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Jeans: the big stitch-up

My love affair with blue jeans began when I got into a bath with my very first pair. In the days before pre-shrunk denim, this was what I thought you had to do with jeans labelled ‘shrink-to-fit’ – a fine example of marketing spin.

As I lay in the steam and mused about this, that, and the consequences of excess shrinkage, I noticed that something was amiss. Indigo was billowing through the bath water like a royal haemorrhage. Leaping out, I peeled off the garment to find the skin of my nether regions stained the colour of woad – the indigo dye was not ‘fixed’ and the bath should have been cold.

Thus far – the mid-1960s – my youth had been clothed in the abrasive texture and baggy deformity of grey flannel. Compared with this hateful fabric, blue denim was truly miraculous. Hard-wearing, relatively cheap, comfortable, warm in winter, cool in summer and oddly neutral in colour – almost anything seemed to match – it kept its shape and hid the dirt until you threw it into the wash with old golf balls to induce ‘fade’. Functional yet stylish, the more you wore it, the more stylish it became.

Jeans had a special aura. Hard to find in the shops, they could be repaired, embroidered, ‘personalized’. You could stitch things on to them or rip them up. They were adaptable, from drainpipes to flares. You could make a statement without saying a word. They made you distinctive yet free from the fear of looking odd. In fact, in blue jeans you could be whatever you wanted: masculine, feminine, granny, groupie, peasant, potentate. Whoever you were, you could be someone else. Jeans made marketing dreams come true.

The original associations came, of course, from America via the Wild West and the Hollywood dream factory – youthful, individualistic, forward-looking. They were hard to resist if you were growing up as I was, in a weary, unctuous Britain still gazing backwards into the imperial sunset.

Jeans fast went on to become an icon that clothed the universal promise of post-war consumer capitalism, insinuating themselves into the aspirations of anyone who could be persuaded to buy into it. Today you can find them down gold mines in South Africa, up mountains in the Peruvian Andes, from the forests of the Congo to the catwalks of New York and Milan. When the flamboyant young designer of Paris haute couture, John Galliano, was asked on TV a few months ago what he thought was the single most important garment of all time, you just knew he had to say ‘jeans’.

I’m not sure when all this began to wear thin. Perhaps it was when sick ‘poverty chic’ and ‘grunge’ hit the fashion catwalks in the 1990s, followed by ‘heroin chic’ in New York, all clad in blue denim. Or maybe ‘youth’ figured out that if you aspire to be someone else for too long you become nobody at all and end up in uniform. And then, since all jeans are basically the same, paying double for the latest breed of ‘designer’ labels is hardly smart.

[image, unknown]
Lined up and taken to the cleaners - 'stonewashing'
in the export-processing zone of Chittagong, Bangladesh,
making jeans old before their time.
B Klass / Panos

In any event, after a boom in the 1980s sparked by the global selling-fest of the Los Angeles Olympics, sales of blue jeans and the labelled sports shoes associated with them began to slow and then fall away.

One day last winter a young woman from Guatemala came to see me. She described to me her daily life in a Korean-owned maquila – export factory – stitching jackets for the American market. Driven on by shrieking supervisors, she said, she made so many jackets in a day, and for so little money, that I could scarcely believe her. She assured me this was better than having no job at all, but I was unable to imagine what could be worse. As she talked, so softly, she trembled. News had already reached home that she had been speaking out. There had been threats against her children. I must not print her name or take her photograph. All that remains with me now is her words.1

So I remembered what I should never have allowed myself to forget. The nature of a thing is not to be found in its ‘image’. It lies in the materials and in the people who made it. The icons of consumer capitalism are made in secret: the raw materials plundered from behind the perimeter fences of private property; the ‘goods’ stitched together in ‘postmodern’ labour camps, anonymous sheds filled with human misery, scattered around the world along the meandering borderline between consumers and producers, profit and loss. The ‘image’ of consumer capitalism lies.

