In this industry, we spend our lives moving water and energy around. Some things that use a lot of energy are easy to identify, such as heavy machinery or air-conditioned buildings with open external doors. However, one of the biggest industrial uses of energy isn't something that always stands out. Here is a hint: You are wearing it.
"The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping," notes a United Nations study (https://bit.ly/2WygWkq). "Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water globally, and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans."
The fashion industry has a bevy of profound social and environmental issues, ranging from labor exploitation to microplastic pollution. For the scope of this column, I'm going to focus on the embodied energy lifecycle of blue jeans. What should the life and death of your next pair of jeans look like?
Starting from a pencil sketch on a piece of paper somewhere, the next trendy style of jeans is coming. Decades ago, the time from design to sale might have been more than a year.
Today, there is a show called "Making the Cut" on Amazon Prime, where fashion designers sketch, create and show clothes to the judges in under 48 hours. The winning garments are made available to purchase right away on Prime, changing the sales cycle to a lightning pace. That quick sales cycle also means many styles go out of fashion and head to the dumpster sooner.
"While people bought 60 percent more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long," says a Business Insider article. "What's more, 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump each year."
The causes of these shorter lifecycles are a draw toward "fast fashion," which is a low-cost, potentially lower-quality style of clothing. Instead of investing $100 in a pair of jeans that might be wearable for a couple of years, you could purchase a $20 pair because they might be out of style in a few months anyway.
As an adult in the construction industry, my jeans look pretty similar year-over-year. Most of the people I know in this industry are probably OK spending more on a durable pair of regular-looking jeans. In most cases, function is more important than the new style from Paris. Because seasonality isn't as important on a jobsite, the lifespan of every pair of jeans should be a long one.
The genes of jeans
I asked my wife, Jules, a fashion historian by education, to tell me more about fabrics. She said that in previous centuries, ordinary people would buy sensible, durable fabrics that would last for years. They would sew clothing from these fabrics that would be patched and altered again and again, often being handed down within the family, until they were unusable. Today, mainstream clothing has transitioned from somewhat of a tool to a quick commodity in the global market.
Blue jeans evolved out of sensible, durable canvas material used to make tents during the gold rush in San Francisco. Levi Strauss hired a tailor to make durable pants out of the canvas sheets and later substituted denim with copper riveting to make jeans built for a long day in the mine. Like joining two pieces of metal, these pants were constructed with rivets, not only thread seams, because this ensured longevity in those rough conditions.
While denim has stood the test of time, new synthetic materials have taken a big chunk of market share, even in the trades. An example is Carhartt Cordura Duck material, which is actually nylon.
I asked Jules where the synthetic fabrics that we know today came from. She had a simple answer: war. Generations ago, cotton and wool were the main choices. During war times, scarcity in resources and new criteria for fabrics forever changed the materials we use.
As an example, a wool parachute might not be the optimal choice. On the other hand, the oil-derivative-fabric nylon was a much better parachute. After the world wars ended, fashion designers realized polyesters and a list of other synthetics were inexpensive, lightweight and durable alternatives to the traditional fabrics.
Reduce, recycle, reuse
From the manufacturing energy-intensity angle, synthetic fabrics can be less water-intensive to produce than cotton, depending on who you ask (whether you count the oil exploration water or not). However, the World Resources Institute estimates that in 2015, polyester fabric production released an equivalent amount of carbon emissions as 185 coal power plants (https://bit.ly/35BtJGU).
Whether a base fabric component is grown in a field or fracked, there aren't easy answers for which is the most efficient choice.
Since producing most fabrics requires a lot of water or oil, reduced consumption of new clothes is an excellent way to lower the impact of the fashion industry. For the clothes you already have, there are a few retirement options: the garbage, a secondhand store, repair or reprocess. Business Insider notes that the "equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second."
The trash is the worst place for old jeans.
Secondhand stores might give new life to a pair of pants, especially if they just don't fit you anymore. If you aren't ready to part ways with your favorite clothes, some clothing brands offer repairs. Patagonia will fix or recycle old items for you. One way to slow down fashion is to support clothing brands that stand behind their clothing warranties and want to see you try to wear out their clothes.
Some old jeans can be recycled into construction insulation. While using reprocessed clothing as insulation for your next house seems like a great landfill diversion, there are some pros and cons.
On the upside, denim insulation has good sound deadening properties, doesn't contain VOCs and won't leave your forearms itchy and irritated. Downsides? It can absorb water that would drip through fiberglass and it isn't as easy to cut, Fine Homebuilding laments (https://bit.ly/3diZ1oG).
The life-and-death product cycle of clothes is changing. There is hope on the horizon from companies such as Evrnu. They aren't just pummeling old jeans into fluff to use for insulation. They are breaking down old clothes to the molecular level and engineering a new fiber profile that they spin into yarn.
This new material is gaining attention in the fashion world as a more ethical raw material choice (https://bit.ly/35Bg8PT). If this type of up-cycled fabric takes hold, we would be able to make durable, sensible new products out of fashion industry trash. It would be a great way to slow down fashion. Maybe your next new pair of jeans will be created from your current favorites.