When I invest in clothing, I think more and more about sustainability. It reminds me of a belief I have about food: the further you take it from its natural state, the weirder it gets and the worse it is for you. As I see it, the same is true for clothing.
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, jeans were made of 100% cotton and sold in a raw, stiff, unwashed form that had to be broken in. The lived-in look was earned. Scuffs and fade marks were made from my own body movements. That raw, American-made denim was extremely durable, ensuring that my jeans lasted a long time, or at least until I grew out of them.
These days, the broken-in effect of jeans can be bought, but at a great cost to the environment. The process of pre-washing over and over uses a lot of water. And acid washing is toxic, plain and simple.
Then there is the stretch element, which I’ve written about before. Whether it’s Lycra, spandex, “elastane” or some version thereof, stretch is the high fructose corn syrup of clothing. It’s plastic. And like all plastic, it eventually breaks down into a toxic form that can’t be put back into the environment. It’s just bad news on every level. (It’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan of sneakers. That rubber sole? Plastic.)
I’ve never worn stretch jeans, and I never will. I don’t even wear pre-washed jeans. I go for the raw, stiff, 100% cotton, unwashed selvedge denim in a Levi’s 501 or 511. Breaking them in and making them truly my own is part of the fun. An extra bonus is that they last a lot longer. I hang onto my jeans until they are absolutely threadbare and ripped beyond repair, which takes years with even daily wearing. At the end of the day, 100% cotton denim costs less money over time and does less damage to the environment, making a superior garment and a better value.
I heard this articulated brilliantly in a podcast by the folks who produce 99% Invisible. In a fascinating limited series about clothes called “Articles of Interest,” host and producer Avery Trufelman did an episode on blue jeans. It was brilliant, and you can listen to it below. (The episode on plaid was especially interesting, too.)
In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to reconsider pre-stressed jeans and any garment with stretch. Look at the fabric content of the clothes you buy and try to keep it as natural as possible. It’s better for you, the people in the factory making your clothes and everyone all around.