Who made my jeans?

I need serious jeans. I live in my jeans, and that means I go through them at an alarming rate. With two small kids, I spend a lot of time crawling around on the floor, running, jumping, climbing, getting muddy (particularly at that point on the thigh where a muddy little boot hits you as you pick up a toddler), while trying to look half-decent when I have to talk to strangers. Both my husband and I have probably gone through the knees of 2 or 3 pairs of jeans in the last year. I used to repurpose ripped jeans into skirts (when I say ‘I’, I mean ‘my mum’) or denim cut-offs, but there are only so many pairs of shorts a girl can wear (in this country at least).

I also have to wash them a lot as they get so dirty – I’ve heard tell of the strange practice of not washing your jeans, and just putting them in the freezer or hanging them out of your window. I say – when you’ve given birth to two kids, and the pelvic floor is not what it used to be, and you’re running around all day, and your tiny child wipes her snot on your knees…those jeans need to be washed.

I’ve also been through several pairs as my body changed shape through pregnancies, post-pregnancy, breastfeeding (easy to lose weight), post-breastfeeding (easy to put it all back on again) and increased red wine consumption. I know this is not good ethical shopping practice – jeans are the kind of item that should last, and that I shouldn’t need to buy several pairs of. So, thanks to a birthday present from my mum, I’ve been shopping for a well-made, hard-wearing pair of jeans that will fit my new shape and will last for more than a year.

There are plenty of sustainability challenges with denim, not least the enormous quantities of cotton involved in feeding our jeans habit, but also the use of harsh dyes, bleaching and sand-blasting to achieve the ‘worn’ look. There are already several blogs on where to find good ethical denim, and how some brands are changing the way we shop for jeans. This article at The Good Trade has a pretty comprehensive list which includes some British and European brands. Some of these are too expensive for me, though I think worth the long term investment. Others, like Monkee Genes (based in Derbyshire), have great and affordable products, but had a very limited range available.

I contacted Monkee Genes to ask them about the challenges they face in growing an ethical denim brand in the UK.

Lucy Robinson, their marketing contact, confirmed my assumption that it’s hard for a small business to keep a wide range in stock, and to compete with high street stores over a ubiquitous item like jeans.

‘I think the issues at the moment facing ethical brands is that high-street stores are fighting for the lowest price…Sticking to our mission and paying a fair price for the production of our jeans [means] that we don’t have much movement on our prices and some people do begrudge or can’t afford paying double (sometimes triple) the price for a pair of jeans.’

Like many small businesses, Monkee Genes also struggled to keep on top of orders after the banking crisis, but they’ve found new investment which Lucy says will ‘give us some freedom to get back to the lovely, reliable and organic company we once were.’

Lucy’s enthusiasm for the company was obvious, and she’s clearly inspired by their founder, Phil Wildbore.

‘[Phil] is so passionate about our mission (No Slave Labour, No Child Labour, No Blood, No Sweat, No Tears) that he visits every factory we use before production (in fact, he’s currently working in Turkey) and he has worked so hard to get our jeans GOTS certified as of next season (Autumn/Winter). Essentially, Phil ensures that [everyone] from the farmers/cotton pickers all the way to us here sat in the office are paid fairly and treated fairly, whilst still making ethical fashion exciting, affordable and stylish.’

This enthusiasm for the product by the staff team is something that has always inspired me to shop with particular brands, and it can be an indicator of the values of the company as a whole i.e. that they care about the wellbeing of their employees, and recognise their role in achieving the mission.

They are about to release a new collection and a new website, and Lucy is very excited about the future:

‘Ethical fashion is on the up…especially with the incredible work of the Fashion Revolution. Our new collection will really make us stand out from the crowd, not to mention all the other exciting things we’ve got coming over the next year!’

Follow @MonkeeGenes for updates on their new collection.

In the end, I opted for a pair of straight leg jeans by Boden.

Me in Boden Straight Leg Jeans in Vintage. Size 10L. £49.50.
Me in Boden Straight Leg Jeans in Vintage. Size 10L. £49.50.

I don’t own any other clothing by Boden, except a few hand-me-down items that have been given to the kids, as it’s always been just above my price range, and just a bit too floral and A-line for me. However, I do think their clothes are well made, with high quality fabrics, and I’ve found their recent collections to be a lot more exciting (some of their dresses are gorgeous). Boden have a long statement about their ethical practices on their website, and are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. I contacted them to ask them for more specific information about their jeans.

I received this response from Fiona Collins at Boden:

‘Our straight leg jeans are produced with one of our key suppliers based in Istanbul, Turkey, that we have been working with since 2014.  Working closely with our suppliers is key to making the quality product that our customers love and that why we make it a priority to regularly visit suppliers and spend time in the factories that we work with, in fact our technical manager is in Turkey working with this supplier this week.

This supplier also owns the laundry business that does the wash process that is integral part of the finished product, both our technical and ethical team have visited this site too.’

This is a bit vague, and I was surprised that she didn’t refer to any specifics from their ethical policies. However, the integration of the wash process seem to be a positive step – most consumers have no idea how many factories a product visits before it is finished, and this is one of the factors that makes it difficult for brands to monitor the full supply chain (or easier to avoid responsibility for disasters like Rana Plaza, where many brands claimed they had no knowledge that their orders had been subcontracted to the factory).

So thanks to Boden, I hope, but please support some of the smaller brands like Monkee Genes, Nudie and MUD when you make your next denim investment.


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