The Real Cost of Your Blue Jeans

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Bill Diodato/Getty

The biggest fashion trend in recent years is "fast fashion"—the mass production of trendy, inexpensive clothing with lightning-quick turnaround. This is a hugely wasteful global, environmental and human rights disaster, according to bestselling journalist Dana Thomas in her new book Fashionopolis.

Making the industry's 80 billion garments per year requires huge amounts of water and toxic chemicals. It employs every sixth person on Earth—most in dangerous conditions for very little money. Fast fashion also produces mountains of clothes that go unsold or are discarded and end up in garbage dumps and landfills.

There is no single solution for these problems of ecological damage, exploitation and waste, but there is hope for the future. Consumers, retailers and innovators are pursuing a variety of options for sustainability, such as buying secondhand clothes; renting outfits; recycling clothes into new, reusable fibers; 3D printing clothes on demand; biofabrication; reshoring; and using organic and natural fibers. And just buying less.

Perhaps the worst offenders in terms of environmental and human damage are blue jeans. In this excerpt from Fashionopolis, Thomas explores some of what ails the world's most popular garment of all—and one process that could help cure some of the ills plaguing their production.

You are probably wearing jeans as you read this. If you're not, chances are you wore them yesterday. Or you will tomorrow. At any given moment, anthropologists believe, half the world's population is sporting jeans. Five billion pairs are produced annually. The average American owns seven—one for each day of the week—and buys four new pairs every year. "I wish I had invented blue jeans," the French couturier Yves Saint Laurent confessed. "They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for my clothes."

Barring basics such as underwear and socks, blue jeans are the most popular garment ever. They are what many of the Rana Plaza workers in Bangladesh were sewing or inspecting when the building came crashing down on April 23, 2013, killing 1,134 and injuring 2,500 workers, making it the deadliest garment factory accident in modern history. Jeans were the backbone of American textile and garment manufacturing, until Levi's offshored those jobs. They are also hyper-polluting—in their creation, and in their afterlife.

Jeans embody all that is good, bad and awry in fashion.

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A mourner holds up a portrait of a missing relative and a human bone fragment found at the scene of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse. Getty/MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Nothing Comes Between Me and My Calvins

Denim remained a niche textile until the early 1870s, when a tailor named Jacob Davis asked his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, for help mass-producing his most recent design: workpants with metal rivets at key stress points. If Strauss would cover the hefty $68 patenting fee, Davis proposed, the two men could be business partners. Today, Levi Strauss & Co. still design and sell the majority of jeans. It is one of the most successful apparel brands, ever.

And blue jeans' popularity steadily grew, until they received an unexpected bump in the 1970s—from all places, Seventh Avenue.

With the women's liberation movement and the popularity of more casual dress, New York's fashion designers dreamed up a new fashion category: designer jeans. "Jeans are sex," Calvin Klein said. "The tighter they are, the better they sell."

To hammer home his point, in 1980, Klein cast 15-year-old actress-model Brooke Shields for his jeans commercial. "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?" she purred in her childlike voice, as she sat spread-eagle in a pair of his jeans and a taupe blouse. "Nothing." The ad was so provocative, the New York affiliates of ABC and CBS promptly banned it. But it had already worked its spell: Klein sold 400,000 pairs the week following the ad's debut, then two million a month after that. Jean sales rocketed to record heights: more than half a billion were purchased in 1981 alone.

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Brooke Shields in a 1980s Calvin Klein magazine ad. The Advertising Archives/Alamy

The Perfect Pair

Until the 1970s, a good many jeans sold had been made of stiff, shrink-to-fit—or "unsanforized"—denim. To soften them, you simply had to wear them. A lot. It took a good six months to properly break in jeans. After a couple of years—years—the hems and pocket edges might start to fray, or a knee would split open. The fabric faded to a powdery blue with some whiskering—the sunburst-like streaks that radiate from the fly. Time and dedication were required to push your jeans to peak fabulousness.

