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Casually Polluting The Rivers

How the denim industry is causing environmental problems

By Solmaz Salehi

Mark Angelo is a conservationist who criticizes denim factories for polluting the city. In his interview with CBC, he says that "the impacts of the fashion industry flew under the radar. It didn't get the media or the notoriety it deserved, yet the impacts were so severe.” Denim is one of the most polluting pieces of clothing that exists in the world.


The name denim comes from Serge de Nimes. Denim was first made of strong wool material. By the 1700s, cotton was added to the mixture. Later on, it was solely made from cotton. Denim was first made for making sails. Some Genovese sailors used that strong material to make pants, or "genes".


The jeans that we wear today didn’t appear until the middle of the 19th century. Levi Strauss made jeans out of a need for strong work pants. With a few bolts of denim, he designed the first pair of Levi's in 1850. However, jeans only started gaining popularity in the 1950s.


The main source of denim is cotton. “Cotton in general is a very thirsty crop,” says Tatiana Schlossberg, a former environmental reporter at the New York Times. Producing just 1 kilogram of cotton requires about 7,660 gallons of water.


Before denim is dyed, it must be cleaned by sodium hydroxide and detergents in order to remove natural hydrophobic substances and bleached with hydrogen peroxide. Indigo is used to dye the jeans blue. After, the fabric is rinsed with water, removing excess dye. The use of chemicals creates pollution since the excess water is dumped back into the sea.


Jeans then get spun and weaved, which involve machines that require a large amount of energy. The energy consumption for a pair of jeans will be around 60 MJ/kg (which is equivalent to 2 m3 of natural gas).


As a consumer, there are steps you can take in order to reduce your environmental impact. Mariana Chajon, a Literature student who works at a thrift store, explains that thrifting is how she finds her denim but investing in a pair of jeans that are made sustainably is also helpful. She says, “They are more expensive but you aren’t polluting, and if you get a really good pair, you are set for many years.” But the best way to reduce the waste comes down to reducing the number of denim one owns.


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