THE COST OF A PAIR OF JEANS consumers become increasingly aware of globalisation and the social and environmental impacts of product consumption, many businesses are recognising the value of adopting a triple bottom line.

According to a 2009 Economist article, the idea of the triple bottom line is to measure not only traditional corporate profit, but also an organisation’s social and environmental responsibility. The triple bottom line, therefore, consists of three Ps: profit, people, and planet [1].

While some organisations strive to improve their three Ps, what if we, as consumers, rewarded businesses by considering our own triple bottom line when making purchasing choices?

Whether planning a vacation, choosing which apples to buy, or scouring the mall for that perfect pair of jeans, most consumers consider personal profit versus cost. “How much will I wear these jeans and how much will I enjoy wearing them, relative to how much they cost?”

Consumers may assess the value of a purchase in different ways; however, value is typically weighed against one thing: the price tag.

But what if we began to assess the cost of products not solely based on the cost to us, but also on the cost to other people and to the environment?

There are few items in my wardrobe that I love more than my dark-wash skinny jeans. As a thrift-store junkie with a small clothing budget, I baulked at the $79 price tag but reasoned that “I’ll wear them all the time.” And I do. The cost per day of wearing those jeans — combined with how sexy they make me feel — makes the price seem relatively low.

But is $79 the true cost of my jeans? No; that was the temporary cost to me (minus taxes, of course). The long-lasting costs to the environment and to people around the globe goes much deeper than how deep I had to dig into my wallet.

And so, I present the true cost of my jeans:

  • COST #1: Cotton Sourcing

To make jeans, you need cotton. According to Dr Vandana Shiva, a physicist, agricultural researcher, environmental activist, and the founder of Navdanya — a global movement to save seeds and protect farmers’ rights in India — official government data reports a quarter of a million farm suicides in India over the past 15 years. The majority of these suicides were in the cotton belt [2].

Until ten years ago, farmers owned 80% of the seeds used by the Indian cotton industry. Seeds were saved and replanted at no cost to the farmer [2]. Today, the American company Monsanto owns and controls 95% of the seeds available to cotton farmers [2]. Monsanto’s genetically modified seed variety is not only expensive to purchase; it is ridden with hidden costs.

GMO farming requires an increase in the use of pesticides — also owned by Monsanto [2]. This decreases farmers’ profits and prevents cotton from being grown as an intercrop with food [2]. Farmers and their families are left profitless and starving.

The cotton used to make my beloved GAP 1969 Skinny Jeans may or may not have come from India. Unfortunately, GAP did not respond to Ethical Consumer‘s requests for its cotton sourcing policy, and company websites are void of such information [3].

The woes of Indian cotton farmers, however, are not unique to India. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation’s website,, Uzbekistan’s cotton industry — the third largest in the world — is raging with forced child labour, human rights violations, excessive pesticide use, and environmental catastrophes [3].

On the upside, an Environmental Justice Foundation campaigner named GAP as one of few companies who have made an effort to eliminate Uzbek cotton from their supply chains [3].

Still, because of the prevalence of GM cotton in the global industry and because GAP makes no mention of GM cotton on its company website, Ethical Consumer considers it safe to assume that GAP clothing contains genetically modified cotton [3].


Environmental devastation due to increased pesticide use and the run-off of pesticides into water supplies [3].

Starvation & lack of food security due to farmers’ lack of profits, increase in debt, and the inability to intercrop GM cotton fields with food [2].

Human life: suicides; poisoning; malnutrition — past, present, and future [2].

-Carbon footprint: 4.2 kg CO2e. The carbon footprint of cotton is 7kg CO2e per 1kg of cotton and the average weight of a pair of jeans is o.6kg [4].

Suddenly, $79 doesn’t seem so bad.

  • COST #2: Milling, Dying and Treating

Once the cotton is grown, it must be milled and dyed. There is not much information concerning the environmental and social costs of cotton mills, except that cotton — previously milled locally and in small batches — is now typically milled in factory farms in China. These factories are reported to have poor working conditions and enormous environmental impacts [2].

The good news is (for me, who loves her dark-wash skinnys): the dying process with the worst environmental and social impact is the one required to achieve faded and “distressed” jeans [3]. These jeans are typically sandblasted — a process that makes workers liable to contract silicosis, a fatal lung disease [3].

