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Recycled jeans for insulation drive: green or greenwash?

old jeans

Got some old jeans you don’t wear any more? The Gap’s currently running a recycling drive for used denim in partnership with Cotton, Inc.’s “Cotton. From Blue to Green” campaign. Through March 14th, you can donate those old jeans at participating Gap, GapKids, or babyGap locations, get a discount for a new pair, and know that the old ones will be recycled into “UltraTouch Natural Fiber Insulation for communities in need.” This program has collected tens of thousands of pairs of old jeans since its 2006 inception, and used them for insulating homes in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Sounds great, right? It is… it’s better to put that old material to use this way than send it to a landfill, and these efforts will help people in need save money on their energy bills. There’s definitely a lot of truth to this campaign’s claim that it’s “changing the world one pair of jeans at a time.”

While this effort likely will do a lot of good, it’s also a classic case of greenwashing… specifically, a hidden trade-off. Take a look at the campaign’s page on the lifecycle of the cotton to jeans to insulation process, particularly the early stages. Here are some things that don’t get mentioned:

  • Conventionally-grown cotton accounts for 16% of global pesticide releases… that’s more than any other crop.
  • The cotton in those jeans likely comes from the developing world, where environmental, health, and safety standards are low. Pesticide-related health issues are common among farmers in countries like India and Uzbekistan, which are huge exporters of the crop.
  • Those chemicals don’t just affect those applying them to crops; they also contaminate water, land, and food around the world.

Conventionally-grown cotton is a dirty crop… one of the dirtiest. If you were able to use that discount from the Gap to purchase a pair of jeans made from organic cotton, this campaign would really address all of the environmental implications of those old jeans. A quick search of the Gap’s online store, however, doesn’t bring up any organic options for jeans… please correct me if I’ve missed something here.

Do drop off those jeans, especially if they’re really past any useful wear. But you might also want to bypass the discount on a new pair… and let the store know you’d like that organic option.

Want more information on the benefits of organic cotton? Check out the Organic Consumers Association’s fact sheet. For more information on the environmental and human health costs of conventionally-grown cotton, take a look at the Environmental Justice Foundation and Pesticide Action Network UK’s report on the topic. For a quick comparison of organic and conventional cotton, here’s an overview.

Got a favorite brand of organic jeans? Let us know about it…

Disclaimer: We do sell organic cotton jeans and clothing at sustainablog’s Green Choices store… I’ve not included any links here in order to avoid any conflicts.

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