China’s jeans industry is distressingBy Graham Land Aug 19, 2013 6:00AM UTC
Blue jeans have long been a symbol of the West, specifically the United States, and associated with ideas about freedom, materialism, commercialism, fashion and rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1980s rumors regarding how much a pair of Levis would fetch behind the Iron Curtain fuelled romantic visions of infiltrating the Soviet Union armed with a suitcase full of 501s and returning home with a small fortune and a story to tell.
Some symbols, mythical or no, die hard. Protests in the wake of the 2006 Belarusian presidential election are sometimes referred to as the Jeans Revolution, due to their pro-Western (and anti-Russian) character.
Tall tales aside, jeans are a distinctly American phenomenon, which has spread throughout the world and remains perennially fashionable. Depending on your tastes, the only decent “real” jeans were American until perhaps the 1990s. Sure, there were ’80s designer jeans from Italy and France, but come on – they were perhaps OK on a yacht along the Riviera, but not acceptable attire in a rock bar.
All that changed with hyper globalization. It turned out that Europeans, Asians… just about anyone could make a credible pair of jeans. Xintang, China became the new millennium’s jean factory, producing around 300 million pairs a year and turning the Pearl River indigo. Residents also complained of rashes, respiratory problems and birth defects because these are blue jeans we are talking about, not those ridiculous bright red, yellow or green Girbaud jeans that made a splash back in the ’90s.
Oh, if they were only! Current tastes demand “distressed” jeans, which means fabric workers make a normal pair of blue jeans and then do things to make them look old and ripped like something you might find at the bottom of Courtney Love’s overnight bag circa 1991. Distressed jeans are not just stupid looking and embarrassing to buy, but the processes necessary to make them look like they’re ready for the dumpster rather than the display window (in a normal world) are seriously harmful to workers’ health.
From In These Times:
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.
That’s right: people are dying (and dyeing) so that today’s youth can adopt the “homeless chic” look.
The EU is the biggest customer of Chinese made jeans, as pointed out in a recent story on how the criminal elements based in Italy are avoiding custom duties when importing them. This is bad news for Europe’s coffers, no doubt, but it’s China’s workers and the residents of Xintang who are the real victims. Even if jobs in the jeans industry pay much more than average manufacturing wages in China, denim factories have to recruit most of their employees from other parts of the country. It turns out there is a lot more to life than a decent wage.
Read more about the shocking state Xintang’s environment and working conditions in China Dialogue.