7 Dirty Denim Brands Destroying the Environment—and Exporting Their Pollution to Vulnerable Overseas Communities

Aug 12, 2017 by


Air pollution from the world’s largest denim companies kills thousands of people a day in China.

Photo Credit: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock

When it comes to environmental destruction, it’s pretty easy to point the finger at a coal mine or fracking well. And you’d be right; the energy industry has a disgraceful track record of exploiting the planet. But sometimes, environmental misdeeds lurk in unexpected places. Like in your pants.

The fashion industry is all about image, of course. But many clothing brands share a dirty secret: it’s a filthy industry. Popular denim brands, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, Express, American Eagle Outfitters, Wrangler and Lee are hiding as much as 90 percent of the climate pollution they generate by outsourcing production to contractors in developing countries, and then avoiding responsibility for the carbon pollution emitted by manufacturing their products.

These companies are laggards when it comes to owning up to the climate pollution created by their manufacturing.

According to one study, the apparel industry generated over 1.7 billion tons of CO2, or 5.4 percent of total global carbon emissions in 2015. This number is projected to increase by more than 60 percent to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030—the equivalent of emissions produced by nearly 230 million passenger vehicles driven for a year.

A study by a leading apparel company concluded that one pair of denim jeans produces 44 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions—equivalent to burning over 21 pounds of coal.

Cleaner options exist, yet have been ignored

In general, the apparel industry lags behind other industries when it comes to addressing their impacts on climate change. Thanks to widespread stewardship efforts by the private sector, it’s easier than ever to learn about companies who are taking real steps to clean up their acts. One example is the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a global tracking system that enables companies (as well as cities, states and regions) to measure and manage their environmental impacts.

Only two apparel companies have made sufficient progress to be on the Climate A List for 2016. Worse yet, no apparel companies are on the CDP’s Supplier Engagement Rating List, which tracks greenhouse gas emissions from supply chains. These suppliers—and the textiles, fabrics, and dyes they make—are the source of most of the industry’s pollution.

In a nutshell, the apparel industry is not coming clean about the real size of its environmental footprint.

We’re not falling for greenwashing, and neither should you

Companies know their environmental behaviors are important to their customers. Unfortunately, many apparel companies are simply greenwashing: making trivial gestures toward the environment, while celebrating themselves in elaborate media campaigns. But we’re smarter than that. A company that publicly pats itself on the back for putting new lightbulbs in their main office—while ignoring the real source of its climate pollution—clearly isn’t serious about cleaning up its act.

Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council sums it up: “Corporate social responsibility programs and the ‘sustainability journeys’ upon which most companies in the fashion industry have embarked fall short of serious, professional efforts.”

So which brands are the bad actors? Filthy Fashion, a new campaign from Stand.earth in partnership with SumofUS, is calling out seven denim brands: Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Guess?, Express, American Eagle Outfitters, Wrangler and Lee.

Outsourcing pollution to vulnerable populations

Global warming is already having severe impacts on developing countries, like Bangladesh, Vietnam and China, which are producing the majority of apparel for the United States. This means that the workers and communities are being exploited twice, first by clothing makers seeking cheap labor and lax environmental standards outside of the United States, and second by the everlasting and disproportionate impacts of climate pollution.

Bangladesh could experience a three-foot rise in sea level, which would submerge almost 20 percent of the country and displace more than 30 million people.

China’s agricultural output could decline by 37 percent over the next 50 years due to changes in rainfall, water availability and rising temperatures.

In Vietnam, a sea-level rise of one foot—which could occur as early as 2040—could reduce agricultural production by around 12 percent in the Mekong Delta region due to flooding and seawater intrusion. The Delta contributes around half of Vietnam’s total agricultural output, especially rice.

The world’s largest denim companies are contributing to the terrible air quality that’s killing 4,400 people every single day in China. (image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace) 

The “dirty seven” brands would like us to remain unaware of the impact of their overseas operations. But we shouldn’t let them off easy.

We can influence corporate behavior

It’s understandable to feel like the world’s problems are spiraling out of control and there is little we can do. Given today’s all-out assault on our planet, it’s more important than ever to get involved and make our voices heard.

Consumer-based, retail corporations are especially sensitive about their brand image. They do care what their customers think, and they know we can take our money elsewhere. We have the ability to leverage our buying power and make purchasing decisions that are in line with a pro-environment worldview—one that opposes resource exploitation, hidden pollution and greenwashing.

That is why Stand.earth and SumOfUs are coming together to tell these seven denim brands—all of which are members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition—to take responsibility for their devastating environmental impacts. These companies need to step up and use renewable energy to manufacture apparel and by reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement.

Join the nearly 100,000 concerned consumers who have joined our fight against corporate greenwashing—and for truly sustainable fashion—by sending the dirty seven brands a message they can’t ignore.

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