Detective work: ethical jeans for under £50?

On Monday June 2nd, our Detective Work team promised to answer ethical fashion questions asked by passersby in Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre. This is the third of five questions they tried to answer. Each one took all week to research, but they are worth waiting for.

This question was asked by Matthew, who visited us in our shop. Detective Josh was on the case…


The ethics of jean production

“Ethical fashion includes clothes whose makers seek to address at least one (but usually more) of the issues involved in fashion today,” issues such how the environment, humans and animals are impacting by the production process (Anon, nd h).

Here are some environmental and social issues involved in the production of jeans which ethical clothing companies try to address…

Environmental issues

Making jeans is incredibly resource intensive: consuming much energy and water to produce.

Producing cotton requires lots of water, and the water treatment process used in making denim requires even more water, it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pair of regular blue jeans (Akhila Vijayaraghavan, 2011).

Cotton accounts for 25 percent of the world’s agrochemical use, cotton produced using intensive cultivation uses many chemicals (e.g. pesticides and fertilisers) which can damage the environment (Ruth Styles, 2011).

Simple changes can make a big environmental difference…

  • Organic cotton: decreases the impact on Global warming and water eutrophication by 5-29%, and decreases the impact on Aquatic toxicity by over 60%.
  • No water treatment after manufacturing thread and linen: decreases the impact on water eutrophication by over 60% (Bio Intelligence Service, 2006). Levi’s are working with their suppliers to reduce their water consumption by recycling water (Mary Catherine O’Connor, 2014).

Social issues

Specific to the production of denim, the sandblasting process is used to give a worn, distressed denim look, but poses serious health risks to workers. Micro particles of sand are ‘blasted’ onto the fabric to achieve the worn and frayed look, generated large amounts of silica dust which, when inhaled, can cause a lethal disease – silicosis, from which workers in both Turkey and Bangladesh have died. Many brands have now banned this process (Akhila Vijayaraghavan 2011a), though not all. 

In addition to this are the usual social issues of working conditions, and the question of whether workers are payed a living wage and are allowed to unionise.

A guide to buying ethically sourced jeans…

Here are 5 different options of where you could source your jeans from, starting with the most affordable, to be extra helpful – all prices include the shipping cost!

1. Buy second hand jeans!

Possibly the cheapest option, you could grab a bargain this way, and you get to extend the life of a pair of jeans. Where to look? A local charity shop, or have a look online e.g. and

2. Monkee Genes

The first and only jeans label to be certified by both The Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standards – GOTS (Anon, nd a). They are also certified by PETA, by using recycled cardboard patches rather than leather ones for their jeans they support animal welfare, for much leather comes from countries where animals are treated badly (Hannah Levitt, 2014).

What does this mean?

Some organic products are better than others! The Soil Association has very high standards, considerably higher than the EU minimum for organic items (Anon, nd c).

By being certified as organic this means the production of the cotton and the processing of it has met organic standards and been “checked at every step of the processing supply chain for” both “social and environmental responsibility”, both factory working standards and environmental issues are considered important (Anon, nd a).

The Soil Association’s ethical trade standards should result in employees having an acceptable living wage, hours of work, working conditions and empowerment (Anon, 2012).


Standard price £55, Sale price from £35 (including £5 delivery). 

From £13 (including £3.99 delivery).

Ethical Consumer (nd) score:  14

3. Kuyichi 

Kuyichi’s denim is produced from factories in Italy, Tunisia and Turkey.

In their jeans, Kuyichi use organic cotton, recycled denim, and sustainable materials like hemp. They use no sandblasting or abrasive blasting as finishing process on their jeans, and are “always looking for new sustainable ways to create our jeans, like dyeing our denims with a natural and less water indigo dye.” (Anon, nd c)

Kuyichi are members of the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF).

FWF’s has an 8 point code of labour practices…

  1. Employment is freely chosen.
  2. There is no discrimination in employment.
  3. No exploitation of child labour.
  4. Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
  5. Payment of a living wage.
  6. No excessive working hours.
  7. Safe and healthy working conditions.
  8. Legally binding employment relationship.


From £66 ($99.95 + $10 shipping)

Ethical Consumer (nd) score:  10

4. Nudie Jeans

Nudie Jeans follow the Fair Wear Foundation requirements at all their manufacturing suppliers. “In addition to audits, Nudie Jeans representatives visit our suppliers on a regular basis … many of these visits are unannounced.” A summary of audit findings can even be downloaded as PDFs. According to their online ‘Production Guide’ 78% of jeans production is done in Italy, and the remaining 22% is done in Tunisia.

