By now, consumers are aware they play a role in creating a cleaner fashion industry. But choosing a sustainably produced garment is just one piece of the puzzle. The way consumers wash their clothes—specifically, how they wash jeans—is one of the most important, yet overlooked, areas of sustainability.
From water and energy usage to microplastic pollution caused by synthetic fibers making their way to our oceans, the simple act of doing a load of laundry has negative repercussions on the environment.
“In order to save water and electricity and to input fewer detergents into the sea, we really have to keep in mind that the actions we take at home count as much as the effort the denim industry is making to reduce waste and extra use of resources,” Silvia Rancani, former product developer for Diesel and Tommy Hilfiger and founder of The Denim Window, said.
And proper denim laundering isn’t just a benefit for the environment. It’s also best for the denim itself.
“Washing less frequently allows the character of the fabric to develop,” said Michelle Branch, founder of Markt&Twigs, a creative firm specializing in the denim industry. “Even if the jeans weren’t raw when you bought them, the nature of indigo is to chip off. Every worn jean tells the story of the wearer—what they do and how they live their lives. That is the unique and, in my opinion, most beautiful aspect of denim.”
Rivet spoke with experts throughout the denim industry and researched best ways to wash jeans. The earth and your denim will thank you.
Washing Jeans 101
Step one of the washing process is to turn jeans inside out and fasten all buttons and zippers to lessen the chance of fading and snagging. From there, set the water temperature to low—86 degrees Fahrenheit/30 degrees Celsius, i.e, cold water, is ideal—to maintain the integrity of the denim and minimize the energy used to heat up the water.
Keep the cycle as short as possible, and use eco-friendly detergents. Frame and The Laundress collaborated on a plant-derived denim wash and denim spray that are free of artificial colors, dyes or additives.
Handwashing is another option that’s easier on both denim and the environment. Branch recommended soaking jeans inside-out in the tub and using mild detergents. And even better than handwashing, she noted, is simply airing them out on a clothesline in the sun when the goal isn’t to remove obvious stains.
Drying Jeans 101
The way you dry jeans is also a crucial part of the washing process. Experts recommend skipping the dryer whenever possible and instead hanging them out to dry. If a dryer is necessary, use the lowest setting and hang jeans on a rack if they’re still damp after the cycle.
Quality jeans are not as prone to losing shape, but if they seem to distort after a number of wears, Branch explained that a quick tumble in the dryer will help them “snap back.”
Always Read the Label
But even more important than proper washing, noted Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular project manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is choosing a durable jean in the first place.
“How you care for jeans is one thing, but if they’re not designed in a way to last, the customer themselves can’t compensate,” she said.
Earlier this year, her team created guidelines for denim manufacturers to follow that require denim to maintain its integrity after a minimum of 30 home laundries. These guidelines also require a label that clearly states how to best care for jeans.
Try Gimmicks at Your Own Risk
Many denim-cleaning tricks and tips have floated across the internet. Putting jeans in the freezer to kill bacteria, scrubbing stains with a toothbrush and soaking them in vinegar are among the tricks that some denim heads tout, but it may be best to just opt for simplicity.
“Over the years, I’ve tried lots of methods, and the result is that I don’t really ascribe to any gimmicks when it comes to cleaning my denim. I’m not sure any of that stuff works,” said Branch. “The bottom line for me is that I clean jeans when they need it.”