The Serious Effects of the Denim Industry

Last week the St. Pete Women’s Collective and Venus Gallery curator, Emily Stone, hosted a sustainable fashion panel called DENIM. The event series DENIM began earlier this year to activate discussions about the environmental effects of the Denim Industry and women’s rights relating to national Denim Day, which observes sexual violence against women.

 The DENIM panel consisted of the five founding members of Fashion Revolution Tampa Bay: Taryn Hipwell, founder of Beyond the Label & author of How to Shop for Shi(f)t, Leigh Anne Balzekas, co-founder of The Disco Dolls, Danielle Ferarri, founder of Valhalla, Ericka Leigh, founder of Sewn Apart, and Rachel Karioki, founder of CourtBottoms.

Each founder had a unique business model and diverse perspective of how denim effects the women workers that create the fabric. They talked about what kinds of jeans to buy new (Tencel, hemp, organic cotton, recycled cotton denim), clothing swaps, clothing rentals, mending, and what it takes to make your own clothing business sustainably.

The panelists discussed the importance of watching the film RiverBlue, which unmasks the toxic effects of unregulated chemical dumping by denim fabric manufacturers into the Ganges River. Women workers that come in direct contact with the dyes, bleach, and detergents often suffer from serious health issues. The chemicals that are dumped also affect the plant and animal life surrounding the river causing them to die. Families, tourists, and spiritual gurus that bathe in the Ganges River also feel the harmful effects.



Hipwell recalled a Beyond the Label event in partnership with Colorado State University, where students created a denim mountain 8 feet tall and 12-14 feet wide. “The mountain of denim signified the number of jeans incinerated daily because it is too expensive to take truckloads of denim to the nearest recycle center several states away. Besides, developing countries close to the equator don’t need to purchase second-hand heavy winter weight denim.” When denim is incinerated there are air-born carbon particles or toxic off-gas that are harmful to women, workers, and nearby families.

Despite the harmful effects of denim, there are top brands that are looking to make a difference. Levi’s holds a Collaboratory each year and chooses 10 innovators to collaborate with to support sustainable partnership projects. Outerknown recently released some premium vintage jean jackets on their website in partnership with Levi’s. Something to keep in mind as some denim companies shift to healthier fibers and chemicals (vegetable dyes, food-grade bleach, zoning), that it is important to support the innovations so that the fabric company will produce a newer and healthier product that is less harmful to the person making the clothes as well as the person choosing to wear it. By supply and demand, we as shoppers and brands sourcing fabrics have the opportunity to invest in better options to make a positive shift happen.


Written by Taryn Hipwell

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