I am so happy that winter is over! I can’t help but daydream about the change of season and fast forward my mind to December, where I’ll hopefully be anywhere but Jo’burg, enjoying some tropical humidity near the ocean. I know that’s a bad thing to do; living for the future; not being present. But a 5 minute imaginary vacay never hurt anyone. Anyway, even though it’s officially spring, I haven’t quite been able to whip out the floral minis yet. Jo’burg is obviously still in a transitional phase, but I’m so happy to say goodbye to dry, brown Jo’burg! It hasn’t rained in over three months and our building’s gardener keeps testing my patience by watering the grass everyday. Those who know me well will know that I am absolutely neurotic about water wastage.
So I thought it important to talk about something relatively unknown about the fashion industry, more specifically denim. Denim is made from cotton, and the average irrigation requirement for cotton is 7.8 megalitres per hectare (I megalitre=1 million litres). That is an exponential amount of water! So the gardener’s water usage doesn’t seem so significant in the greater scheme of things. I decided to further research this issue, trying to find ways to reduce my water footprint as a denim-consumer, and I learned that these reclaimed denims that I’m wearing in this look have helped me save over 3800 litres of water, just because I reused them instead of buying new ones. Let me elaborate.
Firstly, cotton is a water-intensive plant and can take more than 20000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton. Even though H2O doesn’t necessarily leave our planet, we are in the process of rendering our water permanently unusable, which leads to number two; most of the cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified, and despite only occupying 2,4% of the world’s cropland, conventionally grown cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticides and 11% of the pesticides – more than any other single crop. It is grown using monoculture farming practices, which refers to the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. Monocultures are more susceptible to certain weeds and insect pests because of the lack of biological biodiversity – when one plant is susceptible to a pest, it means that all other plants of the same species are likely to suffer from it. This encourages the use of herbicides and pesticides to protect against that. Consequently, these pesticides and herbicides, as well as chemical fertilizers, seep into the water table entering our rivers and ocean. Then the manufacturing process uses more water, and fossil fuel derived dye, leading to more water wastage and water pollution.
Did you know: 16 out of 20 of the world’s most polluted cities are in China. This is linked to China’s production of most of the world’s fashion and textiles. 75% of China’s diseases are related to polluted water.
Thanks to Levi Strauss & Co.’s pioneering efforts to create sustainable denim, we’re able to take a closer look at the life cycle of a single pair of jeans, specifically Levi’s® 501 jeans, thanks to an assessment they conducted in 2013. Their findings were summarised as follows:
Of the 3,781 liters used to create one Levi’s® 501 jean, 2,565 liters were consumed during the cultivation of the cotton, 236 liters during the fabric production, 34 liters during the garment manufacturing, 77 liters for sundries and packaging, and an astonishing 860 liters due to customer care (frequency of washing).
This is the impact of one pair of denim jeans, that we aim to buy for the cheapest price possible, but unwittingly pay the highest ecological price, especially when you factor in the 10,5 million tonnes of discarded clothing entering landfills each year in the US alone – but that’s a discussion for another day. So what’s the solution? Never buy another pair of denim pants again? Heck no! But let’s try our best to buy smart.
Better Cotton Initiative
Because of denim’s environmental impact, Levi Strauss & Co. aim to become the ”world’s most sustainable apparel company by transforming the way we do business”. One of the ways they aim to achieve this is through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) which ”focuses on decreasing the environmental impact of cotton, improving labor standards and increasing the economic livelihood for farmers. The program also requires farmers to use water efficiently and care for its availability. BCI farmers use up to 18 percent less water than non-BCI farmers in comparable locations”. They also aim to identify ways to reduce their water use through the Water<Less innovations and eliminate the discharge of hazardous chemicals from production.
More than ever are we concerned about living organically. We want to know where our food comes from and how it’s grown. We believe that organic food is both better for ourselves and the environment. What if we take it a step further and look at what we put on our body rather than just inside it. Organic cotton farming refers to farming cotton without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. It is also grown from non-GMO organic cotton seeds, and therefore sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people by using natural processes. Organic cotton is 80% rain-fed, which reduces pressure on local water sources. Well known fashion names, such as Stella McCartney and H&M (Conscious Collection), strive to use as much organically grown cotton as possible. Here is a directory for organic cotton apparel suppliers in SA.
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Levi Strauss & Co. have also partnered with Re/Done, a company that reconstructs vintage Levi’s jeans into modern fits. They’re currently having a massive sale so I encourage you to take a look! There are also many other organisations that have created initiatives to recycle and re-purpose denim, such as The Blue Jeans Go Green program, which collects denim across America and upcycles it into UltraTouch Denim Insulation. You can even mail them your old denim clothing!
Here in South Africa, Woolworths sells sustainable denim in their RE: Denim range, which is made out of 100% BCI cotton. Three weeks ago, EDGARS and LISOF launched their Re-engineered Denim collaboration, after they tasked second-year design students at LISOF to upcycle denim clothes into new designer garments, and are available to purchase at select Edgars stores. Another amazing denim-recycling initiative is underway at the SOS Children’s Village in Port Elizabeth, where discarded denim is donated to members of the organisation, in the hopes to empower unemployed single parents, care-givers and youth with skills to grow their own social enterprises. There are also small, independent denim upcycling brands such as Denim Palace, a Durban-based thrift store which offers a perfectly curated selection of vintage denim pieces. If you’re into customized denim jackets, check out brands KYPO and Johnny Boy Jacket, who transform denim jackets into wearable art. If you’re into denim on your face, Cape Town-based Ballo sells handmade upcycled denim eye wear.
To summarise the aforementioned information:
- Consumption – Buy less, buy better; invest in well-made, durable clothes; support sustainable brands. Visit your local thrift store, or check out rad online vintage stores such as Guard The Vintage, Vintage Lover and Vintro Clothing. And if we want to buy a new pair of jeans now and then, let’s buy fewer and better quality jeans to last us.
- Care – Wash your clothing well; avoid tumble dryers and allow to air dry. Scientists say that 58% of water used during life cycle can be reduced purely by washing it less and caring for it. This is brilliant news because it means that we have more power than the industry to change the amount of pollution that is coming out of our clothes.
- Recycle – Textiles are 100% recyclable. Do not throw your clothing away in the trash. Visit textile recycle plants. Sell your old clothing online. Donate to charity.
We live in a consumerist age, no doubt, but we need to make more informed decisions about what we buy. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. We’ve already seen the worst drought in Cape Town in over a century, and climate change scientists predict Southern Africa to be one of the most vulnerable areas to be hit by drought in the near future.