Home / General / Are Your Distressed Jeans Worth a Dead Chinese Worker?

Are Your Distressed Jeans Worth a Dead Chinese Worker?


The apparel industry’s terrible toll upon working-class Asians becomes more apparent everyday:

“Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.

According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China—which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler—have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.

Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.

In the case of the denim workers in Guangdong, SACOM is demanding that the global brands using the sandblasting factories take responsibility. SACOM advocate Pui Kwan Liang tells Working In These Times via email:

The brands are not required by the law to make compensation but since the workers are suppressed by the suppliers in China and the brands are making huge profit every day with the workers’ sacrifices, it is no doubt that the brands are ethically responsible to such issue.

Under pressure from international advocates for garment workers, several apparel brands, including Levi Strauss and H&M, have in recent years announced plans to phase out sandblasting, which has previously been used in factories in Bangladesh and Turkey. But SACOM’s investigations show that in the apparel industry’s twisted supply chains, “regardless of whether a brand has ‘banned’ sandblasting or not, the practice continues—to the point that some factories have taken to hiding sandblasting machinery in sealed rooms to avoid detection, while others have simply subcontracted the procedure.”

Meanwhile, the real distress of global capitalism is surfacing all over Guangdong, as workers continue shredding their lungs so Western consumers can wear perfectly abused denim.

But wait, there’s more! Because the capital mobility of the apparel industry, scouring the planet for people and ecosystems to exploit, has also created terrible pollution in Mexico, similar to the purple water of Bangladesh I pointed out yesterday.

That picture is from Tehuacán, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Yep, the distressed jeans industry dumps a tremendous amount of chemicals into local water supplies, poisoning humans and other animals. And then of course there’s Bangladesh. Turkey banned the manufacturing of distressed jeans in that country in 2009, after at least 6 workers died from lung diseases so that apparel corporations could market a cool new look that made them boatloads of money, but the apparel manufactures don’t care if a country bans the practice. They just move to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, wherever they can exploit people and nature with the greatest intensity.

Once again, we need to create environmental and labor law that transcend international borders so that companies, especially in the apparel industry, cannot circle the earth to find the most easily exploitable people. We need a set of labor and environmental law that empowers workers at the point of production to take on the corporations without the threat that their factory will close and move to Cambodia or Vietnam or Indonesia. Without this, industrial democracy and sustainable living on this planet will not take place.

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  • jim, some guy in iowa

    I never have understood the point of paying full price and then some for jeans that are already half worn out. Some of this doesn’t only come about because of evil corporations, but because we consumers make stupid and ill informed choices

    • If being able to wear your jeans as long as you can is your highest priority, then yeah, they’re dumb. But worn in jeans often are more comfortable than brand new ones. They’re clearly not worth the damage to the environment or workers, but I can see the appeal.

      • Grocer

        It’s still best to do it the old fashioned way. Wear them in yourself without compulsively washing them every time you put them on. they look and feel better too, if only because the distressing fits your body. And you help save lives and the environment.

    • Ill-informed, yes. On the subject at hand though, I wouldn’t call them stupid. People don’t know anything about how anything is made, which is a boon to the corporations who make it. If people actually knew distressed jeans killed workers, they might care.

      • wengler

        Or they might not. I think you overestimate people’s willingness to put their conscience before their pocketbook.

        Take the Kohl’s challege. Go into a Kohl’s store and try to find anything that isn’t made in a third-world sweatshop.

        • firefall

          I did that, in Little Rock. It was easy, the Managers shoes were made in Italy :p

      • cpinva

        “If people actually knew distressed jeans killed workers, they might care.”

        I had no idea about this, I think I always assumed they just washed them a zillion times, to get that “worn out” look. many people would care, were they to find out. on the other hand, in my opinion, most people who buy these jeans are so lacking in awareness, they might not give a shit.

    • Jimmy B

      If you want worn look buy used jeans then YOU can save mankind for without clean water we and everything else DIES!

