashion companies are changing their operations to be more sustainable and investing in technology to reduce the socioenvironmental impacts of jeans production. But much more remains to be done.

Eternally current and always fashionable, blue jeans are among the most-worn articles of clothing on Earth, transcending time, trends, and social class. Their popularity is ubiquitous, so much so that legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent once declared: “I wish I had invented blue jeans. The most spectacular, practical, relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — everything I hope for in my clothes.”

Unfortunately for the planet, the production of this garment takes a huge environmental toll.

A single pair of cotton jeans consumes between 10,000 and 20,000 liters (2,600-5,300 gallons) of water along its supply chain. Add to that large doses of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, dyes and other chemicals that pollute soils and waterbodies, impacting wildlife and people, plus major energy expenditures that generate high greenhouse gas emissions.

Those consequences haven’t slowed sales, with more than 70 jeans-related garments sold per second, according to the Science and Industry Museum, a Parisian institution that recently presented the exhibition “Jean.” That equates to more than 2.2 billion items bought yearly.

While some companies are acting as early innovators in sustainability and have taken steps to make blue jeans “green,” the majors of the fashion industry, though declaring themselves committed to sustainability and to “the Jeans Redesign” circular economy guidelines, still work with oil-derived synthetic fibers and with conventional cotton, while chasing the idea that more production is always better.

Fishing boats resting on the bottom of what was once the Aral Sea. Image by Arian Zwegers via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The Aral Sea cotton catastrophe: A warning to the world

The story of jeans begins with cotton: the vegetable fiber and raw material for making denim fabric. Each kilogram of cotton requires between 8,000 and 10,000 liters of water to grow, or about 960-1,200 gallons per pound. That figure reaches more than 22,000 liters per kilo (2,600 gallons per pound) in some regions in India.

Cotton’s intensive water needs can be sustainable in agricultural areas that get copious amounts of rain, but oddly, the lion’s share of cotton-producing areas in today’s world receive uncertain precipitation, with the crop heavily irrigated by surface water and groundwater — often putting extreme demands on streams, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands and aquifers.

Extracting excessive amounts of water from such sources, a common practice in cotton-producing countries, has already led to the destruction of at least one major ecosystem: the Aral Sea, in Central Asia.

Located mostly in semiarid Uzbekistan, one of the world’s top 10 cotton producers, the Aral Sea has suffered from escalating desertification since the 1950s, when it was the world’s fourth-largest lake. From then on, the Soviet Union began aggressively diverting the rivers feeding the huge inland waterbody to irrigate pesticide-soaked crops, ultimately including 1.47 million hectares (3.63 million acres) of cultivated cotton.

The Aral Sea, once home to 24 fish species and encircled by vibrant fishing communities, shrank to 10% of its original size by 2012. Diminished by excessive water use and climate change-driven drought, it shrank from its original 6.6 million hectares to just 600,000 hectares (16.3 million acres to 14,800 acres). Today, the Aral Sea’s vast expanse of dry lake bottom is the source of salts and carcinogenic pesticide residues, carried on winds that cause throat cancers and respiratory disease.

Since the 1950s, river water entering the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest lake, has been diverted to irrigate cotton crops. Today, the sea spans only 10% its former surface area. Image by NASA/Earth Observatory via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

According to critics, this ecological catastrophe offers a warning of what happens when government policies and fashion industry profits trump a region’s basic ecological needs.

“This is not just climate change, this is an extinction issue,” said fashion designer and environmentalist Katharine Hamnett, commenting on the cotton industry’s harm in the region. “The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, causing human misery, enormous cost of life and gigantic environmental devastation.… Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world.”

However, the fashion industry does deserve credit for its strong response from 2011 onward to human rights and labor violations in the production of Uzbek cotton. The industry’s implementation of raw cotton production traceability showed that it has the capacity, when motivated, to act on the social and environmental concerns of consumers. But long years of harm still means that a reversal of the Aral Sea’s destruction is unlikely.

The critical threat posed by water-intensive cotton production in semiarid regions is even more urgent today due to intensifying climate change. In Brazil, for example, more than 90% of the nation’s cotton is grown in Mato Grosso and Bahia states — part of the semiarid Cerrado savanna biome whose ecosystems and crops could collapse due to worsening drought in the next 30 years.

Machines harvest cotton. In Brazil, production is dominated by large-scale agribusiness, which initially deforested the Cerrado savanna biome for cattle ranches and soy crops. Image by USDA via RawPixel (Public domain).

But despite this forecast, some Bahia agribusiness farmers are authorized by the state to withdraw up to 1.8 billion liters (476 million gallons) of water daily for free, according to a report by investigative news outfit Agência Pública. This massive extraction of water has not managed to keep pace with global warming-accelerated drought, and the cotton crop saw declines in 2022.

Still, Brazil’s garment industry seems mostly unworried. Newton Coelho, business director for Santista JeansWear, one of the country’s largest denim manufacturers, is typical: “We still don’t face chronic drought problems, as in Texas, U.S.,” he told Mongabay. “The tendency is for irrigation to grow [in Brazil] with the increase in climatic variations and the greater risk of future crops … There is a lot of room for increasing exports [from Brazil], considering the quality of the products, adaptation to fashion trends, and increased actions for the lowest possible environmental impact in the jeans value chain.”

This optimistic view fails to heed researchers’ warnings that heightening drought could lead to aquifer depletion and devastate not only ecosystems, but Cerrado agribusiness too.

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