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Natural Denim Buying Guide

by Ted Muething |

The ideal daily uniform, if you ask us, is a well-made 100% organic cotton T-shirt and a pair of perfectly worn jeans. But no matter your personal style, chances are that denim plays the dominant role in your weekly outfit rotation.

All denim, however, is not created equal. While the original Levi's 501 jeans were 100% cotton, dyed with natural indigo, and made to withstand years of rough use, today's market is flooded with cheap, stretchy jeans that may not last more than a few months.

With that in mind, we've put together the ultimate guide to buying natural denim so you can find more eco-friendly options—no matter your budget—and build a more sustainable wardrobe over time.

 

Rule 1: Avoid All Stretch

Native Color - Natural Denim Buying Guide Boyish Jeans

Photo via Boyish Jeans


For most of the 125 year history of denim, 100% cotton was the fabric of choice. In the past decade, however, we've seen the rise of "stretch" denim made with anywhere from 1% to 35% elastane, polyurethane, polyester, spandex, modal, or rayon.

In the past three years, it seems, the stretch trend has totally taken over. Even the mens departments, long the home of looser-fitting, less sculptural styles, are dominated by stretch jeans. There's no denying it—we are living through peak "jeggings".

As fans of stretch denim will attest, these fits can be softer and more flattering than their 100% cotton counterparts. But that 1%-35% made from synthetic and semi-synthetic fibers can cause real problems for the environment.

Stretchy synthetic materials like elastane, polyurethane, and spandex are made from oil and petroleum byproducts. Not only is there a significant environmental toll from pumping all that oil from the ground and transforming it into various petrochemicals, evidence shows that these synthetic fibers leach into our waterways with every load of laundry—up to 700,000 microscopic fibers per garment. Scientists estimate that 35% of the microplastics in our oceans today come from clothing.

Leave all that stretch denim on the rack and opt for 100% cotton jeans. Cotton fibers break down naturally in the environment, and are much less likely to cause problems for wildlife if they end up in our oceans and waterways.




Tip: Read the Tag Carefully

When you're browsing jeans on the rack, make sure to peek at the list of materials on the tag. Sometimes this information can be sewn in a hard-to-find location rather than in the waistband (probably a red flag). If you see anything besides "100% cotton" or other natural fibers like hemp, keep looking.

Rule 2: Don't Be Afraid to Throw Down a Little Extra for Better Quality

 

Photo via Rogue Territory


While the microplastics shed from synthetic fibers are very worrying, they're probably not even the biggest environmental concern surrounding the clothing industry. The biggest problem is that there's simply too much of it.

The rise of fast fashion has meant that we have access to the latest styles more quickly and cheaper than ever before. A look you see on the runway may be available from your favorite discount retailer in weeks rather than years. And chances are you're paying more like $15 instead of $1,500.

But that convenience comes with another kind of cost. Too make clothing that cheap you need to cut a lot of corners. Factories will cut corners around worker safety, product inspections, and—most obviously—quality of materials to get to that incredible bargain price.

All of this cheaply-made clothing falls apart more quickly, which means we're buying more of it and throwing out more of it than ever before. In 20 years the amount of clothing Americans throw in the landfill has doubled from 7 million to 14 million. That's 80 pounds per person.

Our parents' generation may have owned one to two pairs of denim at a time. Some of you reading this may have 10x that many in your closet right now. Most of it probably wore out in a few months, or started to sag in a few unfortunate places due to cheap textiles.

More expensive denim is (usually) more expensive for a reason. Rigidly-constructed selvedge denim from the best mills in Japan and Italy can start at $250 per pair and go up from there. Made using the same techniques that Levi Strauss used to make jeans for miners and cowboys in the 1800's, selvedge denim can stand up to years of regular use before it even begins to look worn.

Not to mention that higher-quality, rigid denim is much more flattering than flimsy, saggy jeans from the discount rack.




Tip: Give Your Jeans a Tug Before You Buy

Quality is the name of the game. Grab one of the legs of the jeans from both sides and give a sharp tug. If the fabric is soft and stretchy, you're holding pajamas not jeans. These will probably start to get baggy and fall apart after just a few months. If the denim is rigid and sturdy, you could be holding your new favorite pair of jeans for years to come.

 

Rule 3: Consider Pre-Owned Over New

Photo via Atelier & Repairs


Even when buying higher quality denim, the truth is that you're buying something that had a large environmental footprint to get to you.