Though dark-wash jeans are not sandblasted and GAP is not on the list of of companies selling sandblasted jeans, Old Navy (owned by GAP) is on the list [3]. The production of my dark-wash skinnys, therefore, may not have played a direct roll in the death of factory workers, however my $79 did support a company that is indirectly responsible for supporting factories whose working conditions cause silicosis [3].

Regardless of their “wash,” all jeans (with the exception of those explicitly labelled “raw”) use copious amounts of water both in the dying and manufacturing stages. The environmental and social costs of excessive water use are many, especially in the countries where jeans are typically dyed and manufactured [3].

GAP is, however, committed to a Clean Water initiative which ensures that all water used in the dying and manufacturing of their jeans leaves the factories clean and safe for drinking [5].


-Factory conditions causing fatal disease due to supporting a company that sells sandblasted jeans [3].

-Environmental and social sustainability problems due to the excessive water use necessary for dying and manufacturing jeans in countries where water is scarce [3] — a cost that is somewhat outweighed by GAP’s Clean Water initiative [5].

Carbon footprint: approximately 0.8 kg CO2e. This accounts for the dying, water usage, and waste [4].

  • COST #3: Manufacturing

According to an article published by the Sunday Times in August, 2009 [3] and to the Environmental Journalist, a Lesotho factory that produced jeans for major US retailers including GAP was found to be dumping chemical waste into rivers. This posed a major hazard to the environment, to public health, and especially to children [6][3].

The CSR Asia Weekly reported (in Vol. 2 Week 25) a similar environmental catastrophe caused by a Hong Kong factory that also supplied GAP [3].

Other alarming incidents occurring at factories supplying GAP include a fatal factory fire in Bangladesh and the death of a baby born in a factory. The baby’s mother was supposedly denied temporary leave even after going into labour [3].

Despite these allegations, GAP is reported to have responded to all such incidents with immediate investigations and courses of action [3].

Labour behind the Label gave GAP a score of 3.5 out of 5 on their progress towards the goal of a living wage for all. They reported that GAP has impressive in-depth plans reaching seven different countries and has a strong commitment to trade union rights. The reason for the lower mark was simply that GAP’s actual progress has not been quick enough [3].

It is clear that, as a corporation, GAP is making a concerted effort to ensure that good working conditions and environmental standards are met in their overseas manufacturing plants. The truth remains, however, that environmental and social catastrophes have happened, and will likely continue to happen … all in the name of my Always Skinny Jeans.


-Deaths of factory workers due to poor environmental working conditions and unethical treatment [3].

-Public health risks due to toxic waste and the poisoning of water supplies [3][6].

-Environmental degradation due to toxic waste and the poisoning of water supplies [3][6].

-Carbon footprint: approximately 1 kg CO2e. This accounts for the cutting and sewing, the buttons, zippers, and labels, and the transportation [4].


So, the social cost (or “people” cost) of my jeans includes: poverty, starvation, suicides, fatal diseases, the poisoning of water supplies, poor working conditions, and the unethical treatment of factory workers.

The environmental cost (or “planet” cost) of my jeans includes: mismanaged toxic waste, the poisoning of water supplies, excessive pesticide use, the abolition of seed diversity, the chemical poisoning of land that was once used to produce food, and a total carbon footprint of 6 kg CO2e.

And, lest we forget that $79 (plus tax). Ha!

The thing is, I could have done worse — much worse.

Ethical Consumer ranked 30 top-selling jean retailers according to their social and environmental responsibility. GAP ranked 16th with a score of 7.5 out of 20. The best retailer was Bishopston Fairtrade Organic Jeans [F, O] with a score of 16.5, and the worst was ASDA George (the brand owned and sold by Walmart) with a score of 0 [10].

GAP Inc. is not void of good intentions. It has joined the fight to eradicate human trafficking and slavery [7], is working towards sweatshop free labels [8], began campaigning against child labour (in response to allegations that GAPKids clothing was being hand-embroidered by children in Delhi) [9], and is a member of numerous lobby groups and business associations advocating for human rights and environmental protection [3].

Still, the road is long and the environmental and social costs along the way will be many.

Perhaps it is good to reward businesses that are — at very least — making an effort, but in the meantime, what can we do as consumers to push for faster action and to diminish  immediate social and environmental costs?


