Jeans     the facts

Jeans are the Coca Cola of clothing – consumed almost everywhere in the world. But they’re in trouble – with the environment, with the people who make them, and even with the people who are supposed to wear them.

‘Jeans have become an American tradition, symbolizing the vitality of the West to people all over the world.’

Printed on the pocket inside Levi jeans.

1 Price

On average, just 12% of the money you spend on a garment like jeans goes to the people who make it. More than half goes to the retailers – the people who sell it:

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Share of final garment price, by sector1
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2 Raw material

Denim jeans are made from cotton – the world’s most popular fibre, which still provides as much yarn as all the ‘modern’ artificial fibres put together. Cotton crops cover 34 million hectares of the surface of the earth and use 25% of all the world’s pesticides. An estimated one million cases of pesticide poisoning and 20,000 deaths per year are attributable to cotton. 2

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Top cotton producers3
In millions of 480-pound bales 1995-6
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Pesticide use on cotton worldwide4
(by sales in US dollars, 1995)
3 Fabric

[image, unknown] Denim

A ‘heavy’ fabric, denim uses large quantities of cotton. So the mills that make it are usually located near to cotton crops.

World’s top denim producers 6

Textiles and industrialization

The Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) of Asia began by exporting textiles and clothing. First in Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan, then in Indonesia and Thailand – Singapore and Malaysia are exceptions – big increases in the export of textiles and clothing marked the beginning of ‘export-oriented’ industrial growth:

Textiles, clothing and footwear exports from newly-industrializing countries 5
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4 Stitched-up

Nearly all jeans are stitched together in hundreds of thousands of low-wage ‘sweatshops’ and private homes around the world:

You can tell where some of them are by looking at relatively poor countries where jeans are little-worn but large quantities of denim are imported – 48 million metres into Bangladesh, 85 million metres into Turkey in 1996. 6

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) estimates that the Australian garment industry now employs 15 people as ‘outworkers’, usually at home – working an average 14-18 hours a day for less than $2 an hour – for every one factory worker, whose average wage is $9 an hour. Most ‘outworkers’ are non-English-speaking. 7

In 1993 half of all jeans in Australia were locally made; with the reduction of trade tariffs the proportion fell to less than a third by 1997. 7

In late 1996 the US-based jeans label Guess? Inc announced its intention to move 40% of its sewing operations from the US to Mexico, Chile and Peru: just 35% of its jeans are now sewn in Los Angeles, compared with 75% in mid-1996. 8

Mexican garment workers earn one fifth to one tenth of the hourly rate paid to the 200,000 garment workers across the border in Los Angeles, just 2% of whom are unionized. 9

5 Labels

During the 1980s demand for jeans increased on average by 10% a year: Nostalgia – using Marvin Gaye’s song I heard it through the grapevine – increased Levi 501 sales by 800 per cent. But in the 1990s demand has stagnated or fallen – by 3% in 1997. 10

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In 1970 Australians bought 3.5 million pairs of jeans and 1.2 million men’s suits; over the next 20 years sales of jeans tripled, while sales of suits fell by more than half. 7

Demand for jeans in Australia peaked at 18 million pairs a year in the early 1980s, then fell to 10 million in 1996. Per-capita consumption fell from 1.3 pairs per person in 1993 to 0.9 pairs per person in 1997. 7

Every American owns, on average, 7 pairs of wearable jeans. 8

San Francisco-based Levi Strauss, the first producer of jeans, is now the world’s largest clothing manufacturer. Annual sales are worth $7 billion, 71% of them jeans or jeans-related items, with an annual publicity spend of $300 million in the US and $200 million outside. 10

In 1993 Levi Strauss operated 700 plants in 60 countries making 200 different styles of blue jeans alone. Between 1984 and 1997 the company’s market value increased 105 times – by almost as much as computer-softwear giant Microsoft. 8

Levi’s share of the US jeans market has fallen sharply, from 48% in 1990 to 26% in 1997. The VF Corporation, with its Lee, Wrangler and Riders labels, now has a 27% share. 8

‘Upscale’ designer labels, selling for $100 or more per pair, now account for 10% of market value in the US. Calvin Klein’s CK label shot from nowhere in 1993 to take almost half the ‘designer’ market in 1997. 10

1 No Sweat – fashion, free trade and the rights of garment workers, ed Andrew Ross, Verso, London, 1997.
2 Environmental Cotton 200 information, September 1994, and Ethical Consumer Magazine, no 50, Dec 1997/Jan 1998.
3 US Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service.
4 Cotton Fact Sheet, Pesticide Action Network, North American Regional Centre, June 1996.
5 UNCTAD, Trade and Development Report 1996.
6 Deutsche Bank Market Survey
7 The Melbourne Age, 12 November 1997.
8 Richard Behar, ‘Guess’, in Fortune, 14 October 1996.
9 Multinational Monitor, March 1997 vol 18 no 3.
10 James Surowiecki, ‘All in the Jeans’, in Slate, 4 December 1997.

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New Internationalist issue 302 magazine cover This article is from the June 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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