Cotton, even organic cotton, requires a lot of water and land to grow. Then it needs to be milled and spun into thread. The thread needs to be dyed with indigo (hopefully at a factory that dispose of its waste water responsibly), and then woven into denim fabric. That fabric is then cut and sewn into jeans, a highly manual process, before being shipped to you. Add in the use of fuel and plastic packaging and it can be mind boggling the amount of raw materials required to make one pair of pants.

While there is nothing wrong with buying jeans new, if you're unsure that you need the benefits of a new pair you might opt for one that's pre-worn. Buying vintage and altered denim diverts used clothing from the landfill and can offer one-of-a-kind fits and washes that you just can't get brand new.

And thankfully, there's never been a better time to buy used and upcycled denim. Vintage stores often scour bins at local thrift stores to rescue popular fits like Levi's 501s and offer them to you at a fair price.

There are also new social commerce marketplaces like Poshmark and Grailed where you can find more rare and sought after denim labels and buy directly from the seller. Or, you look to long-trusted marketplaces like ebay and Etsy.

Perhaps the most inspiring companies in fashion, however, are the brands upcycling old garments to create pieces that fit today's styles. Companies like RE/DONE and Atelier & Repairs take apart old Levi's and tailor them for a modern fit, adding their own embellishments in the process.

With all these options on the secondhand market, you may find that new denim just starts to feel boring after a while.




Tip: Try 'Em On In Person

No pair of second-hand denim is the same. After years of wear and aging, the sizing in the tag may no longer match the actual fit of the jeans. Plus, each pair has its own wear patterns, patches, and quirks that make it unique. Be sure to try a few pairs on in person before you decide on your favorite. If buying online, look for sellers that offer detailed measurements and product photos and ask about their return policy.

 

Rule 4: Seek Out Natural Indigo

Photo via Stony Creek Colors


Natural indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) was the dye used in the original denim overalls and jeans made by Levi Strauss in San Francisco in the 1870's. Up to that point Indigo had been the dye of choice for poor laborers around the world for hundreds—if not thousands—of years.

But in the late 1800s, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer and BASF developed a synthetic form of indigo. In 1897 19,000 tons of natural indigo were produced to around the world. By 1914 this number had dropped to 1,000 tons, with von Baeyer's synthetic indigo effectively replacing the cultivation of natural indigo for the next 100 years.

Today 50,000 tons of synthetic indigo is used in clothing production each year, often in places where environmental regulations are so lax that denim factories shamelessly dump toxic indigo runoff straight into the local waterways.

In 2009 it was reported that a mill near Maseru, Lesotho used by Gap and Levi's was poisoning the local population and turning the river deep indigo blue. In Xintag, China, the "denim capital of the world", the pollution is so bad that "you can’t give the houses away." 

Thankfully there are also synthetic indigo mills that dispose of their dye runoff responsibly, and big companies like Levi's and H&M have spent the past decade working to institute new sustainability guidelines for the whole industry.

But that hasn't stopped a few ambitious brands in the U.S. and Japan from working to revive the legacy of natural indigo denim. Working with forward-thinking farms like Stony Creek Colors in South Carolina, there are limited runs of 100% natural jeans beginning to appear on the market.

Someday soon, we hope that truly all-natural denim becomes accessible to the mass market. When that day comes, you can bet Native Color will be helping to lead the charge.




Tip: Learn to Spot Natural Indigo

Unfortunately, due to the rise in popularity in natural indigo you'll often find brands trying to "blue-wash" their denim. Beware of terms like "true indigo" or "garment dyed indigo". Natural indigo denim is extremely rare these days, so if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

 

The Best Natural Jeans to Buy

Photo via RE/DONE


With the rules and tips above, we're confident that you'll be able to find plenty of sustainable denim options no matter your budget. But just to make things a little easier, we're sharing our favorite sources for eco-friendly jeans for every type of budget.

 

Beginner: 100% Cotton Denim

 Womens

  • Boyish Jeans - The Billy: Boyish makes vintage inspired, eco-friendly denim for women. The Billy is a classic high-waisted jean made with 70% BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton and 30% recycled cotton.
  • Levi's Premium - 501® Original Fit: It's the pair of jeans that started it all. Your grandmother for 501s, your mother wore 501s, and these 100% cotton, non-stretch jeans from Levi's Premium carry on that timeless style.
  • Imogene + Willie - Catherine Indigo Rigid: From one of the few brands that make true rigid selvedge denim for women, these 1950's-inspired jeans are made with some of last fabric produced by the now-closed Cone Mills White Oak Plant in Greensboro, NC.