Jeans are made from cotton, and cotton has spread like the fronds of Deadly Nightshade across five per cent of the earth’s cultivable surface, invading fertile land in hungry communities, sucking them dry with irrigation, shrouding them in poison. Cotton uses higher volumes of more toxic pesticides than any other crop – a quarter of the world’s pesticides are sprayed on it, causing a million cases of human poisoning every year.2 To make the fabric, cotton is treated with another concoction of chemicals. Most of the vast quantities of toxins released by the textiles industry into the air, soil and water derive from the dyeing process. Parts of New Mexico have been destroyed by the extraction of pumice for ‘stone-washing’ jeans.

Fabric is too floppy, the human body too irregular and the stitching too intricate to allow for much automation beyond the sewing machine and the individual operator – almost always a young woman – making one garment at a time. So jeans are stitched together in hundreds upon thousands of ‘sweatshops’ that have sniffed out the lowest wages in the world in places like Guatemala, Bangladesh or the Philippines, or in the immigrant ‘rag trade’ areas of Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Sydney or London.

As a stock item, jeans have fallen prey to the concentration of capital in the retail sector – that is, to an ever-smaller number of ever-larger retail ‘chains’ that sell most of the garments we wear. They dictate what gets made, and collect half the retail price of the garment for their pains. It is their business to promote the slightest modification in design as a significant shift in ‘fashion’ – and a good reason to buy yet another pair of jeans.

So now, in the ‘postmodern’ age our largest and most useful industry supplying a necessity little less basic than food has headed off in a cloud of poison back to the dark, satanic mills of the nineteenth century. This we call ‘development’ – for it is axiomatic to orthodox economic theory that textiles and garments are the ‘first rung on the ladder’ that leads to industrial wealth and general prosperity.

The benefit of all this is said to be that consumer capitalism provides us with endless convenience and choice. From the $10 working pair of blue jeans to the up-scale designer ‘label’ selling for $100 and more, there’s a pair for everyone.

But suppose what you want is something quite elementary – a garment that isn’t drenched in poison and sweat. With a simple commodity, like coffee, there are fairly-traded brands. But applying similar principles of eco-friendliness and social justice to the complexities of cotton cultivation, spinning, dyeing, weaving, cutting, stitching, the rag trade and the fashion business in general is quite another matter – and that much more central to the state we are in.

The brand I began with, way back in the mid-1960s, was Levi’s. Levi Strauss & Co – by now the world’s largest garment company – has a benevolent reputation. It withdrew production contracts from Burma and China because of human-rights violations. When it discovered child labour at one of its contractors in Bangladesh it did not throw the children onto the streets, but offered education instead. It has retained garment factories with recognized trade unions in the US. It has devised and implemented what is widely regarded as the best corporate code of business ethics there is.

Relative to union-busting, sex-toting ‘labels’ like Guess? Inc – which is more representative of most labels – Levi’s looks positively saintly, not to say smug. Perhaps it can afford to be so, by charging a healthy premium for the ‘cult’ status of its jeans.

Still, Levi’s is a long way from perfect. It has shown little serious interest in organic cotton and alternative fibres. Levi’s will not allow independent monitoring, which makes its code of ethics worth a great deal less. Last November the company announced massive job losses across the US – and, in April this year, a return to China.

Clarence Grebey of Levi Strauss pleaded: ‘It is a business decision based on our belief that we can now identify business partners in mainland China who will comply with our strict codes of conduct. If that’s not the case, we will not do business there.’

Harry Wu, the US human-rights activist, responded: ‘What’s improved in China is the business climate. In fact, human-rights violations are getting worse. Forced labour is still used in the garment industry. There are no independent unions and anyone who tries to organize workers would end up in a re-education camp.’3 On balance, I feel more inclined to take the advice of Harry Wu than Clarence Grebey.

So, between the big companies that dominate the jeans market, the choice is entirely relative. Among the worst is Guess? Inc. Because US garment workers, and their union UNITE, are promoting a boycott of Guess products, no-one in their right mind should touch them. Among the best is Levi’s. But globalized ‘cheap’ labour and industrial cotton are integral to all of them. Corporate codes of conduct have strict limitations. Business is business.

So I turned to the ecological front – studiously ignored by the big companies – where, to begin with, things looked a little more promising. The Internet threw up several suppliers of organic-cotton jeans, but they’re sold only in North America. In Europe, Panda, the catalogue of WWF in Zurich, offers ‘Bio-Damensjeans “Girls Fit”’. Not meant for me.

