A Guide to Sustainable Jeans & Denim

G-Star Raw Denim at V&A Fashioned from Nature | Curiously Conscious

Jeans have to be the most worn item in my wardrobe. They are super easy to wear, they go with practically everything, and they last for years. With that in mind, it’s well worth investing in a pair of sustainable jeans (when your current ones are no longer in commission, of course!)

So, today I thought it about time I wrote my guide to ethical denim – including how they’re made, what’s in my own collection, and the best brands to source your next pair of jeans from.

Can Denim Be Sustainable?

I think it’s worth looking into how denim is made before we talk brands to buy from. If you’ve seen the documentary Riverblue, you’ll know that denim can be particularly harmful, using lots of chemicals and lots of resources.

Below I’ve gone through the average lifecycle of a pair of jeans, across four stages, and how this is being made more sustainable.

Making Denim

So, to begin – how is sustainable denim made? Denim is made from cotton, so you’ll find eco denim to be made from GOTS-certified organic cotton, or even better, a combination of recycled denim and organic.

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)’s Jeans Redesign guidelines, the recommendation is that jeans are made from a minimum of 98% cellulose fibre, ensuring they can be recycled at their end of life

However, currently there is no 100% recycled denim jeans. This is due to the reduction in the quality of the fabric, but I hear a few brands are striving to achieve this soon.

Next up, water-saving technologies may be used. The average pair of jeans takes thousands of gallons of water to process, so brands are finding ways to reduce this or use recycled water. This video gives a good insight into new technologies being used!

And of course, the garment workers making jeans must be paid fairly, and given the right protective gear. This is still so hard to verify, but I’ve compiled the brands I personally trust below.

Caring For Denim

Next up, care. We’ve got to care for our clothes! The responsibility of slowing down fashion majorly lies with brands and manufacturers, but as jeans wearers we can also look after our clothes and extend their lifecycle.

My pair of Nudie Jeans was the first pair of jeans I ever bought that taught me how to properly care for denim. Printed on the inside of the pocket are instructions about the sustainability of the trousers, and they came with a booklet that told me all about washing my jeans inside-out, and only doing so when they really needed it (i.e. if there was a stain or they got a bit stinky). Remember, jeans can go a long time without washing! So the rule of thumb for caring for jeans is to: wash infrequently, inside-out, at low temperatures, and air dry.

Repairing Denim

Next up, let’s talk about jeans repair. As denim is such a hardy material, it can withstand a lot of wear, but getting a rip or tear can be a big problem. Or at least, it used to be…

Ignoring the ripped jeans trend (which I just can’t get on board with – they’re practically in need of repair upon purchase, and the House of Commons Fixing Fashion Report agrees), rips and tears in denim can be easily repaired. You can either try repairs by yourself, or with the brand you’ve purchased it from. Places like Nudie Jeans and Levi’s invite customers to bring their jeans back into store to be repaired, which extends their lifecycle.

As consumers, we can fix our denim in a few simple ways too. If you need to take your jeans up, follow my mum’s secret trick and use hemming web tape.

If you have a hole or tear, this video is the perfect tutorial for sewing them back together with a simple needle and thread.

And if you need a patch, try a handy denim repair kit. Many denim retailers offer some kind of kit that can help you to sew holes, apply patches, and more.

Recycling Denim

And third, recycling. Jeans are such a hardy product that the marketplace for second-hand and vintage denim is huge. However, if your jeans are beyond reselling, certain denim brands invite their customers to send back their old jeans to be recycled with them. In fact, 60+ brands will be offering this from Spring 2021 as part of the EMF Jeans Redesign Programme.

Some brands are already ahead of the curve, such as MUD Jeans, who shreds old jeans and uses the material to create new pairs. I purchased a pair in 2018 which came with a sturdy returns bag that I’ve kept, so I can send them back after a few years of use.

Plus, not all recycled jeans need to become jeans again! Finisterre announced their recycled denim collection in March 2019, which takes denim recovered from landfill and turns them into jumpers and beanie hats.

Finally, if you’re in a position where you’d like your denim goods altered, customised, or upcycled, you could try JeanieUpcycled*, a small brand making old pairs of jeans into skirts, trousers, and more.

