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Ethical Jeans

In this guide, we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 37 brands of jeans.

We also look at sandblasting, pollution, the carbon cost, upcycling, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Levi Strauss and give our recommended best buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Learn more about us  →

What to buy

What to look for when buying jeans:

  • Do they use alternative fabrics? You can also avoid the issues of non-organic cotton by opting for jeans made from alternative fabrics such as hemp.

  • Do they come with free repairs? Hiut and Nudie offer free repairs on jeans. This means you can avoid the impact of buying a new pair for much longer.

  • Are they organic? Look out for jeans made from 100% organic cotton, especially certified to GOTS standards. This means your jeans are not contributing to the over-use of pesticides, GMO crops or forced labour in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Best Buys

The Best Buys for this guide are committed to using organic cotton, apart from Beyond Retro which only sells second-hand and upcycled clothing

These jeans can be a bit on the pricey side with MUD, People Tree and Kuyichi jeans costing around £100 and Monkee jeans around £60.

Beyond Retro are a bit more affordable with jeans costing around £30. However, you can pick up second-hand jeans at charity shops or second-hand sites like eBay for much cheaper.

There are no recommended buys in the jeans industry.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying jeans:

  • Are they polluting the environment? A wealth of toxic chemicals are used in the clothing industry. Try to avoid companies with poor track records of toxic chemicals. It also helps to avoid those leather patches.

  • Are they new? The impact of buying new jeans is huge. A number of companies are offering jeans made from recycled denim and you can always buy second-hand.

  • Do they have a worn look? The distressed or worn look in jeans could be created with sandblasting, bleaching or acid washing. These techniques can be extremely harmful to garment workers and the environment.

Companies to avoid

Four companies received a worst rating for Supply Chain Management and Pollution and Toxics – key ratings for the clothing industry – and scored fairly poorly across the board.

  • Diesel
  • Pepe
  • Abercrombie and Fitch
  • Hollister
  • Asda (George)

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

MUD Jeans leased [O,S,A]

Company Profile: MUD Jeans International B.V.

MUD organic jeans [O,S,A]

Company Profile: MUD Jeans International B.V.

Monkee Genes organic jeans [O, A]

Company Profile: Wilson Design Source Supply

Beyond Retro recycled clothes [S]

Company Profile: Beyond Retro

Kuyichi organic and recycled cotton jeans [O,S]

Company Profile: Kuyichi BV

F-ABRIC Compostable Jeans [S]

Company Profile: FREITAG lab. ag

Kuyichi organic jeans [O]

Company Profile: Kuyichi BV

Living Crafts Clothes [O]

Company Profile: Living Crafts GmbH & Co. KG

Finisterre organic jeans [O]

Company Profile: Finisterre UK Limited

People Tree organic, Fairtrade clothing [F,O]

Company Profile: People Tree Ltd

Thought jeans [O]

Company Profile: Thought Fashion Limited

Finisterre jeans

Company Profile: Finisterre UK Limited

Nudie Jeans [O,S]

Company Profile: Nudie Jeans

Howies Jeans [O]

Company Profile: Howies Ltd

Howies vegan jeans [O,A]

Company Profile: Howies Ltd

Hiut organic jeans [O,S]

Company Profile: Hiut Ltd

Hiut jeans [S]

Company Profile: Hiut Ltd

Howies Jeans

Company Profile: Howies Ltd

Superdry Jeans

Company Profile: Superdry PLC [previously SuperGroup Plc]

G Star RAW Jeans

Company Profile: G-Star (UK) Ltd

Lee jeans

Company Profile: Lee

Wrangler jeans

Company Profile: Wrangler

H&M jeans [S]

Company Profile: H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB

Levi's Water<Less™ Jeans [S]

Company Profile: Levi Strauss & Co

H&M jeans

Company Profile: H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB

Levi's jeans

Company Profile: Levi Strauss & Co

Topman Jeans

Company Profile: Top Shop / Top Man (Holdings) Limited group

Topshop MOTO Jeans

Company Profile: Top Shop / Top Man (Holdings) Limited group

Pepe Jeans

Company Profile: Pepe Jeans London Limited

Diesel jeans

Company Profile: Diesel SpA

Abercrombie & Fitch Jeans

Company Profile: Abercrombie & Fitch Co

Guess Jeans

Company Profile: Guess? Inc

Hollister jeans

Company Profile: Abercrombie & Fitch Co

Marks & Spencer jeans

Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc

ASDA George Jeans

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd

Primark Jeans

Company Profile: Primark

Sainsbury's TU jeans

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc

Tesco jeans

Company Profile: Tesco plc

What is most important to you?

Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Jeans are the second most bought item of clothing and around half of Brits will have bought a pair of jeans in the last 3 months. In the US, the average consumer buys four pairs of jeans a year.