Regarding water treatment, Nudie sells raw denim and provides details on how to achieve a worn look (Ethical Consumer, n.d.). Nudie does use abrasive blasting but their regulations, visits and tests, “guarantee a safe process.” (Anon, nd g)

The majority of the organic denim used by Nudie Jeans is certified by GOTS (Anon, nd d).

90% of their garments are made in Europe where wages are on a different level. Their only Asian partner is in India, and they have payed their share of living wages – though not all workers will receive a living way until the other companies producing at the same supplier pay their share (Anon, nd e).

Available from:

From £99 (including postage)

Ethical Consumer (nd) score:  12

5. Howies

Howies believe in quality, believeing that a product which lasts longer is better for the environment. Howies use organic cotton (Anon, nd f) which is accredited by GOTS (CUGB, 2013).

Howies’ is the only ethical jean company we lok at which had been graded by Free2Work. Its overall score was an A- and that score’s breakdown includes an A for Policies, an A for Transparency, an A for Monitoring and – much lower – a C+ for Worker Rights. This compares very favourably with the overall scores of more mainstream brands’ on Free2Work, e.g. GAP: B, Levi’s: B, Hollister: D+ and  Abercrombie & Fitch: D+.

Available from: 

From £79 (including postage)

Ethical Consumer (nd) score:  14

Once you’ve bought your jeans

Reducing the environmental impact of your jeans can also include choices you make after purchasing them…

Washing your jeans less regularly

Washing your jeans after they have been worn 5 times (compared to 3): Reduces impact on resources, emissions to air, emissions to water, human toxicity and production of solid waste by 5-29% (Bio Intelligence Service, 2006). There is even good evidence to suggest that jeans need not be washed at all! Mr Le found that the bacteria levels in his jeans were the same after washing and wearing for 15 months compared with washing and wearing them for 13 days (Sadie Whitelocks, 2014).

Washing your jeans at a lower temperature

Not ironing your jeans

Not using a dryer 

To give your jeans a longer life you could…

  • Give / sell your jeans to a second user if you no longer want them.
  • Reuse them e.g. turning them into denim shorts, a bag, drinks coaster, or kitchen organiser (Natasha Harrison, 2014).
  • If they’re unwearable, charities such as the Salvation Army also accept rags.


It is possible to find affordable jeans that are ethically sourced, you just need to know where to look! These companies also stress that they believe in quality, and although they may be more expensive, they should last longer and so you get more for your money.

Of course, ordering online means you don’t get a chance to try them on before you buy, but each company listed here accept returns (within 21, 14, 14, and 90 days respectively, though only Howies pays for return postage).

Of the ethical brands we’ve looked at, only Monkee Genes can easily be bought new for £50 or less. But the purchase price is not the only price you pay. If you wear a £100 pair of jeans twice as many times as a £50 pair of jeans, aren’t they the same price?

Sources & further reading

Akhila Vijayaraghavan (2011) One Retailer’s Stand Against Sandblasted Denim. Triple Pundit 1 August ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (2012) Soil Association Ethical trade standards. Soil Association 5 July ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd a) The Soil Association. Monkey Genes ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd b) Organic standards, Organic Soil Association ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd c) Corporate Responsibility. Kuyichi ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd d) Responsible Production. Nudie Jeans Co ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd e) Nudie Jeans Pays Their Share of Living Wages to Workers in India. Nudie Jeans Co ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd f) We Are Howies. Howies ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd g) Abrasive Blasing. Nudie Jeans ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Anon (nd h) What is Ethical Fashion? Stop Traffick Fashion ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Bio Intelligence Service (2006) An Environmental Product Declaration of Jeans. ADEME ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

CUGB (2013) Certificate of Compliance. CUGB ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Ethical Consumer (n.d.) Free shopping guide to jeans, from Ethical Consumer. Ethical Consumer ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Fair Ware Foundation (2009) Labour Standards, Fair Wear Foundation ( last accessed 04/06/2014)

Free2Work (n.d.) The story behind the barcode. Not For Sale ( last accessed 04/06/2014)

Hannah Levitt (2014) Monkee Genes Goes Vegan, Offers Limited-Edition Pleather ‘Peta-Approved’ Label, Peta ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Mary Catherine O’Connor (2014) The iconic blue jeans company is testing systems for capturing and reusing water in denim manufacturing plants, part of a larger effort to reduce its environmental impact. Smart Planet 7 April ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Natasha Harrison (2014) Recycling old jeans! My Student Style 15 April ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Ruth Styles (2011) Top 10…Organic Denim. Ecologist 1 March ( last accessed 4 June 2014)

Sadie Whitelocks (2014) Should real denim wearers ever wash their jeans? Levi’s CEO boasts that he hasn’t cleaned his 501s for a YEAR. Daily Mail 21 May ( last accessed 4 June 2014)


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