The Denim Dilemma
“To cheapen the lives of any group of men, cheapens the lives of all men, even our own. This is a law of human psychology, or human nature. And it will not be repealed by our wishes, nor will it be merciful to our blindness.”
― William Pickens
Thanks to Mr. Levi Strauss our autumn closets have all but determined themselves. Since 1871 denim jeans have continued to grow as a wardrobe staple across the globe. American closets appear to be the most saturated with women owning an average of 7 pairs. What started as an essential item for miners and cowboys has since proven its utility through the ages. From 1950’s greaser subculture, to the hippies of the 1960’s, through 1970’s and 1980’s punk rock and heavy metal affiliation, and finally to today where it is worn in almost every setting from the boardroom to the farmers market or a night out. The denim trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. This is particularly evident when you consider the constant style reinvention both in color and shape. Boyfriend, skinny, jeggings, cigarette, bootcut, cropped, curvy, flair, and distressed are just a few of the options you will find at any store.
So here comes autumn… a time when pumpkin spice, sweater, boots and denim pictures will flood your social media feeds. (I am entirely guilty of upholding this trend obsession) Let’s face it there is almost nothing more comforting than a perfectly fitting pair of jeans! Aside from a formal occasion there isn’t any event you can’t wear them to. So what is the big deal? Why are you reading a post about jeans….
When I started looking for sustainable alternatives to my traditional denim haunts I came across some research that was absolutely shocking. Transitioning my wardrobe away from high street finds to sustainable is of course well intended but understanding the reasons why is a bit like a rabbit hole. There is so much information to take in, process, and implement. No wonder most consumers don’t make the change. How can they when there is no central place to understand the impact of their choices and find alternatives? Who has that kind of time? Luckily, I do! I never wanted to just provide my readers with alternatives. I want you to understand exactly why you should invest in sustainable fashion. This is the first article out of many that will provide you with the information you need to be a more informed consumer, and just as, if not more stylish than before!
Now that you know the abridged history of denim lets talk about production and break it down from there. Denim (denim is simply a fabric like any other that is then sent out to individual design houses which is then manufactured into what you can buy in stores) is created from cotton. The cotton is either handpicked or picked by machines and then is carded (brushed) to clean, disentangle, straighten, and gather the fibers together. At this point the fibers are called slivers. The slivers are then joined, twisted, and pulled together to create longer and stronger threads. Voila now you have a yarn!
The traditional color of denim is indigo blue which is chemically synthesized. Each ball of yarn is dipped in the dye to achieve the desired color. It is then combined on a mechanical loom with white threads to give the traditional jean color we have all become accustom. From there these denim rolls are sent to manufactures who, using templates, cut, sew, and treat (to create the desired texture), steam, box, and ship to the final destinations. Up until now this doesn’t sound too bad but lets take a closer look at the process.
Pesticides & Insecticides
Approximately 17% of global cotton production is used for the creation of denim. While many of us, including me, associate cotton with sustainability because of its biodegradability, the process of cultivating it couldn’t be further from sustainable. 2.5% of global farmland is used to grow cotton. Yet, 10% of all chemical pesticides and 25% of insecticides used in global farming is for cotton. The use of these chemicals often results in severe illness for the workers with symptoms including headaches, nausea, constriction of the chest and throat, and in severe cases loss of reflexes and death. While most of us know that pesticide and insecticides are undeniably harmful to the workers what you may not have heard about is the collateral damage. A 2002 study conducted by the Pesticide Action Network, Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and United Farm Workers of America found in California that cotton crops ranked third in contribution to total pesticide illness in workers. Out of 26.7 million acres used for farming in California all of which potentially use pesticides and insecticides, cotton production makes up approximately 33% of available farmland.
Now you could argue some workers are made aware of the health risks and provided appropriate training, or they should be given appropriate, prevention tactics however, there is large-scale collateral damage. In 1996 an incident occurred in which an estimated 250 workers fell victim to pesticide poisoning when they came in contact with chemicals blown in from crop dusting an adjacent cotton field. This is just in the United States. In a Communities in Peril report 2,200 individuals were interviewed in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the results found that “those who applied pesticides in these countries could neither ‘find nor afford’ adequate protective equipment. I wouldn’t call that collateral effect so much as a direct disregard to individual workers health. There has been further evidence found that pesticides used in cotton production completely neglect distance to local communities.
Here in the United States we are subject to some oversight and regulations using pesticides but that hasn’t stopped their misuse that in turn has wreaked havoc on local aquatic life and other livestock. Carbamate and Organophosphate insecticides (these are considered some of the most hazardous used in cotton production) have been known to kill livestock including cattle in Australia, and wash into rivers killing thousands of fish, frogs, and other aquatic life. There have been several well-documented cases in which insecticides and pesticides used for cotton are directly responsible for the death of animals and severe health degradation of workers and bystanders. Most of these reports provide insight into production costs in the United States which leaves one to wonder and deduct that in countries where regulations are more relaxed or all together disregarded the catastrophic fall-out is much higher.
