With Laura Vicaria, CSR Manager of MUD Jeans
The dirtiest item in fast fashion sits in most of our closets. With its use of cotton, chemicals, pesticides, and indigo dyes, denim has been making its mark on the environment for decades. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Changemakers in the fashion industry are disrupting the denim space. Brands like MUD Jeans are choosing recycled and organic cotton and leading the way in circular, sustainable production.
We’ve talked to fashion industry leaders about how to reduce textile waste, what to do with unwanted clothes, how to shift from linear to circular fashion, and more. Today, we’re taking sustainable fashion a step further to talk all about denim production.
Laura Vicaria is the corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager at the first circular denim company, MUD Jeans. On The Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Cory and Laura discuss the challenges and opportunities of producing sustainable denim. In this post, we’ll cover how MUD Jeans is leading the way for eco-friendly fashion, and we’ll learn Laura’s tips for sustainable denim production.
The Problem with Denim Production
“Denim is one of the dirtiest pieces in your wardrobe because of the amount of chemicals and resources it uses.” – Laura Vicaria
During the podcast, Laura breaks down exactly how denim is made and why it’s not sustainable.
The first problem: denim comes from cotton. “Cotton requires a lot of water. And it requires a lot of insecticides and pesticides. Already this is a big problem, particularly if you start thinking about where this cotton is coming from. It requires that product to come to different locations to be used.”
Next, the cotton is transformed into yarn. Then the yarn is dyed (usually with an indigo dye or synthetic indigo). From there, the yarn is turned into fabric.
That fabric goes through stitches and cuts to assemble the product. For certain styles of denim jeans, a final wash or dye process, such as sandblasting or bleaching, is applied to get the desired look. Laura explains: “You’re taking this fabric that is brand new, and then you wash it out, make it look older, give it another color. Once the customer gets the product, it’s already worn out. That’s the darker side of the denim industry.”
Each one of these steps in the supply chain could take place in a different city or country, requiring additional shipments and potential air travel, leading to more emissions.
What’s the Environmental Impact of Denim?
Denim production impacts the environment in three primary ways: soil biodiversity, water pollution, and use, and denim disposal.
Conventionally grown cotton is known as “one of the most environmentally demanding crops.” Its cultivation accounts for one-sixth of global pesticide usage, contaminating soil and harming soil biodiversity.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, soil biodiversity “reduces the impacts of extreme droughts and floods, which are becoming more common as the climate changes.”
The pesticides used in conventionally grown cotton are harmful to soil biodiversity, which is why organic cotton is crucial to sustainable denim production.
Water Pollution and Waste
Each year, the fashion industry uses enough water to meet the consumption needs of five million people, over 93 billion cubic meters. For denim, water consumption is compounded because its material is cotton-based, which requires a lot of water to grow. According to the UNEP, it takes “3,781 liters of water to make one pair of jeans.”
Some companies now use synthesized indigo dye, which uses “a number of toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, as does the dying process itself,” reports Emily Machar at Smithsonian Magazine. Even more concerning, in some factory towns, “rivers near denim mills run blue, contaminating and killing fish and affecting the health of workers and residents.”
The use of synthetic materials in denim means denim doesn’t break down as easily as other textiles. Fashion trends like stretchy jeans are making matters worse, as stretchy denim is made with synthetic fibers that don’t decompose and can’t be recycled either. Many denim producers use synthetic dyes, which are also slow to decompose.
For most denim producers, the product’s end of life isn’t part of the equation. But brands like MUD Jeans are addressing the denim disposal problem and taking responsibility for the whole life of their garments.
Can Denim be Sustainable?
“Circularity is making a product so it can be reused and reincorporated into the business over and over again. It’s about the effective use of materials.” – Laura Vicaria
Traditionally, in fast fashion, a product is created, sold, used, then tossed in the trash. This linear model of production isn’t ideal when we’re trying to minimize what ends up in the landfill. So the question is, how can we prevent denim waste?
The answer: circular denim.
Laura explains how the opposite of linear production is circular production. Instead of using designs that lead to more waste, in circular production, products are designed with the end of life in mind. Denim is repaired, reused, redesigned, and resold. To minimize the amount of new raw materials extracted from the earth, sustainable denim production leans on recycled materials or reusing denim in innovative ways.
How MUD Jeans is Leading the Way for Sustainable Denim
“You cannot really bring change to your company without understanding what the impact of your company is.” – Laura Vicaria
MUD Jeans has created a denim jeans production model that allows materials to be used again and again, which ultimately minimizes their environmental harm. In the podcast, Laura walks us through the steps to creating sustainable denim.
