For years, the denim industry has been intent on cleaning up its reputation.
Leading brands and mills have worked together as well as with government organizations to save millions of gallons of water, end harmful chemical usage and improve conditions for workers. Together, they’ve made significant strides in sustainability and working conditions and set high industry standards for cleaner denim production—and the efforts are ongoing.
But for German consumer magazine Öko-Test, it’s still not clean enough.
In August, the magazine published a report stating that most women’s jeans are detrimental to the environment, factory workers and consumers who wear them. It studied jeans from 21 different textile companies and asked representatives to answer a series of questions related to sourcing and production practices, as well as workers’ wages and safety. It also tested jeans from each company for durability and harmful substances. While it found that many of the jeans were durable, they earned “poor” and “insufficient” grades in nearly every other category. And aniline—a known carcinogen—was detected in 15 pairs.
But how can companies that boast fair and sustainable practices—and have official seals of approval to show for it—fail a test on that very subject?
The answer, according to some of the companies examined in the report, is complicated.
The gray area of indigo
Öko-Test lowered a company’s grade if it detected substances it considered harmful—like aniline—in its jeans. A chemical that’s used in the production of indigo dye, the substance is considered a Group B2 human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that, though there’s some evidence it could cause health concerns like cancer, the existing data is inconclusive.
That’s partially why the denim industry’s perception of aniline is mixed. In high concentrations, the chemical is dangerous. But the amount that remains in jeans after washing—even considering worst-case scenarios—is not a problem, according to Scott Echols, director of the Roadmap to Zero Programme at ZDHC. Other industry leaders have agreed, noting that the discussion surrounding aniline is “overexcited” and that studies, such as this one, stoke unnecessary fear.
As a precaution, companies are adopting aniline-free solutions for new styles. But what does this mean for vintage jeans produced before the substance was considered dangerous?
“It wouldn’t be sustainable to dispose of all denims that contain aniline since in tiny quantities, the wearer will not suffer,” Margreeth Dronkert, queen of product at Kings of Indigo, told Rivet.
Vintage denim and deadstock fabric are often used as sustainable alternatives to producing new denim. To destroy them—for reasons many deem unnecessary—places the burden back on the environment.
One methodology does not fit all
For this study, Öko-Test examined one—and only one—pair of jeans from each company it tested. But brands often have a number of different collections, many with varying production methods, and as such can’t be reduced to just one pair.
“Since only one jean per brand was selected to test, it cannot reflect the practices of a company as a whole,” said Dronkert.
It’s also important to note that there are a number of different certifications from which brands model their production processes. What one brand considers to be the industry’s leading certification could be less crucial to another.
“It’s complicated to grade and compare brands with one other. All brands focus on specific parts of the product and have different standards they abide by,” said Dronkert.
Kings of Indigo—deemed by the test as “unsatisfactory”—prioritizes the use of certified sustainable materials on a fabric and trim level, and its fabric mills operate according to REACH-RSL.
Also deemed “unsatisfactory” was Levi’s, a denim brand named an EPA Safer Choice Partner of the Year. Though Levi’s failed according to the magazine’s credentials, the brand received an innovation award from the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, and its Screened Chemistry protocol was adopted by other companies and is now overseen by the ZDHC organization.
“We’re committed to the highest standards of product safety and quality, and in many instances, our own standards exceed those required by law,” a Levi’s representative told Rivet. “While the Öko-Test study uses one methodology, there are others, and we are focused on how we can continue to innovate and move the entire apparel industry forward.”
Lost in translation
Another point of contention lies in Öko-Test’s extensive questionnaire, which consisted of 22 technical questions regarding the companies’ production practices—and was written in German. Some of the companies examined never completed the questionnaire and were unable to have it professionally translated in time.
“While we are not in a position to comment in detail on the Öko-Test methodology, we believe our global compliance policies and standards help to ensure our supply chain is safe for workers and our products are safe for consumers,” said a representative from Wrangler, which never completed the questionnaire.
Questions specifically focused on supply chain transparency and fair labor practices, which Levi’s addressed with its sustainable supply chain practices adopted by leading global brands and its Terms of Engagement that govern labor standards for its manufacturing partners. Similarly, Kings of Indigo noted that it signed the Dutch Textile agreement and the German Textil Buendnis in 2016. Despite these qualifications, both companies failed the magazine’s test.
Supply chain transparency and improved working conditions are important brand ethics for denim companies around the world—but achieving both is a slow process, even for the most nimble brands.
Jordan Nodarse, founder and creative director of Boyish Denim—a brand not included in the test—highlighted all of the steps that need to be taken to provide even a small glimpse of transparency into the denim supply chain. His goal—to add QR codes to all jeans that show their journey from cotton field to distribution center—will take significant time and require a few trips to the farm.
“I’m traveling to our organic cotton fields in Turkey to interview workers and find more ways to support the farms directly through ‘farm-to-brand’ ethics,” he told Rivet. “It’s a way for us to get more involved and find solutions to improve worker conditions in all areas of our supply chain.”