Mens

  • RRL - Slim Fit Jean: These 100% cotton jeans from Ralph Lauren's signature RRL line are made with 13.5 oz American right-hand twill selvedge denim for a rugged fit that only gets better with age.
  • Levi's - 501® Original Fit: John Wayne and Gary Cooper wore 'em. James Dean and Marlon Brando wore 'em. Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol wore 'em. From miners and cowboys to punks and painters, this is the only pair of jeans that's stood the test of time.
  • Rogue Territory - Stanton 15oz: Made with RgT's proprietary 15.2 oz indigo selvedge denim made for them by Nihon Menpu Mills, one Japan's most legendary denim producers. If you're not already a denim head, this pair of jeans will turn you into one.

 

Intermediate: 100% Organic Denim

 Womens

  • Nudie Jeans - Breezy Britt: Sweden's Nudie Jeans Co. has been using 100% organic cotton since 2012. In addition to a fully transparent supply chain, these jeans come with free repairs for life.
  • G-Star RAW - Radar Mid Waist Boyfriend: Amsterdam's G-Star RAW has proved itself to be a sustainability visionary in recent years. Not only do they have a full line of 100% organic cotton denim, they teamed up with DyStar and Artistic Milliners to create a new indigo dyeing process that uses 70% less chemicals and 15% less dye.
  • MUD Jeans - Relax Rosy: Another forward-thinking Dutch brand, this cropped fit from MUD Jeans is made with 60% cotton and 40% recycled cotton for a truly circular style.
  • Outerknown - Dune High Rise Slim Fit Jeans: From Outerknown's S.E.A. JEANS collection, these 100% organic cotton jeans are made with denim from the Candiani mill in Milan, Italy.

Mens

  • Nudie Jeans - Grim Tim: These slim straight fit jeans are made with 100% organic 13.5 oz selvedge denim from Japan's 125-year old Kaihara mill. Oh, and they come with free repairs for life. 
  • Outerknown - Drifter Tapered Fit Jeans: Part of Outerknown's S.E.A. JEANS collection, these 100% organic cotton jeans are made in some of the most sustainable denim factories in the world and are guaranteed for life.
  • Hiut Denim - The Work® Organic: Founder David Hieatt was a successful ad executive in London before returning to his roots in Cardigan, Wales to make sustainable jeans in what was once one of the denim capitals of the U.K.
  • Finisterre - Acies Selvedge Jean: From British surf brand Finisterre, these straight fit jeans are made with 100% organic 13 oz selvedge denim from Japan, and are sewn in Blackburn, England.

 

Advanced: Natural Indigo Dyed Denim

 Womens

Sorry, ladies, we found ZERO natural indigo jeans designed for women. Both Wrangler and Lucky Brand have released natural indigo lines in recent years, but both were made using synthetic stretch fabrics. If you know of others, tell us in the comments!

    Mens

     

    BONUS: Vintage and Upcycled Denim

     Vintage Shops

    • Reunion Clothiers: Cincinnati-based Reunion has one of the best collections of classic American sportswear, workwear, and military clothing we've seen, and always has a stack of freshly-picked vintage Levi's to choose from.
    • Passport Vintage: Our neighbor here in Austin, Passport specializes in vintage Levi's and 90's-era vintage.

    Denim Upcycling

    • RE/DONE: Los Angeles-based RE/DONE has pioneered the art of upcycling vintage Levi's and counts celebrities like Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Selena Gomez as fans.
    • Atelier & Repairs: Founder Maurizio Donadi spent 35 years at top fashion brands like Benetton, Diesel, Armani Exchange, Ralph Lauren, and Levi's before feeling called to do something about the growing problem of clothing waste. Atelier & Repairs creates one-of-a-kind pieces by mending worn out clothing with deadstock fabrics.

    Social Marketplaces

    • Poshmark: Founded in 2011 by Manish Chandra, Poshmark is the #1 place to buy and sell new and used fashion.
    • Grailed: Catering to the mens market, Grailed is the place to connect with other denim heads to swap rare Japanese denim and sold-out collections.

    Any favorites that we forgot? Let us know in the comments!

     

    Header image by Clara Balzary

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