Buy less and make your clothes last longer. Don’t forget: in the same way we can assess the monetary cost of a pair of jeans going down the more use we actually get out of them, the environmental and social costs per day will go down the more you manage to wear the same pair of jeans [4][11].

Go organic. As we noticed, the cost category with the most carbon impact and arguably the most long-lasting environmental and social consequences was the production of cotton itself. By purchasing clothing made from organic cotton you are choosing to support farmers that grow non- genetically modified cotton. You are thus increasing the farmers’ potential for profit, maintaining the ability to intercrop cotton with food, and are protecting the environment from harmful pesticides and chemicals used to grow GM cotton [2][3].

Support companies that have strong commitments to environmental and social responsibility. Do your research; the information is there. To help you get started, I have provided links (below) to useful websites for making socially and environmentally responsible clothing purchases.

Avoid faded and distressed jeans.

Buy second-hand. Consumers don’t generally purchase a new pair of jeans with their resale value in mind – and retailers know it. There is no question, therefore, that the best way to avoid contributing to environmental and social costs is to buy previously owned clothing. Often, the dollars you spend will even be going to charity rather than to major clothing retailers responsible for negative social and environmental impacts.

Better yet, plan a clothing swap with friends or within your community. Not only do you avoid nearly all monetary, environmental, and social costs, but you have the added value of making new friends and building community while acquiring “new to you” clothing.

Finally, recycle your old jeans. Tired of them? Don’t think anyone else will enjoy them? Recycle them! Old denim can be transformed into new jeans, other articles and accessories, and even sandals! As you can imagine, recycling denim reduces environmental and social costs considerably.

For information on how to recycle your jeans visit:

The Denim Doctor:

Recycle Your Jeans:

Resources for more information:

Choosing the Right Retail Brands:

Labour Behind the Label

Ethical Consumer


Assessing Environmental and Social Impacts:

The Story of Stuff Project

The Eden Project: Show me the carbon

Small World Consulting

Environmental Justice Foundation: Protecting People and Planet

Information on Cotton Sourcing:

Institute of Science in Society: Science Society Sustainability: Indian Cotton Farmers Betrayed

Navdanya – Links to Publications

Works Cited:

[1] The Economist. (2009, November 17th). Triple bottom line: It consists of three Ps: profit, people, and planet. The Economist: Idea. Retrieved March 24th, 2012, from

[2] CBCRadioOne. (March 16, 2012). Vandana Shiva (Feature Interview). The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti. Retrieved March 20th, 2012 from

[3] Ethical Consumer. (September, October, 2011). Ethical Shopping Guide to Jeans. Ethical Consumer: Buyer’s Guide. Retrieved March 20th, 2012 from

[4] Berners-Lee, M. (2011). How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Profile Books Ltd. Great Britain.

[5] Gap Inc. (2012). More than what’s on the label. Melissa Fifield, Director, Environmental Affairs. Gap Inc. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

[6] Miri, M. (August 12th, 2009). Clothing Giants Responsible for Toxic Waste in Africa. Environmentalist Journal. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

[7] Chain Store Reaction. (2012). GAP – Maureen Coyan. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

[8] McDougall, D. (November 4th, 2007). US: GAP plans “sweatshop free” labels. The Guardian. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

[9] Gentleman, A. (November 15th, 2007). US: GAP campaigns against child labour. The New York Times. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

[10] Ethical Consumer. (September & October, 2011). Free Shopping Guide to Jeans. Ethical Consumer. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

[11] Labour Behind the Label. (2012). Could you take the six item challenge? Retrieved March 25th, 2012 from

Additional References:

Eden Project (2012). The carbon breakdown of wearing a pair of cotton jeans for a day. What’s your carbon footprint? Show me the carbon. Retrieved March 24th, 2012 from

Factory farming. (2012, March 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:36, March 25, 2012, from

Genetically modified organism. (2012, March 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:15, March 25, 2012, from

Labour Behind the Label. (2012). Issues. Retrieved from

Living wage. (2012, March 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:39, March 26, 2012, from

Monsanto. (2012, March 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:57, March 25, 2012, from

Silicosis. (2012, February 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:28, March 25, 2012, from

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights. (2012). The Philosophy of trade union rights. Retrieved from

Triple bottom line. (2012, March 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:38, March 24, 2012, from


About Bronwyn

Love avocados, making forts with my daughter -- love and lattes with my man. Professional communicator interested in sustainability, poverty, motherhood, and God.
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