Everything you didn’t want to know about how jeans are made…

Eco Mama – Day 27

50s Levis ad

Since I’m almost to the end of my Eco Mama month, I figured it was about time I wrote a really bleak post about how jeans are made.  I didn’t really want to do it either, but since moms live in jeans and moms love their kids and jeans are really hurting the planet their kids are growing up in, I knew I had to.  Ready?  Are you wearing jeans?  Because you might want to change… either that or you could leave them on and have a really harsh conversation with them afterwards, like… Jeans, how could you?  All these years, I had no idea.  You never mentioned anything about your life before we met or where you came from.  All your tag said was machine wash warm…

“How Jeans are made”

Growing Cotton –  About 450 million pairs of jeans are sold in the U.S. every year. The average woman has 8 pairs of jeans in her closet.  Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in the world.  It takes 1,500 gallons of water to produce 1.5 pounds of cotton to make a single pair of jeans.  Let’s not forget the insecticides: cotton growers use 25 percent of all such chemicals applied worldwide, including highly toxic organophosphates (chemical relatives of nerve gases used during World War II). Pesticide sprayers and farm equipment run on oil, and about a pound is required to harvest enough cotton for a single pair of jeans.


Making Denim – Cotton yarn is typically “sized” with starch to increase its strength for weaving, bathed in oil-derived paraffin to smooth and lubricate it, and, in some cases, “mercerized” in caustic soda, which gives it a worn look.  Starch biodegrades, but when dumped in waterways the microbes that eat it also consume oxygen.  Aquatic life depends on that oxygen, and starch is just one of the many chemical treatments, including dyes, that deplete it.  Caustic soda, a key ingredient in Drano, can kill aquatic life and burn workers.  Eventually, there will not be enough oxygen to support the animals and plants within the rivers or lakes and the effected ecosystem collapses.


These jeans I’m wearing just killed all the ducks behind me…


Dying Jeans Blue – Next, in order to achieve the subtle blue hue of a pair of denim jeans, the yarn is dyed using synthetic indigo which is obtained from coal or oil. The main component of the blue dyes is potassium permanganate. Once used for illegal abortions, it is now being used excessively to create the bleached effect in denim jeans. When the chemical dyes are dumped into the water, the surrounding soils become sterilized, unable to grow any plants.

Although most of the cotton in making denim jeans is grown in the United States, the dyeing occurs in factories in other countries. In TehuacAdegn, Mexico, the local farmers are affected by the large amounts of chemicals released from the thriving denim industry. Because there are little or no environmental regulations on the quantity of dyes and chemicals released into the waterways, there is nothing to protect the environment from the negative effects of the dyes.

TehuacAdegn, “the city of health” was once known for its natural springs and mineral spas but is now the base for over 700 clothing manufacturers. The dyes used in the process of creating blue jeans are directly released into the rivers and streams surrounding the factories, turning the waters blue and damaging the crops that the local inhabitants depend on. The residents who once relied on the land’s natural wealth for agriculture and tourism must now turn to the very denim factories that destroyed the land for livelihood.


Okay, so that’s the worst of it.  Is it worse than you thought?  Better?  For me, it was actually much, much worse.

First, I’d just like to say, “Yay, humans!  We’ve done it again!”  Then, I guess my next question would be, “What now?”  After I did my jeans research, I instantly swore I would never put on another pair of jeans again.  But about ten seconds after I made this heartfelt declaration I realized this was impossible.  I have three kids.  I live on a farm.  White linen is not my next choice in pant-wear.  I need jeans, plain and simple.  They’re comfortable, they go with everything, plus they hide stains and my cellulite — if my house caught on fire I would grab my children, my animals and my favorite pair of jeans… and not necessarily in that order.

So, there are organic jeans out there — I bought a pair at Patagonia that I sort of like.  But most organic jeans are really expensive so if I somehow lost all sense of reason and bought a pair of three hundred dollar organic jeans and then got goat poop on them, I would never stop screaming.


There’s only one real way to keep jeans in my life and not feel like I’m actually killing all sea life and a bunch of innocent people in Mexico — and that is to buy jeans second-hand.  Thrift stores, ebay, Goodwill, consignment, Thred Up — you can’t throw a poisonous cotton ball these days without hitting a place that sells used jeans.  Yes, chances are used jeans have been made in an un-eco-friendly way, but they’ve already been made.  You’re not buying brand new jeans and contributing to the “450 million pairs of jeans sold each year” — which means production of new jeans would go down, we would save millions of gallons of water, use fewer pesticides and our waterways would be far less poisoned.

So here is my pledge —

“To Mother Earth, I promise that I will never, ever buy a new pair of jeans again — no matter how flattering they are, no matter how buttery soft and yummy they feel, no matter how much they are on sale and now matter how small they make my butt look.  In exchange, I would like you to promise to never rain on one of my children’s birthday parties again.  Twenty sugared up children hitting a piñata inside our small house gave me nerve damage.  Thanks, Holly.”