They were originally designed to be strong, durable and long-lasting, however, the rise of fast-fashion has seen a trend for jeans being discarded after only a few wears.

We uncover the companies that are still failing to address issues such as toxic chemical use, high water consumption and dangerous working conditions. We also take a look at those doing things differently and paving the way for a better approach to denim.

Image: ethical guide to jeans

Water footprint of jeans production

According to the Water Footprint Project, the average water footprint of cotton is 10,000 litres per kg which equates to a pair of jeans having a water footprint of around 8,000 litres. This includes the large quantities of water needed to grow cotton crops and the water-intensive dying and prewashing processes.

Organic cotton is much less water-intensive. MUD jeans state that they use 1,500 litres of water compared to an industry standard of 7,000 litres. Levi’s states that its Water-less jeans have reduced the water footprint to just 42 litres per pair of jeans.

However, the company also reported that its regular jeans had a footprint of around 3,000 and that 45% of this was through consumer washing. It is unclear why regular Levi’s jeans would already appear to have a water footprint much lower than industry standards, especially considering it is not using 100% organic cotton. No information on how it had calculated this could be found but it looks like a certain wariness around uncertified claims is in order. So, if you want to reduce your water footprint look for jeans made with organic cotton and try to reduce the number of times you wash them.

Of course, buying recycled or second-hand jeans would also dramatically reduce water use.

Find out more about what MUD Jeans is doing to combat the issues in the fashion industry in our podcast.

Image: polluted water in Xintang ethical jeans ethical consumer
Polluted water in Xintang, China.

Pollution from making jeans 

Creating a pair of jeans can also cause significant pollution to our water systems. Denim was traditionally dyed using indigo sourced from plants (see our feature 'Indigo the colour of India' to learn more about the history of this). However, most denim will now be dyed with synthetic indigo made using a variety of chemical reactions.

The process of making synthetic indigo produces a number of waste chemicals, some of which can be considered hazardous.

We rate all clothing companies on their toxic chemicals policies. MUD, Kuyichi, Monkee, Beyond Retro and Freitag/F-ABRIC were the only companies not to lose marks under Pollution and Toxics. 

Xintang: the jeans capital of the world

Xintang is a riverside town in Guangdong Province of China. The town is home to around 3,000 businesses linked to the manufacture of jeans and supplies a significant percentage of the global market.

It has become known as the ‘jeans capital of the world’ but this has had serious ramifications. The subject of a 2010 Greenpeace investigation into the jeans industry and an undercover documentary ‘Der Preis der Bluejeans’ in 2012, Xintang was found to harbour a severe pollution problem and terrible, and often dangerous, working conditions.

In early 2018, the Chinese government announced that denim factories in Xintang town would be transferred nearly 1,000 km away to Huarong county in Hunan Province.

This is apparently in order to clean up the pollution caused by the jeans factories as new factories in Huarong are said to use more modern technologies and safety equipment.

While this may lead to some job losses it should also mean safer working conditions and less pollution.

Forced labour in cotton production

Denim is a material made from 100% cotton. According to the US Department of Labour, cotton is one of the goods most commonly produced using forced labour. Forced labour exists in nine countries producing 65% of the world’s cotton – Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Europe is the biggest single destination for Uzbek cotton.

While forced labour in cotton production remains endemic in many countries, nowhere is it more organised than in Uzbekistan. Farmers are ordered to grow cotton and every year at harvest time the repressive government forcibly mobilises over one million citizens, including teachers and doctors, to leave their regular jobs for a few weeks and go to the fields to pick cotton. The profits from the cotton production go to the country’s powerful elite.

Cotton sourced from the Xinjiang region in China

The End Uyghur Forced Labour (EUFL) says that there is evidence of the Chinese government using “forced labour as a means of social control” throughout the cotton-producing Uyghur region of Xinjiang.

Brands are being urged to cut ties with the Xinjiang Uyghur Region of China as a result. Find out more in our feature on Uyghur Muslims.

Distressing Denim

One of the curious things about 21st Century clothing consumption is the desire from some consumers for a product which, when new, looks ripped, worn and generally beaten up. It’s like paying extra for a car with dents and scratches and covered in mud! Although the ripping of jeans doesn’t cause problems in the supply chain as far as we know, other processes to create a worn look have caused concern amongst campaigners.


Most companies lost half a mark under workers’ rights for having no sandblasting policy. Sandblasting can be used to give denim a worn or ‘distressed’ look.

The process involves firing abrasive sand onto denim under high pressure, whether in a machine booth or simply via an air gun attached to a hose. Often performed without proper ventilation, safety equipment or training, the practice exposes workers to serious risk of silicosis, the deadly lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi’s, Diesel, Guess, Wrangler, Lee, Thought, Finisterre, Howies, Pepe, Sainsbury’s and Tesco were all marked down for no or insufficient policies on sandblasting.

