For millions of people across the world, cotton denim jeans are a wardrobe basic: durable, stylish, and -- above all -- simple.
Their impact on the globe, however, is anything but simple.
"Denim jeans are, firstly and massively, water-intensive," says Dawn Ellams, a design student who's produced one of the world's first pairs of no-cotton jeans
. "They use a lot of water. You're using a lot of water in the growing and harvesting of the cotton. And then, to make it into the denim, you're using either a natural indigo or a synthetic indigo, so it's going to need lots of dyeing baths to apply this color."
In all, from cotton field to final fabric, it can take as much as 10,000 liters of water
to create a single pair of jeans. Add to that the massive human labor involved in harvesting cotton, and simple denim jeans become one of the most complicated articles of clothing you can own.
Now, with the annual cotton harvest under way in Central Asia, reports about forced labor and dwindling water supplies have once again raised concerns about cotton's growing human and environmental cost.
Ellams -- a Ph.D. researcher in color and textiles at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland -- sees a potential solution in alternatives like Tencel, the fabric she's using to create no-cotton jeans, t-shirts, and an expanding range of clothing.
"The thing with Tencel is that it's so soft," she says. "For anybody who's tried the jeans or T-shirts on, the feedback I always get is how people have felt in them. That's the first thing everyone says: 'They're so soft.' You don't want to take them off, because they really fit nicely. Cotton can be quite rough, and [these clothes] aren't like that at all."
Tencel, also known by the generic name lyocell, is made from eucalyptus wood. The wood is harvested from small, sustainable plantations that use 70 percent less land and 5 percent of the water that cotton fields need to produce the same amount of fiber.
Moreover, the eucalyptus wood pulp can be spun to resemble not only cotton but a variety of traditional fibers. Tencel's closed-loop production cycle also means its solvents are 99.6 percent recycled and almost completely environmentally safe.
According to Jim Taylor, a textile-engineering manager at Lenzing Fibers, the Austria-headquartered firm that manufactures Tencel, this material is now being used to make everything from clothing and car seats to bed sheets and carpets.
"Over the past five years, we've seen enormous increase in demand for our fiber," he says. "People are becoming more and more aware of the problems with synthetic fibers not being sustainable -- things like polyester, because they're manufactured from oil. And people are becoming more and more aware of some of the problems that are associated with cotton, from the point of view of the water demand and the pesticides that are used in the manufacture."
Increasingly, Western apparel companies and fashion designers are turning to "sustainable" fabrics like Tencel as consumers demand more environmentally friendly clothes.
And the call for sustainable fabric comes at the same time that many labels and consumers have also shown increasing concern about labor practices in the countries providing the bulk of the source materials and manufacturing.
PHOTO GALLERY: Cotton Harvesting In Turkmenistan
A growing number of international apparel brands and retailers have pledged to ban the use of Uzbek cotton in past years to protest the use of forced labor and child labor.
Matthew Fischer-Daly is the coordinator of the global Cotton Campaign, a group of human rights groups and investor organizations working to end forced labor in Uzbekistan, where nearly all of its 1 million ton annual harvest is handpicked by involuntary workers.
Fischer-Daly says sustainable fabrics like Tencel -- and chic fashion alternatives such as Ellam's no-cotton jeans -- may eventually prove powerful tools in pushing countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and others to give up forced labor and their damaging dependence on cotton.
"Cotton certainly has been overproduced in Central Asia, most significantly in Uzbekistan, where you see the desiccation of the Aral Sea has had a tremendous impact on communities," he says. "So there's certainly a need to consider alternatives to cotton. That said, there are also ways to significantly improve cotton production and make it both more efficient and more profitable for the farmers and folks that work at the farm level."
For the time being, that means continued boycotts and diplomatic pressure aimed at convincing the Uzbek government to uphold existing labor commitments and reform its cotton sector.
Even Ellam admits, however, that it's a crop that's here to stay. "I don't think we're ever going to live in a world without cotton," she says. "It's got a lot of strengths. There's just a lot of work to be done to address those areas of concern."