DENIM: The Devil and the Deep Blue Jeans

YSL famously said, “I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes.”

Blue jeans, after essential clothing items (underwear et al.) are the most popular clothing item. Ever. They’re popular for good reason too, they’re probably the most versatile item in all our closets. It is the one fashion item you can bet with some certainty all of us own.

According to Fashion United, on average, women own 7 pairs and men own 6. We only wear 4 of these though. I own about 8 pairs and my sister (even though we share the same size) owns an equal amount. But the number isn’t static. People acquire as many as 4 new pairs a year on average. I can attest to that, guilty as charged. I just ordered myself a new pair (a really cool high waisted, wide set pair that is all the rage on social media – more on that later) last week. I guess that makes it 9 pairs now. Apart from being an undeniable staple in everyone’s fashion closet, jeans are also hyper-polluting, in the way they are created, but also in the way they are disposed of.

Part 1: How is it made?

There is some debate about where the first pair of jeans were produced. Scholars are divided on whether the first pair was produced in Nîmes, France or Genoa, Italy. Some even say it wasn’t either of these fashionable and exotic locations, but rather Manchester, New Hampshire that saw the first pair of jeans. Regardless of where they came from, they were undoubtedly here to stay. But how exactly are jeans made?

I’m not going to get into what organic and nonorganic cotton is – the difference, and all the politics attached to that. That’s a whole other thing, and maybe another time. For now, it’s important to note that the cotton we most interact with, what is known as ‘conventional cotton’, is nonorganically produced. Cotton is by far the most toxic crop we produce. More than 16% of all pesticides produced globally are deployed in the cultivation of cotton, even though cotton takes up only 2.5% of the total arable land of the world. That is some serious concentration of chemicals. And the chemicals aren’t benign either. Apparently, eight out of ten of the pesticides used to grow the cotton we know, and use are classified as ‘hazardous.’ I know there is a lot of research going on in the field of how microfibers affect us, and wearing clothes produced from such toxic fibers can have a detrimental effect on our health, but I haven’t done any deep research into this, so I am not really qualified to dive into this. I just know it can’t be anything good.

You know what else it takes to grow cotton? Water. Lots and lots of it. To produce 1 kilo of cotton, it takes, on average, about 10,000 liters of water. This is just to produce the cotton, mind you. It takes a lot more to process the cotton to make it into wear-ready clothing. In fact, by all accounts, if the fashion industry keeps using water at the pace at which it uses it right now, we going to need about 40% more water than the world has to give by 2030. That isn’t the future my friends, it is right now.

The fabric of jeans is made up of an exterior side called the ‘warp’ (made up of multiple yarns, usually 2-3, and deep blue in colour) and an interior side / underside called the ‘weft’ (made up of a lighter shade and composed of a single yarn). There is also a higher quality of jeans – called ‘selvedge’, usually the tighter and more substantial jeans that have been designed in a way to avoid the fraying at the edges.

Originally, jeans were dyed using organic indigo dye (again, one of the most commercial crops ever), but eventually, as with everything else, the industry moved on to the use of synthetic indigo. Most of this, at least until 1897 was produced by a German chemist known as Adolf von Baeyer and commercialized by BASF. Synthetic indigo had the advantage of being impervious to the normal wear and tear affecting natural indigo. It wasn’t seasonal either, which meant it could be used in the production cycle the whole year round. It did have the tiny disadvantage of using a lot of chemicals – most of which have been proven to be harmful both to the environment and the humans that are involved in the production of it, or even use it – but given the commercial benefits, as with everything else, the ecological and human costs have brushed under the carpet.

But jeans weren’t always available in the multitude of styles, hues, colors and cut you are familiar with now. No, till not so long ago (the 70s) you had to have real dedication to get your jeans to look and feel good. Jeans came “unsanforized” which meant they had to be washed a couple of times to shrink down to size and worn for a good 6-8 months to soften up to your body shape. It took years to achieve the frayed look we can so easily walk into stores and buy now. This is the happy outcome of a little technique called ‘stonewashing’. As the name suggests, the jeans were washed in industrial sized washing machines with stones, yup, actual stones, to get the look we had earlier worked so hard to achieve. As you can imagine, it took up a lot of resources (especially water) and can only be described as an environmental disaster. And this is just one of the treatments. There are several other washes, including ‘stoneless wash’, ‘acid wash’, ‘moon wash’ and ‘monkey wash’. After that, it was a race to the bottom. In addition to the resources, it takes to produce the jeans in the first place, an inordinate amount of resources need to be spent to achieve looks which result from the NORMAL WEAR AND TEAR of this material (washed out look, frayed edges, cuts and others). There are people and machines employed in workshops to cut up denim so we can strut around in the latest rendition of ‘boyfriend jeans’ or ‘distressed jeans’ or whatever else the powers that be tell us is an ‘essential’ for the season.