Due to the fact that this issue had been raised a number of years ago, all companies selling denim were expected to have a policy against the use of sandblasting, regardless of whether they currently had any distressed jeans for sale.

Potassium Permanganate

In the wake of the serious health concerns linked with sandblasting, many factories are now opting for a bleached look with 90% of bleached look denim created using potassium permanganate spray. Unfortunately, it appears that this could pose just as much of a health risk with side effects including pulmonary oedema, skin irritation and burns as well as possible damage to liver and kidneys.

Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey have produced a report into the health risks of potassium permanganate which is frequently used in factories after the government banned sandblasting. They spoke to workers who reported working long hours with ineffectual safety equipment.

One worker said: “I would like to have a better job, with better working conditions, but for now I am obliged to do this work. Maybe you will say, “But this work is deadly”, but believe me if I didn’t work I would maybe die in even worse conditions.”

Another stated: “We breathe in the air, but we don’t have a choice, we don’t have another profession.”

Clean Clothes Campaign said the problem was exacerbated by complicated chains of subcontracting and the relatively low cost of setting up a bleaching workshop.

Stone-washing and acid-washing

  • There are a number of other techniques used in the denim industry to give jeans a worn-out or faded look.
  • Popular in the 70s, stone-washing is a process whereby jeans are washed in a large drum with pumice stones to create a faded look.
  • This was largely replaced by acid washing in the 80s which uses the same technique but with added chlorine. This creates a faded and often marbled look.
  • Bleached denim has also become increasingly popular with jeans being bleached to near-white. Chlorine and bleach are well known for their harmful effects on the environment and wildlife.


In 2018, Levi’s caused some hype with the announcement that it would be finishing its jeans with lasers, removing the need for harmful chemicals. As this is still a fairly new innovation there are still higher costs associated with it compared to traditional methods, meaning not all companies and factories are willing to invest.

Hopefully, we will see the costs start to come down or for companies to start seeing worker health as more valuable.

Other ethical jeans choices

Apart from cutting down on the number of new jeans you buy, you can also cut your impacts by choosing raw denim.

Raw denim is denim in its just dyed state. It is recommended that you do not wash raw denim jeans for the first six months of wearing them. This will allow you to achieve a naturally worn-in look without any harmful chemicals. Whichever jeans you choose, it is better to avoid washing them as much as possible to save on water and make them last longer.

Jeans don’t have to be made from cotton. Cock & Bull Menswear offer jeans made from hemp, and Freitag has created their own material called F-ABRIC which is designed to be sourced from within a 2500 km radius of its Zurich factory and is completely home compostable. It is made from flax, hemp and Modal (see our guide to ethical clothes shops)

Interestingly the cut of your jeans can also have a bearing on how ethical they are. The recent trend for skinny jeans has meant that many jeans were made with elastic as well as cotton.

Combining materials makes it harder to recycle denim after use.

The carbon cost and climate impact of jeans

Sorcha Bowles investigates the carbon management practices of denim companies.

Jeans are the second most bought item of clothing in Britain. We have rated jeans companies on their carbon management and reporting, and the results are summarised in the table further below, along with a price comparison of their cheapest pair of jeans and the companies’ annual revenues.

Measuring carbon emissions - the different ‘scopes’ categories

Although every company mentioned climate change in its reports, there was often little elaboration.

Company carbon emissions are generally broken down into three categories: scope one, two and three.

Scope one is direct emissions by the company – for example, the petrol it uses in its own vehicles. Scope two is the emissions of the electricity and heat it purchases. Scope three is everything else, largely ‘upstream’ emissions from its supply chain and ‘downstream’ emissions from the use of its products.

If the company makes washing machines, scope three includes the emissions from the electricity they use throughout their life. And if it makes jeans, scope three includes the emissions of growing the cotton, making the fabric and sewing the final garment, although these may be done by other people or companies.

A company’s scope three emissions are on average three to four times the size of their scope one and two emissions combined, making them the biggest portion of a company’s emissions. But they are also harder for a company to know and to control because many companies don’t fully know what their suppliers and consumers are doing.

We are looking for companies to report on their scope three emissions and plan how to reduce them, particularly those of their supply chain. However, very few do. Only Levi’s, Nudie, and Abercrombie & Fitch Co provided a breakdown of their scope three emissions.

The fabric matters

As discussed in our feature article on the carbon cost of clothing, the biggest portion of clothing emissions comes from producing the fabric.

Because much of this is due to the use of fossil fuels, it is important that companies talk about the use of renewables in their suppliers’ factories. The best in this regard is Kuyichi, which says that 52% of its suppliers use renewable energy.

More positively, all of the companies mentioned their intention to use more climate-friendly fabrics apart from the two owed by Abercrombie & Fitch Co (Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister).