So, who’s with me?  Anyone want to promise to never buy new jeans again?  Or at least, try really, really hard not to…









  • kenny says:

    okay so I have an idea on a design I want for a pair of jeans where do I go to to get them made I would like to sell them everywhere there a Western pair of jeans and I have 4 different designs

    • Holly Hester says:

      hmmmm. I don’t really know! I’d search around online to see if you can find someone to make them for you. Good luck!

  • Lisette says:

    Brands like Nudie Jeans and Kuyichi sell jeans in the same price range as Levi’s and other ‘regular’ brands. Their jeans are made with organic cotton and with sustainability in mind. I’m not sure if they are for sale in the US though, but good options to buy jeans still exist!!

  • Kathy says:

    Oh my gosh that is seriously shocking if not that surprising! I promise here and now to never again buy new jeans!!!

    • My Year of Fabulous says:

      It is a shock! But it’s great that you won’t buy new jeans again. There are plenty of vintage jeans out there for all of us!

  • me says:

    Ebay is a good place to look for specific jeans. I troll through our local Goodwill (in Reading, PA), but it’s harder to find.

    • My Year of Fabulous says:

      Thanks. I should look on Ebay too. Have you tried Thred Up? It’s a used clothing site that some of my friends love.

  • Braidwood says:

    I’m with you on Thrifting! It’s my way around being ecologically conscious but poor. May all these uses for chemicals be illegal one day so shopping is easier.

  • Sarah says:

    I love thrifting jeans. GoodWill boutique in West Portal in SF has higher-end denim (Seven for all mankind, Lucky, Joe’s, etc.) at good prices. Last time I was there I saw several of those old school little square Coach purses for, maybe 20 bucks each? After that, check the Junior League consignment shop in the Upper Fillmore.

    • My Year of Fabulous says:

      OMG! I’ve never gotten any thrifting advice about San Fran and I’ve always wanted some. Thank you so so so much! I can’t wait to go.

      • Sarah says:

        You’re so welcome! Last one: If you visit Crossroads, go to the one on Irving and Seventh, in the Inner Sunset. Not too trendy, some good brands, all thanks to the Medical/Dental school population. There’s a Chole’s Closet down the street, in case you need to thrift for anyone under a 5T.

  • Amiable says:

    I’d rather buy jeans used anyway – they’re not going to shrink :)

  • angela says:

    I only ever buy my jeans second hand. I found that I like the sweetheart fit of ON and I just cruise the rack at get the $6 pair when I find them. I didn’t know all the environmental costs you posted. It makes me glad I was already on the second hand route.

  • Marsha Calhoun says:

    You had to go and write this, didn’t you? Now I’ll never get it out of my head. There is virtually no possibility of finding second hand jeans with 36″ inseams that will stay on (take it from me), so I guess I’ll just wear the ones I’ve got until they are past it, and then turn to something else . . . I have a pair of yoga pants that go well with tunics, but my daughter has told me firmly that whatever top I wear with them has to cover my rear, and I can’t help but agree. Sigh.

  • vicki says:

    haven’t found a comfortable pair of jeans since i can’t remember when. leggings are sooooo much more comfortable, i can’t stand the thought of even putting on a pair of jeans any more. sad, cause i love jeans….always have….and i miss them…..all kinds….skinny, flared, elephant, boot cut……all of them!! who in the heck is designing jeans these days and what happened to the good ole days when jeans were like a second skin, like buttah, like pj’s….soo comfortable you forgot you had them on. now they could be used for torture devices.

    • My Year of Fabulous says:

      You’re right. Some jeans are totally stiff and uncomfortable. They just dig into you.

      • vicki says:

        theres the muffin top thing, the butt crack showing thing, the too tight in the crouchell area thing…..i like button fly’s, they seem to not gap in the front ever, but what a pain when ya really have to pee…..there’s that weird bunch of extra material sometimes across your lower stomach…..rear pockets are either too high or too low, either make your butt look huge or like you have none at all or like it sags to your knees…..blahblahblah. sometimes i think, wow guess it would be hard to make jeans that would suit/fit every body type out here…but, then i remember i hear the EXACT SAME complaints from every single chic i talk to, no matter what her age, except if she’s like 12 or 15 and skinny as a rail. ha. i think consigned jeans are the answer too, it’s just like my daughter says tho it’s hard to find an entire day to go thru the racks and then try them on cuz at salvation army or goodwill or most all those places they never have them in any sort of order…..ugh. i do every bit of my clothes shopping at consignments, except for jeans…which i stopped buying years ago…and like i said, i miss them.

  • Von says:

    As a 5’2″ mumma I can honestly say my chance of finding a pair of jeans to fit were always so low I gave up years ago. Post babies I could pretend it was an eco choice here but it is actually muffin top avoidance as all the hipster types would not hide the holdey innie undies, they’re obviously not my favourite pair!

    • My Year of Fabulous says:

      So true. I muffin top over jeans all the time. I have to stand really straight in them and not hunch over like I always do.

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