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27 Aug 2021

Made to last? Popular jeans put to the test

We compared cheap jeans against those from premium brands, and explored the hidden costs of the denim industry

There's no denying our devotion to denim. In fact, it's estimated that half of the world's population are wearing it at any given moment.

Jeans are a truly timeless fashion choice, but its not just their style that should be enduring - we expect them to be built to last.

Clothes that are soon destined for the bin are frustrating for their owners, but the cost is not just financial. When you factor in the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry, it's clear that we should be wearing our clothes for longer and buying fewer of them - something that's only possible if brands are selling products that will stand the test of time.

To see whether some denim brands are more reliable than others, we put 20 pairs of jeans from 10 of the UK's biggest clothes retailers to the test, to find out how cheap jeans stack up against pricier brands when it comes to durability.

While we did find differences between products, we were surprised to see that these didn't depend on price - affordable own-brand jeans beat branded products that cost more than five times as much.

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Which denim jeans are best and worst?

We tested 20 pairs of jeans in our lab, exploring how strong the denim is, the resilience of the seams, how they would stack up to the abrasion caused by everyday movement and their appearance after washing - some jeans shrunk or changed colour after just one wash.

We didn't see patterns based on whether a product was a part of a 'sustainable' range, designed for men or women, or even how much they cost. Affordable products from H&M and Matalan beat pricier competitors, such as Levi's.

PriceSustainable or normal rangeMale or femaleFabric strengthWear and tearAppearance after washing
Matalan Blue Vintage£15NormalMale
Diesel Babhila 009QI£145NormalFemale
Matalan Jolie Relaxed Skinny Jeans£18NormalFemale
H&M Skinny Jeans£17.99NormalMale
Next Slim Jeans£24NormalFemale
Next Sustainable Cigarette Jeans£32SustainableFemale
Asos Design High Rise Farleigh Slim Mom Jeans£32NormalFemale

Fabric strength includes the strength of the denim fabric and the product's seams. Wear and tear indicates how resistant each product is to wear and tear occurring as the result of everyday abrasion. Appearance after washing is a combination of shrinkage, change in appearance and change in shade after one wash/dry cycle as per the product's care label. Products are ranked in order of their overall result (a combination of all three ratings).

While all of the products we tested were fairly durable, it was Diesel's Thommer jeans that seemed as though they would wear down fastest, despite their relatively high price.

Meanwhile products from Levi's (Original - One Wash), Primark (women's blue vintage slim straight leg) and George at Asda (men's navy straight denim) did worst when it came to their appearance after washing. Each of these products shrank and puckered in the wash and we saw slight changes in the colour of the denim.

Video: See how we tested jeans

Hear expert Which? researchers get to the heart of what it means to be a sustainable consumer: listen to the Which? Investigates podcast

Choosing greener cotton

The impact of jeans on the environment doesn't simply come down to how long it will take before you need to buy a new pair. The way the cotton used to make the jeans is grown is also key. Conventional cotton production has wide-ranging effects on the environment due to the process being water intensive and often involving heavy use of pesticides.

More and more brands are using higher standards in a bid to reduce the environmental impacts of cotton farming - here are the different types of cotton you're likely to come across:

BCI cotton

BCI cotton comes from a scheme called the Better Cotton Initiative. It requires farmers to reduce their use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and to use water efficiently. However, this 'better cotton' is then mixed with conventional cotton in the supply chain.

Retailers committing to use BCI cotton is a good start - it means overall the cotton they use will have less of an environmental impact than conventional cotton on its own. But keep in mind that the BCI label means a retailer has committed to sourcing better cotton and the product is majority cotton, not that the product is entirely made of traceable or higher standard cotton.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton makes up a fraction of the overall market, but Textile Exchange, a non-profit organisation that promotes industry standards, estimates that farming the same amount of organic cotton creates just over half of the carbon emissions of conventional cotton.It says this also means farming is free of polluting chemicals and that it promotes biodiversity and water conservation - organic farming uses almost 90% less water than conventional farming.

However, there's still a limited amount of organic cotton available because it can take two to three years for farm land to be converted to meet the requirements.

Recycled cotton

Recycled cotton is made by reusing cotton fibres - these can be from scrap fabric leftover from manufacturing, or from fabrics that have previously been made into clothes. A machine shreds the fabric back into raw fibre which is then spun back into yarn to make new textiles.

Fairtrade cotton

Like organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton is grown according to stringent environmental criteria, though with a focus on farmers getting a fair and equitable price for their product - all farmers receive a guaranteed minimum price.

The Fairtrade standard also forbids forced and child labour. However, the use of Fairtrade cotton isn't yet widespread amongst high street brands - it's more commonly used by niche brands with a specific focus on sustainability.

Learn more about how to reduce your impact on the environment using our guides on how to shop sustainably

How do clothing brands source cotton?

While some of the brands we tested share how they source the cotton used in specific products on their websites, the majority do not.

Brands like Diesel and Matalan have sustainability statements that explain their support of the Better Cotton Initiative across their ranges.

Meanwhile, Asos, George at Asda, H&M, Levi's and Marks & Spencer each detail the source of the cotton used in individual jeans on their websites. We asked the other retailers how they sourced the cotton used in each of the pairs of jeans we tested.

Cotton %Cotton certification
Matalan Blue Vintage Slim Straight Leg Jeans70%Not stated
Diesel Babhila 009QI85%Conventional cotton
Matalan Jolie Relaxed Skinny Jeans80%Not stated
H&M Skinny Jeans90%82% BCI, 7% recycled
Next Slim Jeans94%Not stated
Next Sustainable Cigarette Jeans99%Organic
Asos Design High Rise Farleigh Slim Mom Jeans99%BCI

BCI cotton was most common, though Diesel confirmed that its products include conventional cotton. It told us it joined the Better Cotton Initiative in June 2020 and is committed to using more BCI and organic cotton from its 2021 spring/summer collection onwards.

Primark has its own Sustainable Cotton Programme. Launched in 2013, it focuses on the reduction of pesticide and water use. Primark says its scheme allows easier tracking of cotton fibres from farm to shop.

Matalan and Next didn't respond when we asked them to confirm the source of the cotton in their jeans.

Find out which brands have the most satisfied customers in our review of the best and worst clothes shops

What you can do to reduce your impact

The fashion and clothing industries have a lot of work to do to reduce their impact - particularly considering the environmental cost of the fashion industry may exceed that of aviation. But there are also steps you can take to help out, and encourage better practice from big brands:

Choose better cotton

Look for the Better Cotton Initiative cotton as a bare minimum - although retailers don't always label it. Recycled cotton has an even lower environmental impact, while organic and Fairtrade cotton are held to higher standards than BCI. If sustainability is a key consideration for you, look out for these, particularly given they don't always have a higher price tag.

Wash your jeans less

Washing jeans too often causes colour loss and shrinkage, but also increases the amount of water used in their lifetime.

Research by Levi's found the typical UK consumer washes jeans once every two to three wears; washing once every 10 wears could reduce your jeans' lifetime energy and water use by 75%.

Repair, reuse, recycle

It can be tempting to buy new clothes when old ones are past their best, but simple repairs are having a timely resurgence. Pure cotton is also often recyclable, although the process can damage fibres, so repair and reuse first.

Buy fewer clothes

Denim is only a small part of the problem - overall, we're buying far more garments than we have ever done and wearing them for less time. It's time for us to put the brakes on fast fashion - committing to buying fewer clothes overall, buying second hand when possible, and keeping garments for longer is a simple way to reduce your impact.