1. Analyze Your Environmental and Social Impact
Trying to make changes before understanding your full impact is like adding fertilizer to your plant when it really needs a bigger pot. There could be a different problem you’re missing.
Companies need to understand the entire impact of their production—from the beginning of the supply chain to the final product. Assessing the entire supply chain will give you a better idea of what you can do to make the biggest improvements.
At MUD Jeans, Laura worked in collaboration with Eco Chain to develop a lifecycle analysis report (LCA)—an assessment that measures environmental impact. Eco Chain evaluates emissions and resource extractions to determine the end product’s impact on the environment. Together, they looked at every piece of the MUD Jeans supply chain to measure and understand their sustainability. Here are some questions they considered:
- How much water do they use?
- How much electricity do they use?
- Which chemicals do they use?
They then plugged all their findings into the LCA system to calculate the environmental impact of each style of jeans. “From there, we can then actually develop further strategies to lower our environmental impact,” Laura says.
Take it from Laura. The best starting point is to understand the scope of your impact. That way, you can clearly see the steps you need to take and measure your improvements along the way.
2. Adjust Your Materials and Supply Chain
Once you understand your environmental and social impact, it’s time to chip away at making positive changes to your supply chain. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you figure out what to prioritize:
- Where are the biggest areas of concern?
- Which products/services have the biggest carbon footprint?
- What change(s) will move the needle the most?
- What changes will be easiest to implement first?
- Are there organic materials you can use in place of your current materials?
- Are there products/services you can remove that might dramatically reduce your impact without hurting company performance too much?
MUD Jeans has committed to using organic and recycled cotton. In fact, they hope to use 100% recycled cotton by 2025. The company’s denim is composed of 23–40% post-consumer recycled cotton, and the rest is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton.
Due to keeping consumer prices low and demanding low prices from manufacturers, the fashion industry is notorious for its poor treatment of garment workers. With just 2% of garment workers earning a living wage worldwide, brands have a responsibility to address and improve these conditions.
Laura says circularity can’t happen without prioritizing social impact, evaluating factory working conditions, and ensuring fair wages. MUD Jeans partners with its suppliers every year to sign a code of conduct covering labor rights, fair wages, and working environments. While many fashion companies’ codes of conduct don’t ensure compliance, MUD Jeans reinforces its standards with third-party auditors to ensure ethical production.
As you evaluate your supply chain, consider different areas where you can make small adjustments that could have compounding impacts.
3. Focus on Transparency and Traceability
How many hands have touched denim before it reaches the shelf? Where were the materials pulled from? How many countries did the product travel through?
Fashion companies have a responsibility to know where all of the materials they use come from, so they can understand their impact and help consumers make better purchasing decisions.
More than 90% of consumers value transparency when trying to decide what to purchase. Brands have an opportunity to protect consumer trust by being open and honest about how materials are gathered and where they are made.
Like Laura shares in the MUD Jeans sustainability report: “Traceability and transparency keep us connected to the materials and the people that are involved in the making of our jeans.”
Traceability involves knowing where every piece of your product originates, from extracting the raw material to manufacturing the item to consuming the product. For MUD Jeans, the cotton comes from Turkey, the fabric is made in Spain, and the stitching takes place in Tunisia.
Transparency takes traceability a step forward—sharing the truth about where and how products are created. MUD Jeans traces its production cycle and discloses its supply chain with customers through its sustainability report.
Sharing your products’ supply chain on your website and in your marketing helps build brand trust. Rather than keeping consumers in the dark, brands have an opportunity to market with authenticity.
4. Get Creative
There’s always a new way to approach an old problem, no matter how daunting the problem seems. One of the most creative ways MUD Jeans is practicing sustainability is through its Lease a Jeans model.
For a monthly fee, customers can lease a pair of jeans for 12 months and either keep or swap their pair at the end of the year. Customers are rewarded for returning jeans with a discount on their next purchase or their next lease. Laura explains how the model relieves anxiety around denim purchases:
“We’re removing the environmental anxiety of owning a new product for our customers, giving them the experience of owning a new pair of jeans but keeping the responsibility with us. Once they’re done using them, they send the jeans back to us, and we take care of what happens to that product at the end of life.”
After customers return the product, the jeans are either recycled or sold as a part of a vintage denim shop.
5. Prioritize Collaboration
The important thing to remember is you’re not alone on this journey to sustainability. Your team, other departments, and even external organizations and individuals are potential thought partners and collaborators.