Jeans are traditionally made from cotton, but some companies are now mixing in polyester, and also elastane/ lycra for stretch. We discuss the climate impact of different fabrics in a separate feature, alongside an article on different fabrics.

Our carbon emissions review found that there isn’t a clear case between cotton and polyester, but cotton impacts can be reduced through better growing methods.

Polyester emissions can be reduced by recycling, although it is generally ‘open loop’ recycling – from plastic bottles to clothes, with clothes as the end of the line, regarded as less good than ‘closed loop’ recycling which you can keep doing infinitely. WRAP estimates that using recycled polyester reduces CO2e emissions by 32% compared to virgin polyester. 

Howies advertises a pair of jeans made using recycled plastic bottles. Elastane is harder to recycle – mixes containing elastane mostly just end up as things like insulation materials.

Conclusion – the cost to the climate?

Jeans companies are not doing nearly enough on the climate front. However, luckily for those of us not wanting to spend a fortune on jeans, the table shows little correlation between price and what a company is doing. Levi’s and Kuyichi are mid-range in terms of price and show what can be done without breaking the bank.

Our ethical clothing guide provides a comparison across all the issues we cover for the following brands (which also make other types of clothing): Kuyichi, Monkee Genes, MUD, Nudie, Howies, Thought.

Our guide to high street clothing provides similar information for brands like Boohoo, Primark, and Shein.

Our carbon ratings of jeans companies

Company Price of cheapest jeans (£) Annual revenue FY2020 ($)
Levi's 60 4.5 billion
Best - small company exception    
Kuyichi Jeans 86 6 million
MUD Jeans 102 2.8 million
Guess 69 2.68 billion
Nudie Jeans (Svenska Jeans) 100 52 million
G-Star RAW Jeans 80 469.6 million
Lee and Wrangler (Kontoor) 60 1.5 billion
Middle – small company exemption    
Monkee Genes (Wilson
Design Source Supply)
50 1 million
Howies Jeans (Kachikoshi) 75 5 million
Thought Jeans 85 5 million
Hollister, Abercrombie and
Fitch (Abercrombie & Fitch)
39 3.6 billion
Pepe Jeans
(PJL Investments)
65 660.3 million
Diesel Jeans (OTB Spa) 90 985.1 million
Hiut Denim 175 1.5 million
Rolls of jeans blue denim

Alternative systems


As with the fashion industry as a whole (see page 26) the concept of a circular economy for jeans could offer a real alternative to the current model of disposable denim.

Closing the loop requires companies to refocus, from the sourcing and processing of new denim from raw materials to recycling existing denim into new jeans. There has even been work done on the possibility of recycling the dye from old jeans as well as the fibres.

While a number of companies in this guide are talking about these concepts, MUD jeans have made it their future goal to produce all their jeans with 100% recycled denim. A pair of MUD jeans currently contains around 40% recycled denim. The company also offers the ‘Lease a Jeans’ scheme whereby instead of buying a pair of jeans you can rent them for under £10 a month and then return them to the company for resale or recycling.

Free repairs

An obvious way to help change the culture of fast fashion is to extend the life of our clothes.

Jeans can often wear out at specific points but, as they are generally quite durable, repairing them is often a viable option and much better than throwing them away.

Hiut and Nudie Jeans are doing their bit to help out by offering free repairs for life on any jeans purchased. MUD Jeans offer free repairs for the first year if you are leasing. Some companies also offered repairs at a cost.

Denim DIY

You can also repair your jeans yourself.

We asked our readers to tell us what they had done with their old jeans. There was a wealth of ideas and instructions for upcycling your jeans. 

Ideas included rugs, doormats, placemats, upholstery, quilts and blankets, jewellery or new items of clothing such as skirts, shorts or dresses.

Companies behind the brand

Levi & Strauss is the maker of the iconic Levi’s brand.

While it is definitely ahead of some of its other global counterparts like Diesel or Guess, the company still has a long way to go in terms of sustainability and a new pair of Levi’s still has a significant impact. However, the fact that Levi’s produces a relatively durable product means it is easy to pick up a pair second hand and the company has even started its own pre-worn collection with ‘Levi’s Authorized Vintage’.

Levi & Strauss has also been outspoken on issues unrelated to its industry and has recently made headlines announcing its support for greater gun control laws in the US

Some cowboys in the US had a further problem on their hands when Wrangler – the go-to choice for those upset with Levi’s political stance – partnered with the rapper Lil Nas X to create a capsule collection after the artist name-checked Wrangler in his hit song ‘Old Town Road’.

The song sparked debate in the country music community over whether it was more hip-hop than country, with some suggesting that race had been a factor in the removal of the song from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Others claimed that Wrangler’s Lil Nas X Collection wouldn’t be worn by ‘true cowboys’.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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