My Sustainable Jeans Collection

I have three pairs of jeans to my name, and I think that’s all anyone really needs. I used to be all about different colours (having pairs of black, blue, white jeans) but now I focus more on design. Straight leg, wide leg, and a pair of skinnies!

My straight leg jeans. My hardest-working pair of jeans in my wardrobe have to be my Boyish Jeans, kindly gifted by Twiin. These are high-waisted, hugging my hips, and carrying a slightly more masculine silhouette. Boyish are great when it comes to sustainable denim too, being part of the Jeans Redesign project, and manufacturing their clothes in California, USA.

My skinny jeans. My skinnies have taken a backseat now, but when I feel like the time is right to wear them, I’ll pull out this pair of Nudie Jeans. I really love the fit of these, and went to their Shoreditch store to try them on before purchase so I knew they would last and last.

My wide-leg jeans. Ah, my wide-leg jeans, for when I’m feeling ultra sassy, but also too lazy to dress up. These are another pair of Boyish Jeans, and I’m sitting in them writing this right now!

29 Sustainable Jeans & Denim Brands in UK

So, finally, onto the brands. If you’re in the market for a new pair of sustainable jeans, try looking at lines at:

BAM*: Recycled bamboo-fibre denim jeans, made circular as part of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘The Jeans Redesign’.

Birdsong: A range of denim garments, made by women’s projects in England and abroad.

Blackhorse Lane Atelier: Jean makers using traditional techniques based in East London

Boyish Jeans*: L.A.-based sustainable denim brand creating vintage silhouettes and washes in a low-impact way.

Citizens of Humanity*: Another L.A.-based denim brand creating high-end jeans with a focus on social sustainability.

Denim Library*: One of the best sites for women’s vintage denim jeans, all at a good price.

E.L.V.: London-based fashion house making zero-waste jeans using vintage pairs.

Finisterre: Organic cotton jeans made in Portugal, produced for sustainable outdoor wear brand.

G-Star RAW: Champions of sustainable denim, their latest range has a whole host of new ways they’re being responsible.

Hiut Denim Co.: Welsh denim company passionate about the environment, using domestic fibres and labour.

JeanieUpcycled*: Denim customisation and upcycling service, with custom jeans and skirts for sale.

Levi’s Pre-Loved & Vintage*: If you prefer second-hand, Levi’s are for you! Unfortunately their current condition mean I can’t recommend them first-hand though.

L.F. Markey*: Independent high fashion brand ethically creating denim pieces alongside whimsical cotton and linen garments.

Lucy & Yak: Colourful jeans in a range of styles made from organic materials.

M.i.h.: London-based denim brand using independently certified eco denim mill.

Monkee Genes: Low impact jeans made with organic and recycled materials.

Mother of Pearl*: The cult sustainable fashion brand released an organic cotton pair of jeans with John Lewis, and they’re gorgeous.

Mott & Bow*: U.S. brand making jeans in Turkey and Honduras, reducing water usage up to 70% for SS19.

MUD Jeans*: Sustainable denim made from recycled jeans and organic cotton.

Nudie Jeans: Unisex jeans offering repairs at their repair shops.

One Denim*: Sustainable denim with transparency at a reduced price tag.

Organic Basics*: Circular jeans and denim jackets made to be remade.

Outland Denim: Denim made by women rescued from exploitation – find out more in my interview with their founder.

Oxfam*: Jeans are one of the hardiest garments in our wardrobes, so why not shop second-hand? Plus, these also benefit charity!

People Tree*: 100% GOTS-certified organic cotton denim jeans, made in their ethical factory.

Re/Done*: A collection of Levi’s jeans, reworked to fit this season’s denim styles and shapes.

Seventy + Mochi: Independent fashion brand working with circular denim and socially-focused suppliers.

Sézane Denim: Cult French brand Sézane has launched a new line of “green” denim, using 99% organic cotton and 1% elastane.

Sophie Hawkins: Sophie runs a hyperlocal studio and uses organic cotton indigo yarn for her denim jumpsuits.

Thought*: Jeans, dungarees, and jumpsuits made with organic cotton, less water and energy, and circular practices.

Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links and paid links (denoted '*') as well as gifted products (denoted 'gifted'). This guide was last updated on 25th January 2023.


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