Just to give you an idea of scale, some of the older machines (very much in use in a lot of the developing countries fashion houses outsource their production to) take up to 20 liters to whitewash / stonewash 3 pairs of jeans. Post treatment of the jeans, the residual water has an almost tar like quality, riddled with God knows how many chemicals at this point. If this wasn’t bad enough, where do you think all this hyper-toxic wastewater goes? For the longest time, before people had really started talking about the polluting effects of apparel production (or in fact, any other production) the water was released untreated into the waterways / rivers of the producing country. Xintag in China (the ‘jeans capital of the world’) discharged enough water into the East River to turn it opaque, so toxic and uninhabitable that ALL the aquatic life in the river died many years ago. The riverbed till this date contains unacceptably high levels of lead, copper, and cadmium, none of which sounds like the kind of stuff rivers should be full of. All so we could have an extra pair of jeans that we probably won’t even wear.

Part 2: Who makes it?

When you think of jeans, you think of Levi’s. And rightly so. It was Mr. Strauss, a fabric manufacturer, who paid for the patenting of what would later become jeans, and later the business partner of Mr. Davis (the brains behind the patent) who would lay the foundations of modern-day denim use. Levi’s was and remains the largest producer of jeans, and what it doesn’t sell itself, it produces for other companies. The company produced the world’s first pair of jeans in 1873, and the originals are still stored in the company’s vault. Then came the 501s. With the exception of the introduction of the belt loops instead of the original suspenders, the design for the 501s remains the same as the original. It is a piece of history to be sure. For all those of you who own a pair or have ever bought one, you know the pair never goes on sale. It also comes with a little booklet explaining exactly why the pair is iconic. The belt loops are strong enough, allegedly, to withstand the full weight of the chasse of a car…some car. Jeans made Strauss a wealthy man, one of the wealthiest in the state of California. But their time in the sun was just beginning.

Then came the women’s liberation movement. Everyone needed a sturdy, but casual and fashionable statement piece. What could be better than jeans? The cut was amended, to adapt to the lines of a woman’s body. Calvin Klein, one of the next major players, declared that “Jeans are sex – the tighter they are, the better they sell.” This, coupled with the scandalous (and eventually banned) advertisement featuring Brooke Shields talking about how nothing comes between her and her Calvins ensured that the company cold as many as 4000 pairs within weeks of the ad’s debit, and many millions in the months post that. The dominance of jeans had been cemented.

From then on, it was the same story we see everywhere else. More players came into the fold – Tommy Hilfiger, GAP, Guess and what have you – and the competition was no longer about producing the best quality jeans or the newest styles (there are only so many you can have). It also became about producing them as cheaply as possible. As with everything else, this led to major cost cutting, primarily through shifting production off-shore (Vietnam is amongst the largest suppliers of jeans, along with Bangladesh and China) where companies could successfully avoid all responsibility for labour law violations and environmental consequences. So long as the Thames doesn’t turn opaque, it really isn’t their issue.

And this is just the water pollution caused at the production stage. There is also the air pollution and the solid wastes.

Part 3: Afterlife

We produce as many as 1.2 billion pairs of jeans (approx.) every single year. Most of this is fast fashion, 50% of which is discarded within a year of purchase. For everyone who thinks their conscience is clear because they donate to charities or recycle the material, think again. Less than 1% of the material used to produce our clothes is recycled, the rest of it sits in landfills. In fact, about 1 truck full of clothes is being discarded every second. Very few of the clothes donated are used by charities in the developed part of the world. Some of it is shipped to Asia and Africa, where again, not a lot of it is used. The ecological impact of shipping these clothes alone is a nightmare.

Now, even though this entire post has been about the denim producing industry, this is by no means the only kind of cloth-production mired in high environmental and human costs. But I wanted to start here. The entire idea behind jeans used to be that you buy a couple and they hopefully last you a really long time. They were supposed to be durable. Now, they’re marketed as an ‘essential’ fashion item that needs updating many, many times a season. I think we need to take a breath here, and think about whether we really need to step out every couple of months to buy a new pair of jeans – which look more of less like the 7 pairs we already own. Even if it is that pair of wide cut high waisted jeans you’ve had your eye on for sometime now.

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