  • Green Caboose

    There are so many layers of irony in the fact that Walmart’s house brand of jeans is called Faded Glory.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

      Yeah, I’ve always wondered what marketing genius came up with that one.

  • PSP

    Do they even sell the hard as a board new jeans that were once standard?

    • Joe B

      Levi’s still sell rigid shrink-to-fit jeans, most of which are made in Turkey these days. They do sell premium Made in the USA 501s for about $300 a pair. Perhaps they are more of an ethical choice compared to jeans made in Bangladesh, and they’ll last a lot longer too, but the price means its unrealistic for most everybody.

      I think there’s also a bit of a problem with Made in the USA clothing in that we don’t really know what conditions American workers labour in. Buying US made products is great in theory, and in some instances the people who made your boots or jeans will be union members with a voice in working conditions. On the other hand, Levi’s premium selvedge denim comes from Cone Mills in North Carolina, which is owned by Wilbur Ross’s International Textile Group. Ross’s other holdings in coal and steel, like the Sago mine at the time of the 2006 disaster, have poor records in giving workers any kind of control in their workplaces. So Levi’s can get away with marketing their jeans as a patriotic consumer choice, when we really have no idea of the kind of conditions they’re made in.

      • Green Caboose

        I don’t know if it’s still the case but it used to be that a large amount of Made in the USA textiles were actually from Guam or Puerto Rico.

        • Joe B

          Yeah, I know lots of Made in the USA clothing actually comes from the Northern Mariana islands, where the standards and wages are little better than a third world country.

          New Balance still make running shoes in the USA, but their policy is to slap an American flag on any shoe where 70% of the finished product was produced in the US. I’m not sure where the other 30% comes from.

          The stuff that really is produced on the continental United States tends to be much higher priced, because the people who make them are earning more than the $37 a month textile workers in Bangladesh get, even if they’re not earning a living wage. Although I know that Red Wing boots are made in Minnesota by UFCW members, Carhartt still makes some lines in the US and some but not all of their workforce are also UFCW members.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      I buy “Rustler” (economy brand Wranglers) at the local farm supply store that way. Also have a couple of pair of Lee dungarees that weren’t washed before I got them. Both were made in Mexico, for what that’s worth – and while I have no idea what conditions the laborers work in, I like to kid myself that a better-quality (not necessarily name brand) article of clothing was made by a worker who’s better treated. That Wally-hell “Faded Glory” stuff, & cheaper, will practically start ripping apart if you get within sight of a barbed wire fence

  • Bruce Vail

    The Europeans have embraced a doctrine of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as the answer to this dilemma, but with decidedly mixed results.

    But given the constraints of the international legal system, some form of CSR is the only practical angle of attack. The step that the Europeans have been unwilling to take – and that is absolutely necessary to make it work – is some sort of governmental sanction on companies that violate CSR.

    • Green Caboose

      That will never work with Americans. What we have to do is give the Bangladeshis some buried carbon and then have our media tell the masses that the Bangladesh leader is the Hitler-of-the-week. Then let the military hoo hahs play with all their latest toys of destruction. Then, and only then, might Americans care enough to do something to help the locals.

      But probably not.

  • e.a.foster

    it is quite simple. a western country simply does not permit the importation of goods which are manufactured in a manner inconsistent with the country they are being imported into.

    companies are moving from country to country to find a cheaper manufacturer, fewer labour laws, less enviornmental laws, etc. If Western countries simply implemented laws that said, if your company obtains goods from a place which does not treat its workers as human beings, doesn’t respect the enviornment and international law, your stuff doesn’t come into the country. Now I don’t think that will ever happen. Far too many Republicans and rich Democrats, but it would be a good solution.

  • Book

    It can’t be healthy for consumers to wear that stuff either.

    I always make a habit out of putting a new pair of jeans in a tub of water, and by the end of the day, the water has taken on a blueish colour.

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