MUD Jeans shows us the power of working together to solve problems. Laura works across departments, including marketing and product development, to empower others to move the sustainability mission forward.
Another way to collaborate is by looking outside of your company. Who can support you in your work? What are some unique ways to partner with other individuals or organizations?
MUD Jeans has a history of collaborating with external organizations, a strategy that we can apply to our own careers and businesses. Here are two collaborations we can draw inspiration from:
- Working with Saxxion University scientists to develop chemical recycling and create the first fully recycled pair of jeans.
- Partnering with furniture brand IKEA in creating a sustainable denim couch cover.
The reality is, so often we work in silos. Instead, let’s challenge ourselves to reach beyond our spheres and connect with like-minded individuals to solve real-world problems together.
MUD Jeans: Doing Jeans Differently
Laura Vicaria, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, MUD Jeans
Laura Vicaria is the CSR manager of the circular denim company MUD Jeans. Prior to MUD Jeans, she worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, focusing on trade and policy issues.
Now, she brings together her passions for fashion and sustainability in her CSR role. Going above and beyond to spread the word about circularity in fashion, she participates in events and podcasts, including Sustainable Fashion Week and The Circular Economy Show.
“We all have a role to play in this climate situation that we’re all facing” — Laura Vicaria
Act today: Tips for Conscious Consumers Interested in Sustainable Denim
Don’t Buy New
Before you go out to buy a new pair of jeans, consider whether you actually need to buy something at all. Can you repair your clothing? Or swap your denim with a friend?
If you decide you want to grab some new denim for your closet, try to buy secondhand. Check out your local thrift shop or vintage store.
Buy Sustainable Denim
Fast fashion and cheap materials don’t last. Instead of buying new jeans or a jacket every year, opt for high-quality and sustainable denim. Denim is a durable material that has the potential to last for a long time, so start by purchasing sustainable denim so you know you’re minimizing your carbon footprint.
How to Take Care of Your Denim
Taking care of denim is one way for us to minimize our impact on the environment and promote positive change. Protect your products and practice sustainability at home by taking care of your denim.
Do You Use Warm or Cold Water?
Laura suggests being careful with how you care for your denim. To start with, she says to make sure you’re washing denim in cold water because “it has such a difference when it comes to impact.”
Should Denim be Air Dried?
Whatever you do, avoid tumble drying your denim. Line drying is better for the longevity of your denim. As an added bonus, using your dryer less is better for the environment. In fact, you can reduce your carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds each year just by air drying outside.
What’s more, as Suneeta Sunny at the International Business Times shared, working together can have a significant impact. “If all Americans air dried their clothing, it would lessen the country’s total carbon dioxide output by 3.3%.”
How do You Repair Damaged Denim?
Laura encourages individuals to get savvy with their denim. When a seam rips, head over to YouTube and learn how to stitch it up (it’s easier than it sounds!). Or you can patch your denim yourself too.
What Can You do with Old Denim You Don’t Want?
If you’re feeling crafty or creative, there are plenty of ways to upcycle your old jeans, including making denim cocktail napkins, potholders, placemats, and baby bibs. You can also give your denim a second life. Here’s how:
- Bring them to your local donation center
- Swap denim with a family member or friend
- Sell your denim to a vintage shop or secondhand platform (like Poshmark or thredUP).
Closing: Start from Where You Are
Sustainable fashion is a significant problem that needs to be approached from all fronts. We may feel intimidated, and at times pessimistic, about the state of the fashion world today. But like Laura encourages, we must find inspiration from others. Instead of feeling like the problem is too big to solve, we need to seek out the people, companies, and organizations that are working towards positive change.
Laura suggests starting by learning everything you can. “Start to read and listen to different things that make you feel inspired and motivated and empowered.”
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Laura Vicaria LinkedIn
- MUD Jeans Sustainability Report
- MUD Jeans on LinkedIn
- MUD Jeans on Instagram
- Lease a Jeans Model
- Jeans Redesign Project – Ellen Macarthur Foundation
- Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas
- The Wardrobe Crisis Podcast
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Karonica is a content writer focused on helping purpose-driven and sustainable businesses connect with more people. Using her background in college admissions and customer service, she writes and edits to serve others with kind, clear, and educational content.
Karonica has written blogs and scripts for everyone from food startups to nonprofits, to SAAS and e-commerce companies. She’s an aspiring green thumb who loves reading, hiking, and making fresh salsa every week.