[image, unknown]
Lovely but not quite perfect -
the hemp jeans that come from China.

I had also heard rumours that the original jeans were made from hemp, a fibre more usually associated with rope and sacks. There is a dedicated band of devotees who claim that hemp doesn’t need pesticides and has 25,000 different uses: the war on drugs (yes, hemp is the source of marijuana) might be a scam by vested cotton interests to scupper a dangerous rival. Then the Body Shop launched a new line in hemp cosmetics – immediately condemned and therefore promoted by the drugs warriors.

On the Internet again I found hemp jeans from Romania priced at $60 – but, once more, available only in the US. In a catalogue there was a pair priced at $150 – too extravagant for me. I set an upper limit for myself of $100 – steep enough, but at least in the same bracket as ‘designer’ labels. Then, through Ethical Consumer magazine, I found the Hemp Union of Hull, and Dick Bye on the other end of a telephone.

Yes, he said, Hemp Union sells blue jeans at $100. In fact, he sent me a pair in ‘natural’ colours. I am wearing them now. They are lovely – softer and floppier than denim, like linen but tougher, warmer. There are very fetching, distinctive green leaves on the label, which says: ‘If you try to smoke the garment you will get nothing but an awful headache. Save the Planet.’

But what about the claim that Hemp Union products ‘are manufactured without exploitation’? Well, he said, the jeans were made for a company in Denmark by a manufacturer in – China. The PC pair is, said Dick Bye, perfectly feasible, but would cost more than three times as much, ‘and we don’t feel that the current market would stand this’. I’m sure he’s right.

I thought about this for a minute. If poison-and-sweat-free jeans cost $300, who pays the difference between that and the $50 pair? Why, the human environment and those young women in sweatshops, of course. In effect, they provide a subsidy to consumers. Think about this a little more, and you realize that if producers were paid more, so that they could afford to buy fairly-traded products that in turn cost less, and you’d be arriving at the right destination – while travelling in the opposite direction to current orthodoxy.

The fact is, however, that the perfectly PC pair of jeans does not exist. We don’t have that limitless choice after all. It is not just the image, but the promise, of consumer capitalism that lies.

As ‘consumers’ we do indeed have some power. We should use it as constructively as we can, opting for the relatively good rather than the absolutely bad products. This means thinking differently, reclaiming the substance of ‘identity’ from the silly labels that litter the marketplace, deriving some sense of discovery – rather than ‘inconvenience’ – from the process. Of course, in the rich world at least, ‘consumer’ movements have been active for some time. So far as jeans are concerned they have yet to start a revolution, though perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, no-one ever changed anything of importance just by buying something else.

Meanwhile, the people who make jeans are busy figuring out how best to put things right. Eventually they must succeed, if only because humanity will not tolerate such shameful treatment for ever. So too – and thanks to a small but growing band of pioneers – organic cotton and alternative fibres offer a viable alternative to industrial cotton. In the end they too must succeed, because neither will the earth tolerate such mistreatment indefinitely.

But if we wait until the globalizers of consumer capitalism have run out of runway, a wreck is all we’ll find at the end of it. A political response, and political support for the alternatives, is now required. That means weaving the two strands of ecology and social justice together. For the most part they still run in parallel, preoccupied with their own priorities. Each tends to look upon the other as an extra burden, a different history. But when they are woven into ‘fair’ – opposed to ‘free’ – trade, then each will be made stronger by the other, and real change will at last become possible.

[image, unknown]
Get off your arse and do something!
Michael J O'Brien /Panos

In the meantime, what we do have is a sense of direction. Truth to tell, it’s a much more attractive, far less suicidal route than the one we’re travelling at present. It’s been mapped out for us over the years by people who refuse to accept that nothing can be done and no-one is listening. All we have to do is prove that they’re right.

1 For further information contact Central America Women’s Network, e-mail: [email protected]
2 Ethical Consumer, no 50, Dec 1997/Jan 1998.
3 Greg Frost, ‘Human rights groups assail Levi Strauss over China’, Reuters, 9 April 1998.

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