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The remaking of the American jean

Blue jeans pants folded lie on a pile on a white background close up isolated

Most jeans you’re wearing today barely resemble the stiff, deep indigo pair that Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss introduced in 1873. They’re softer, thinner, lighter-colored and stretchy. That makes them more comfortable but also one of the most polluting and resource-intensive items in your closet. But there’s real hope for your jeans.

Today’s jeans start with the same woven twill as Levi’s original pair, dyed blue and studded with rivets. But the 3 billion pairs now on the global market require additional water, chemicals and energy to create. The dyeing process for a single pair can take about 100 liters of water, said Enrique Silla, the co-founder of sustainable denim-dyeing technology company Jeanologia. That water sometimes ends up in rivers and streams without being cleaned. When washed, new styles of jeans are more likely to release microfibers and also can fall apart far more quickly than their predecessors.

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Your jeans also add to the environmental footprint of the apparel industry, which is responsible for somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and about 4 percent of solid waste in the United States alone.

A slew of companies are redesigning jeans to lower their footprint, and a few of these models are now available in stores. Here’s how to spot them.

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The fabric

Like T-shirts and sweatpants, most jeans start with cotton. While denim fabric often incorporates synthetic materials, jeans that are 98 to 100 percent cotton (or other natural fibers like hemp) are the most durable and generate the least amount of carbon emissions over their life span. But not all cotton is created equal.

Organic cotton creates 48 percent less carbon dioxide than conventionally grown cotton and uses 91 percent less water. Recycled cotton, made by shredding yarn or fabric back into fibers, saves water and materials, but jeans with too much of it lose some strength and durability, said Mark Little, product line director for men’s outdoor apparel at Patagonia.

Regeneratively grown cotton generally comes from fields where farmers protect the soil by planting cover crops and not tilling, among other carbon-cutting practices that also promote biodiversity.

If there’s no label with listed materials, stretch the fabric: If it gives a lot, like this, you know it’s probably not a redesigned jean.

Tips:

-Choose jeans made of 98 to 100 percent cotton. They will be more rigid, but also more sustainable.

-Buy fewer jeans, even if they are made with organic or regenerative cotton, which takes more land to grow than conventional cotton. And know there is no general agreement on the definition of “regenerative,” or how to measure its climate benefits, which are still under research.

-Jeans with 5 percent recycled cotton should still be durable, said Natasha David, program manager for Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s fashion initiative, a British-based organization that launched a jean redesign project to envision a more sustainable pair.

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The look

Dyeing a pair of jeans with traditional methods requires synthetic indigo, about eight vats of water to dip the denim, said Sergiy Minko, a researcher of materials chemistry and nanoscience at University of Georgia at Athens. Then comes high-speed, high-energy sand and water blasting, to make them look lighter and distressed. These techniques result in more emissions than growing the cotton for a pair of jeans, said Joël Mertens, director of tools at Cascale, a nonprofit that measures clothing sustainability for jean makers and other clothes manufacturers.

Leaving denim unwashed (or raw), like the original Levi’s, is the simplest way around the problem. Clothing company Patagonia uses a foam-based dyeing technology that saves water, and the company doesn’t lighten or distress its jeans at all.

Usually, the lighter shade the jean is, the more processed it is.

About half of all jean makers now use new technologies, such as laser fading, that lighten, distress and create a washed look with less energy and water, said Silla. These techniques can cut the environmental impact of this finishing stage by up to 90 percent, said Mertens.

Tip: The label in your jeans probably won’t say how they were washed or finished. Look online for that information, which some companies provide for specific brands or lines.

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What about recycling?

The most recyclable jean has no unnecessary hardware. To recycle a pair of jeans, every piece of metal has to be removed - and that’s a labor-intensive process that decreases the value of recycling, said David.

Jeans were originally held together with copper rivets to prevent splitting seams mid-gallop in the desert or mid-squat in a mine shaft. Because the rivets are no longer necessary for today’s lifestyles, some brands are replacing them with stitches.

Zippers can be similarly replaced with buttons. But rivets and zippers create a “heritage” look popular with consumers, so designers hesitate to remove them even if that would make them easier to recycle.

So far, there are very few places that recycle denim; the recycling process is time-consuming and expensive. The metal hardware, meanwhile, might make jeans more appealing - and more likely to remain favorites to be worn longer.

“We should aim to keep products in use at their highest value,” said David. “We want the jeans to stay as the jeans for as long as possible before ultimately being taken apart for their core components.”

Tip: Pick a style you know you’ll wear for years or, ideally, even decades.

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Your role

Extending your jeans’ life span is the easiest way to reduce their environmental impact and encourage a more sustainable denim industry. This will also save you money. The newer and more durable jean designs tend to be more expensive upfront, but by choosing a timeless pair and caring for them well, you can wear them for years and reduce your overall costs. When you’re done with them, these jeans are more likely to end up in someone else’s closet than in a landfill.

Washing your jeans at home contributes to about one-quarter of the water usage and one-third of their carbon footprint over their entire life cycle, according to Levi Strauss & Co. Keeping them out of the laundry basket reduces that footprint, as well wear and tear on the jeans, making them last longer.

Depending on the brand, you may be able to return your jeans to the manufacturer. Madewell, American Eagle and other brands run collection programs that turn used denim into housing insulation. But bear in mind: While still better for the planet than a landfill, this downcycling does not cut future denim production.

“Everything is designed to be disposable, and that’s the biggest problem right now,” said Mark Little, who spearheaded Patagonia’s project to redesign its jeans. “So first and foremost, do you even need the jeans? We really want consumers to think about their relationship with the product.”

Tip: If your jeans are looking ratty, consider repairing them. If you’re sure you’re done with them, try reselling them. If you’re looking for a new pair, consider buying used.

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