Despite many of us looking to sweatpants and cycling shorts during the pandemic, jeans remain the seminal wardrobe staple, with 4.5 bn pairs sold around the world every year. But there’s a hidden cost to our love of denim: producing just one pair of jeans can use up to 10,850 liters of water and harmful chemicals are often involved in the process.

“The main [textile] for jeans is conventional cotton, which requires huge amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to grow,” Laura Balmond, program manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, tells Vogue. “During production, large amounts of chemicals and synthetic dyes are used. Jeans are washed multiple times to get desired colors and then on top of that, acids, chemical bleaches, and stone-washing are used to give certain effects on the denim.”

That’s why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched The Jeans Redesign initiative in 2019, which aims to tackle the pollution, waste, and harmful practices associated with producing jeans. Its guidelines set out the minimum requirements—including materials used, durability, recyclability, and traceability—that brands should adhere to, with the likes of Gap, Wrangler, and Lee among those who signed up.

There’s also a new wave of denim brands seeking to produce jeans more sustainably and ethically. Australian brand Outland Denim—whose high-profile fans include the Duchess of Sussex — uses innovative technology to reduce the environmental impact of its jeans. “We are able to produce garments with up to 86 percent less water, 57 percent less energy, and 83 percent less chemical compared to conventional methods,” founder and CEO James Bartle explains via email from Queensland. The brand also ensures it has a strong social impact, employing seamstresses in Cambodia who would otherwise be in vulnerable situations.

Meanwhile, British label E.L.V. Denim makes use of the reams of denim already out there, combining two pairs of jeans or jackets together to create a new piece. “I liked the idea of using all this material that we already have in existence,” the brand’s founder Anna Foster says over the phone from London. “I want to be able to take [a pair of] jeans and turn it into something that will be loved again.”

Considering the volume of denim that’s produced every year, it’s crucial that we all shop our jeans more sustainably—whether that’s investing in eco-conscious brands or buying secondhand. Here’s everything you need to know.

1. Opt for organic and natural fibers
Organic cotton uses 91 percent less ‘blue’ water (from freshwater or groundwater sources) than conventional cotton, meaning it’s a much better choice for denim. Other plant-based fibers such as lyocell or hemp, which again use less water, are also more environmentally friendly options.

Look for jeans that are made of as close to 100 percent of the natural fiber as possible as this means they’ll be much easier to recycle in the long run. “In the Jeans Redesign guidelines, we specified that a minimum of 98 percent [of the] composition must be cellulose-based [plant-based] fabric,” Balmond says.

2. Avoid stretch denim
Stretch denim, made from a blend of cotton and polyester, is best avoided where possible. The mix of natural and synthetic means it’s difficult to recycle, while polyester also releases harmful microplastics when washed. “There are [few] viable recycling options [for] jeans produced by blending different materials together in the fabrics, like the polyester stretch and cotton,” Balmond explains.

Luckily, brands such as Stella McCartney are developing more eco-friendly alternatives with the designer launching the world’s first biodegradable stretch denim using plant-based fibers, in collaboration with Italian denim company Candiani, earlier this year.

3. Look for safe and low-water treatment processes
The large number of chemicals typically used to dye and treat jeans to create a distressed effect are hugely damaging to the environment, polluting waterways that are vital for local communities. That’s why it’s essential to look for jeans that have been certified by the likes of Bluesign or Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX, which ensure no harmful chemicals have been used.

Opt for brands that use low-water dyeing and treatment techniques, too. “Where available, we use SaveBlue dyes, which have been found to save 87.5 per cent of water in the dyeing process compared to conventional methods,” Bartle says. “Recently developed technology has meant that we can now achieve washes with not only significantly less water but less energy and chemical usage, too.”

4. Buy vintage or upcycled
Considering the amount of denim already out there, buying secondhand remains one of the most planet-friendly options. According to WRAP, extending the life of a garment by just nine months can reduce its carbon and water footprints by between 20 to 30 percent—and that includes upcycled pieces as well. “Denim is one of the hardest-working fabrics; it was designed for workwear,” Foster explains. “There are so many pairs of jeans out there; there’s [something that] fits each price bracket.”

5. Care for your jeans
Extending the life of your jeans also means caring for them properly. That means not over-washing them, which will save water and reduce microplastics being released, too. “Wash your jeans only when needed,” Bartle advises. “Plus, denim ages better when it is washed less.”

Repairing any tears in your jeans instead of throwing them out will also make them last much longer, lowering their overall environmental impact. “Darning can be done in such a creative way; you can add to the individual nature of denim,” Foster says.