Social Justice: How Much Do You Know About the Jeans You Are Wearing?

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If you live in North America, there is a very good chance you are wearing a pair of blue jeans at this very moment. For at least a few generations, jeans, or ‘dungarees’ as my grandmother insisted on calling them, have been a fashion staple. If you came of age in the 80’s, like I did, Levi’s were your brand of choice and the iconic Bruce Springsteen album with Levi’s on the Boss’ rear was in your collection.

My generation lived through the skin tight designer jeans fad, and watched as hundreds of options became available. Leg styles changed from straight, to flair, back to skinny again, and the waist height dropped to frustrating depths. No matter the changes, jeans remained the staple of our wardrobe.

Writing this series, however, has made me pointedly aware of how horrid the apparel industry can be. Last week on Twitter my friend and marketer, Randy Bowden, suggested I check out Levi’s and all they’ve been trying to do from a socially responsible aspect. I thought – it’s time to look at the entire industry more closely.

Manufacturing: Human Tragedy at Work

The Global Jeans industry is predicted to be over $65 billion by 2015, and where there is manufacturing and profits to be made, there is also the opportunity for human tragedy.

By now, most of us are aware of the unfair practices that abound in the apparel industry. The collapse of Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh in 2013 caused 129 deaths and shone a harsh spotlight on the apparel industry. The West’s obsession with cheap products and the fashion industry’s fixation on huge margins had allowed for shameful practices to become standard.

It is common knowledge now that Millennials and  Gen X-ers are paying close attention to social responsibility from the brands they do business with. It is one reason companies like Fed by Threads and Sword & Plough are rising quickly.  But the apparel manufacturing industry has a long way to go.

In researching denim production for this piece, I came across an article in China Dialogue that sadly didn’t surprise me much, despite its horrific details. Here are a few choice ones for you:

  • Xintang is the denim capital of the world. One in three pairs of jeans sold globally is made in this industrial town, in Guangdong province.
  •  the factories there produce 300 million denim articles a year, employing 220,000 people.
  • The water in the East River in Xintang has turned blue and smells strange.
  • In a quote from a local “”This stretch [of pollution] is definitely caused by the bleach factory. Only those factories which dye denim emit such filthy water. They spill the water from dyeing straight into the East River.”
  • In November 2010 Greenpeace published a survey which found that at three sampling sites in Xintang, the amounts of lead, copper and cadmium in the riverbed exceeded national “soil environmental quality standards”. This included a sample of river mud with cadmium levels 128 times over the limit and another where the water pH level was 11.95.
  • Another group of workers are known for their bad smell because their clothes smell of potassium permanganate which is sprayed on the denim to make it look pre-used.

I spent a good chunk of my career in the carpet industry, and a large part of that working for a California based mill; we made carpet under possibly the strictest environmental standards on the planet.  What I learned is that making things is messy, and mass producing a product where margins are minuscule and the life or death of a company may hang on cents per yard, well, it’s easy to see how the apparel industry, coupled with Western consumerism, got so far off track.

Now, we’re really starting to pay attention.

Looking Harder at Levis

Frankly, I was a bit suspect of Levi’s when Randy first brought them up; I’ve learned enough about large apparel manufacturers to know how many questionable practices can slip through the cracks. The social justice arcompanyMade of Progress page contains a moving video and a lot of talk about honesty and working towards being a better company, but no real facts.

However, when I looked around I found that there was real evidence that Levi’s is making great strides. The Good Guide,  a “source of information on health, environmental, and social impacts of consumer products,” rates Levi’s 2nd highest for environmental safety of all the jean producers it rates.

The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Best Practices Exchange explains how Levi’s is now using 96% less water in its Water<Less™ jeans , launched in 2011. It continues:

Typically, a pair of jeans is finished in large washing machines and dryers to create a unique look and feel and the average pair uses 42 litres of water in the finishing process. Using traditional methods the average pair of jeans also goes through between three and 10 washing cycles.

A new finishing process uses the same materials and techniques but finds new ways to apply them. Changes include using dry stones in place of wet ones to create certain finishes and reducing the number of wash cycles by combining multiple wet-process cycles into a single one. The company found the results to be just as effective but far more efficient.

More importantly, The Guardian found that “Levi’s has created a road map that looks across the whole of their supply chain, a strategy they felt other companies could easily replicate.”

Alternatives to the Large Manufacturers

The socially responsible consumer has little trouble finding 100% organic or US made clothing when it comes to t-shirts and non-jean apparel; there are fewer alternatives in the jean industry.

During that initial Twitter conversation a company called Hiut Denim reached out to me. Based in Cardigan, Wales, a small town of 4,000, Hiut was founded to get the 400 workers who made 35,000 pairs of jeans per week for 30 years back to work after their factory was shuttered.  Their jeans are gorgeous, but like most eco/socially friendly apparel, you’ll pay top dollar for them – but  no more than you’d pay for famous fashion house jeans made the old way.

You may also turn to UJeans to design your own jeans, or to old reliable Patagonia, who ranked highest on The Good Guide. Prana, H&M and Gap also ranked high. You can also check out Loomstate, and Rodales .

The rise of the socially responsible consumer has brought changes to all manufacturing industries to some degree; the jean industry may be where it was (and is) most needed. The consumer that cares will, however, pay a premium for their responsibility, and time will tell if Gen X, Gen Y and even many boomers will continue to put their money where their mouth is and pay more, buy less, and expect a lot more from their brands.

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