Guide to Ethical Denim
You really only need one pair of jeans. One really good pair. Ideally of a raw (minimally processed) denim from a sustainable brand (or the elusive perfect vintage pair) and washed only occasionally. Below are some companies that are leading the sustainable, ethical, quality, and locally-made denim industry. Again, this isn't an exhaustive list so I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments.
This 24 person NYC factory and showroom has the largest collection of selvedge denim in the world. There, you can buy off-the-rack or employ their bespoke service for jeans designed specially for you.
I'm going to need my one pair of jeans soon (although I am going to try to repair the ones I have at Denim Therapy first) and I would really like to try the bespoke process. I may have to because of the continued omnipresence of skinny jeans and a lack of size ranges. I cannot sigh deeply enough about this issue. I don't like skinny jeans and I have a 34 inch inseam.
Brooklyn Denim Co. is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where they provide a large selection of all types of denim including raw and washed denim, as well a denim related services such as denim tailoring and denim repair. Their selection includes many ethical brands, including some of the others listed here.
Howie's is a small active clothing company based in West Wales. Their denim is made to last; it's made from organic cotton, triple stitched, with chain stitched hems, and unbleached waistbands.
Husband and wife founders Matt and Carrie Eddmenson run the Nashville,TN store named after Carrie's grandparents. History, quality, and community are integral to the brand which uses one of the oldest denim mills in the world: Cone Denim. Jeans are made at a factory within an hour's drive of Nashville.
From the site:
The IOU Project is a study in the creation of a Prosperity Chain; an experiment to rethink how goods are produced and sold in a way that benefits everyone and protects the environment.
From the site:
We started the organic revolution as being the first brand to produce organic jeans, and we still are. We want to be innovative in many ways, not only in our collections, but also on a sustainable level. Embracing the principle of the recycling process and aiming for a completely closed-loop collection. We're happy to see that we raised the bar for many companies around us and hope to inspire many more to come.
One of the coolest things about this brand is their lease philosophy. From the site:
We are a Dutch denim brand that dreams of a world in which there is no such thing as waste. What if we all clean up our own mess? This simple thought led us to a new way of thinking. Send your jeans back when you don’t wear them any longer. We reuse all materials, while you can switch to a new pair. Returned jeans are upcycled and transformed into one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. Or, when they are beyond repair, the jeans are recycled into new items. This is how we create our own circle of denim products.
Noble Denim began 25 years ago and has (barely) weathered the outsourcing and trade agreements inflicted over those years. The 4 remaining employees in Cincinnati tirelessly evaluate options considering the materials available, and make the best product decisions they can. Their journey is transparent and you can see their supply map here. Check out their own tips for denim care, like wait 6 months before washing a new pair! I don't know if these are unisex or if they will ever have jeans specifically for women, but I'm rooting for these guys!
Swedish brand Nudie Jeans' website is informative, with sections like "How to Break-In a Pair of Dry Jeans," and encourages few washes, repair, reuse, and recycling. Select Nudie Jeans stores around the world will repair your worn in Nudie Jeans for free, or you can order a repair kit. Check out their detailed production guide for information on producers, audits, materials, and transport. I'm very impressed with the transparency of this brand and, hallelujah, they come in larger and longer unisex sizes and fits.
Husband and wife team Victor Iytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough started Raleigh Denim Workshop in 2007 in their hometown, Raleigh, NC. They learned the history and techniques of traditional American jeansmaking through a series of informal apprenticeships throughout the state. They craft denim the old-school way at their Raleigh workshop and were recently accepted into the CFDA.
RE/DONE is one of my favorite concepts. There are so many great vintage jeans out there, but often the fit is a little off or too dated. RE/DONE takes Levi’s vintage denim apart at the seams and repurposes the fabric into new modern-fitting jeans. "RE/DONE is a movement - a movement to restore individuality to the luxury fashion space, a movement to keep heritage brands relevant, and a movement to create sustainable fashion." Quantities are limited and pairs are one-of-a-kind — sign up for their newsletter to get early access to new styles.
Skunkfunk has been moving towards more sustainability since 2004 when they moved to using better materials. Today, they use organic cotton, Lyocell, recycled polyester, and linen and want to have 100% of their environmentally friendly fibers certified in 2015. In addition, Skunkfunk staff regularly visit their suppliers to ensure compliance, work to reduce their carbon footprint, and utilize bioplastics and recyclables. Read more about the evolution of Skunkfunk here.
Under the tagline, "Look good. Do good." Sonas Denim makes ethical, eco- friendly and vegan denim products. They also donate 10% of their profits to build an animal sanctuary which will help educate the public about animal welfare issues. The story of Sonas began with founder Gerry's beloved patchwork jeans and I'm sure the brand will continue to grow.
The UK’s leading fashion reuse charity TRAID is currently showcasing a new sustainable fashion collection for Traidremade: ‘Rights of Massive’, designed by Alex Noble. Founded in 2002, Traidremade launched to create sustainable clothes using upcycling and customization techniques to keep clothes from being thrown away. The Alex Noble collection includes a hand-painted and bleached denim collection. Profits raised from the sale of this collection will buy birth certificates for children of garment industry workers in Bangladesh, meaning the children will be recognised as citizens and can receive medical treatment and enroll in school.
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This post contains affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you buy anything through the link (it doesn't change the amount you pay). I only include brands that I believe in, that I would use myself, or think might be of interest to you.