10,000 for a pair of jeans

Photo by Waldemar Brandt in Unsplash

Would you spend £10,000 for a pair of jeans?
How about using 10,000 litres of water?

The thing that surprised me most when I started exploring impacts of clothes production on the environment was how harmful the production of natural fabrics like cotton, silk and wool can be.  I had no idea, for example, that conventional cotton uses as much as 10,000-20,000 litres of water per kilo to produce. (And, this is often in the areas that suffer from water scarcity.)

After sharing an article about the topic in February, I promised to follow up with a buyer’s guide. It proved more difficult to do than I expected. I read about fabrics, certifications and brand ratings. I compared brand rating schemes, browsed through corporate sustainability reports, and reviewed how clothes’ material labels and other information given online by retailers correlates with their ratings.

My head was spinning… I wasn’t able to find all the answers I wanted to, including some questions you sent me. I’m sorry for that. However, I’ve been able to reach a few conclusions:

Cheap is usually unethical

A notably cheap price is usually a sign that corners have been cut. Producing a sustainable and otherwise ethical dress cannot be done for £4. This is common sense, but the volume of cheap clothes sales is massive, so I thought this is worth including in the list.

Company size is a better indicator than pricing

Generally, the price doesn’t correlate with the sustainability. Instead of the price, it is the company size that gives a better indication. The largest enterprises and sustainability-focused niche companies are the best. Small and middle-sized companies which account for more than the half of the industry rate the lowest.

There are huge differences between the companies

It doesn’t come as a surprise that there are big differences between the companies. For finding the most sustainable companies, there are brand ratings & certificates that are very helpful – but you still need to be careful:

Brand and retailer ratings can be deceptive

I cross-checked a number of highly-rated companies and I found that most companies that have certificates, or are rated highly in environmental assessments, have non-sustainable options in their selection. For example, a company can be found in the GOTS register (Global Organic Textile Standard), but they can also sell clothes produced with non-organic cotton. Hence, once you have identified a good retailer, you still need to check the details of the item you are considering.

For example, there is Faer that “searches the web for the latest guilt-free fashion brands and looks so you don’t have to”. They advertise garments made of organic cotton and 100% Tencel – but also dresses of 100% viscose like in the below picture. Maybe it is listed because the description says that “1% of sales go towards preserving the natural environment”. That sounds good – but it doesn’t make the dress “guilt-free” if you care about the environment.

Item advertised by Faer, 100% viscose (rayon)

It can be difficult to find an eco-friendly alternative

It is relatively easy to find nice T-shirts, casual wear and outdoor garments that have been produced with organic cotton or recycled polyester by companies that are following ethical practises in their operations – but much more tricky if you are looking for a festive dress or business shirts. In order to create the desired look and feel, ‘the baddies’ of the fabrics world are still an attractive option for the manufacturers. For example,  conventional viscose (rayon) drapes well, is light, smooth, breathable, and it blends well with other fabrics. It is therefore still very widely used.

It can be frustrating …

What may be a bigger hurdle than acquiring the information about sustainable fabrics and brands is limiting oneself to sustainable options. That means limiting oneself to around 25% of the companies, finding sustainable options from their offering, and (usually) paying a premium. That does limit ones options considerably, and can be really frustrating when you don’t have much time, or when you’ve seen a most fabulous dress only to notice it’s made of silk by an unethical designer company…

During those moments, I think it helps to remind oneself that buying sustainable options, and giving feedback to retailers is going to make a difference.

Industry says the consumers have the biggest responsibility – if people don’t buy the more costly sustainable products, the businesses will not produce them.

Fashion industry survey says that they put the biggest responsibility to drive the industry progress on consumers, and that the biggest barrier for not doing more for the environment is “low customer willingness to pay a premium for sustainable products”.  

I’ve summarised my findings about fabrics and brands, and created a guide for eco-friendlier clothes shopping – I hope you’ll find them useful! Any feedback gratefully received.

2 thoughts on “10,000 for a pair of jeans”

  1. Clothing seems to be one of the thorniest areas. I buy very little anyway, maybe one or two items a year for stuff that has worn out but I spent some time a couple of years back trying to work out what a ‘better’ cycling/hiking waterproof was. It was really hard, and it turns out that the one I ended up getting was too lightweight, so the waterproofing started wearing out after only 2 years. My previous main cag is already 12 years old and still going strong, but then it’s really heavy – which matters up mountains and was why I wanted a lighter, shorter one for bike use. ‘How long will it last versus how much does it weigh’ is the main consideration, and of course they are in competition. But it’s not info you can generally find in advance. The point being that despite hours of research and the best of intentions I still made a poor choice (well, it was bloody marvellous for a while, but a new one every 2-3 years is no good)

    I’m currently considering a new pair of thermals as mine have two holes in the arse and the elastic has died. yeah I could fix them up for a bit, but they’ve done 8 years and probably 2500 days wear. Tencel seems like a good idea, and tencel thermals exist. €60 euro mind, which isn’t cheap. But I can’t find any info on what they feel like, or how long they might last, but some indications are that tencel is not a very hardwearing fabric. They aren’t in local shops so I can’t just try some on. Patagonia don’t make them out of Tencel – they use recycled polyester and merino and charge even more. Maybe that’s a better option – I know they care about performance as well as sourcing.

    The whole field of natural material needing lots of land/water and man vs made ones sprinkling plastic fibres into the world makes it very hard to pick what ‘best’ might look like, as I guess you’ve discovered. And Viscose doesn’t have to be bad if it’s grown and processed right: ttps://www.stellamccartney.com/experience/en/sustainability/themes/materials-and-innovation/fibres-from-forests/

    Some labelling for supply sustainability so one didn’t need to spend hours researching every garment would be helpful, but also very hard to do well because of the multiple axis of measurement problem.

    1. Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts & experiences!

      I have had similar frustrating experiences about trying to find items that are sustainable, that last, and still work as you need them to work. Based on what you say, your footprint is very low – but it’s great you keep trying as it will pave the way and hopefully result in better, sustainable products over time.

      I was playing with an idea of setting up a site for product reviews such that the people would be prompted to comment not only after when they receive the product, but also after 1y and 3y of use (or something like that) but I would need to build a network of interested volunteers which I don’t currently have.

      Yes, ‘hardcore’ hiking/cycling equipment is even harder to buy because you need to care about the weight as well. I do a bit of hiking in the mountains, but I only hike in the summer time so I don’t need base layers. Sorry I don’t have anything to recommend because I haven’t bought sports gear for a while. Patagonia is the brand I thought I might use next time. I bought a base layer from finisterre for everyday use for cold winter days but they got holes just in a matter of months.

      I had a look at that page about Stella McCartney viscose. They say that they use FSC-certified wood and that their supply chain is traceable – but they don’t say anything about processing. So, it is still possible that they use an open-loop process. It’s very difficult because retailers obviously want to tell what they are doing well, but they wouldn’t mention anything that would look bad. 

      Like you say, this is a very complex thing. I don’t think it’s possible for a consumer to know what the best buy is with the information we have available, but   at least we can hope to avoid the worst options and support companies who are making an effort to become more sustainable.


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