So we already know that in countries outside the United States workers are not provided or cannot afford protection from the chemicals but what about other workers rights. The sixth leading producer of cotton, Uzbekistan, is known to have one of the worst human rights records in this field. The Cotton Campaign has worked for years now to document the human rights atrocities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan when it comes to cotton production. In case you thought forced-labor was a thing only for communist countries i.e. North Korea, you would be wrong. “Uzbekistan has one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor” implemented to produce cotton. Farmers are forced to grow and produce cotton quotas under threat of penalty, including “the loss of the lease to farm land, criminal charges, and fines.” This seems insane to me considering in the U.S. many farmers are paid not to grow! As if that wasn’t bad enough millions of citizens are mobilized to both grow and harvest the crop. Up until recently this included children as young as 10 to abandon school; schools generally close during harvest season to accommodate the governments demands. Since 2014 it was required that anyone over the age of 17 join the production however, in order to offset the loss of child laborers there has been a massive mobilization of teachers, doctors, and other adults. As you can imagine this has all but shut down the schools and medical facilities during harvest. Some townships have still used child laborers in order to meet the government quotas and avoid penalties for failing to meet production targets.
Of course this isn’t all safely run and inspected. This system of forced labor has claimed several lives (the cotton is picked by hand) as a result of exposure to chemicals in the fields, unsanitary housing conditions, and lack of unsafe drinking water. Uzbek’s who push back demanding recognition of their human rights have been harassed, exiled, and detained under the current Karimov regime. (You can read more about the human rights violations and global campaign to stop it here.)
We have already talked about the potential devastation insecticides and pesticides have on local habitat but what about water consumption? In a nutshell approximately 1,500 gallons of water are used to produce 1.5 pounds of cotton. Those 1.5 pounds of cotton are then used to produce a single pair of jeans! To give you some perspective you could shower everyday for a month and still have water left over! As of February 2015 there is an estimated 1.2billion total number of jeans sold worldwide. Do some quick math and this means 1,860,000,000,000 gallons of water is used to produce denim jeans. Let’s just round that off to an even 1.8 trillion gallons and put that into perspective. That is just shy of 2 cubic miles of water or double the amount of water wasted annually as a result of decaying infrastructure in the United States.
Information on just how much water is used in the denim dyeing process is a bit more scant but let’s just say the number of gallons only continues to increase.
We all have them in our closets: distressed, faded, ripped, vintage… translated to all mean the same thing. These styles of jeans are arguably the most harmful of all in the denim production world. A collaborative report ‘Breathless for Blue Jeans’ conducted by several international bodies documents the health hazards in six Chinese denim factories located in Guangdong province. This region is responsible for half of the world’s entire production of denim jeans. The desire for pre-worn jeans has increased over the years and the best method (cost effective to companies) is to use a process known as sandblasting. “Sandblasting involves firing abrasive sand into denim under high pressure, whether in a machine booth or simply via an air gun attached to a hose.” Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Well the process of sandblasting is responsible for putting workers at risk of silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust. The Turkish government first brought the catastrophic result of sandblasting techniques to the public when they banned the process. A study published by Chest found that workers who were afflicted by silicosis as a direct result of sandblasting had a 69% survival rate in five years. Of the 32 males included in the study 6 of them died and 16 had disabling lung damage. Without proper ventilation, safety equipment, and training the risk of silicosis increases. Call me crazy but preventing someone from breathing so I can wear a pair of distressed jeans is just not worth it. While many governments have outlawed sandblasting and many denim companies have agreed to ban the practice the ‘Breathless for Blue Jeans’ report says sandblasting is just as prevalent behind closed doors.
Don’t Lose Hope, You Can Still Wear Denim
Thanks to international pressure from governments and independent bodies there have been several companies that are starting to overhaul their denim process. It is certainly fitting that the company with the namesake of denim jean patent holder Mr. Levi Strauss is making the change. Levi’s Water<Less jeans uses 96% percent less water to create a single pair and offers several styles under the collection. To date they have saved 172 million liters (45m gallons). Other companies include Monkee Genes (born out of frustration of lack of conscious denim they are the first and only company to be accredited by the Soil Association and the Global Textile Standards), Nudie Jeans, Prarie Underground, Kuyichi (the aim for a closed-loop production system and are one of the first creators of eco friendly jeans), The Battalion, and Reco Jeans (denim company that uses leftover materials from other manufacturers to ensure nothing goes to waste).
I would love to hear your feedback on this article and know whether or not this has helped shape how you will shop for your jeans! With every purchase of sustainable denim you not only make a difference to yourself but help show companies you want a more environmentally and humanitarian friendly closet!