That is, until the popularization of stonewashing in the 1980s. Unsanforized jeans were thrown into industrial washers with pumice stones and tumbled until the denim was sufficiently abraded. (The L.A.-based casualwear company Guess famously had a system that stonewashed jeans for seven hours—a marathon now considered an environmental horror.) Sometimes jeans were further distressed with acid, sandpaper, rasps and files to mimic the previously hard-won wear and tear. The entire operation was christened "finishing" and conducted in "washhouses," sprawling facilities that now process thousands of jeans a day.

Some washhouses—especially those in Los Angeles, America's jeans-finishing center—are highly technical and follow strict worker safety and environmental norms. But a lot do not, as I saw in Ho Chi Minh City on a steamy April morning in 2018.

Dirty Laundry

A largely agrarian economy only 15 years earlier, by 2018, there were roughly 6,000 textile and garment production companies in Vietnam, employing 2.5 million workers, and accounting for about 16 percent of the country's exports and more than $30 billion in revenue. Experts believe that last figure will jump to $50 billion by 2020.

Much of the work is jeans finishing. In 2012, jeans production turnover in Vietnam was $600 million; by 2021, it is expected to double.

On the industrial outskirts of Ho Chi Minh, at a run-down, warehouse-like plant behind an unassailable gate, about 200 young Vietnamese labored. The fluorescent lighting was poor and it was 100 degrees, easy. Large fans whirred to try to cool the room. It didn't work.

Pristine midnight-blue jeans were piled high on metal tables and dollies. Young men in T-shirts, trousers—usually jeans—and knee-high rubber boots stuffed them into two dozen monster-sized washing machines. An inch of navy-blue water stood on the floor. The men did not wear gloves, and their hands were stained black.

Some of the machines were older types that require five gallons of water to wash one kilogram—three pairs—of jeans. Others were less piggy, using only a bit more than one gallon of water per kilo of jeans. Manufacturers "know how wasteful this is," my guide told me.

"Their business is about washing, not about worrying about the planet," a jeans expert told me.

In the distressing room, young men and women were sanding jean knees and thighs by hand, like a carpenter works on wood. Some wore medical masks to prevent inhalation of denim dust, but most did not.

The verve with which they attacked their assignment was alarming: Each pair went from virgin to wrecked in under a minute. The workers' focus was intense. One slip-up and their pay would be docked. At the time I visited, sanders processed at least 400 pairs of jeans a day, six days a week, not including overtime.

And that was the hand distressers. The machine distressers worked even faster. I watched one woman—unmasked—tackle cutoff shorts with what looked like an oversized dental drill that emitted a scream so high-pitched it could crack crystal. She ground the front and back pockets and hems of those shorts to a fashionably holey state in 10 seconds. Six pairs a minute. All day long.

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Factory workers in Xintang, China have myriad health problems as a result of their “finishing” work. Getty/Paul Mooney/South China Morning Post

This all apparently compared well to the washhouses of Xintang, the town in Guangdong Province, China, that claims to be the "jeans capital of the world." Each year, 200,000 garment workers in Xintang's 3,000 factories and workshops produce 300 million pairs of jeans—800,000 pairs a day. The local water treatment plant closed years ago, leaving factories to dump dye waste directly into the East River, a tributary of the Pearl River. It turned opaque; aquatic life could no longer survive. Greenpeace has reported that the riverbed contains high levels of lead, copper and cadmium. Xintang's streets are dusted blue. And many garment workers have reportedly suffered from skin rashes, infertility and lung infections.

Eco-Friendly Finishing?

Distressed, whiskered jeans continue to drive the global market and have been the cause of ecological and health calamity. What could be done about finishing? Surely, in our world of rapid technological advancement, there must be a way to banish the horrors I saw in the Ho Chi Minh sweatshop.

Denim industry consultants José Vidal and his nephew Enrique Silla, based in Valencia, Spain, set out to develop a cleaner, safer three-step process called Jeanologia: lasers, which replace sandblasting, hand-sanding, and the bleaching chemical potassium permanganate (PP); ozone, which fades fabrics without chemicals; and e-Flow, a washing system that uses microscopic "nanobubbles" and cuts water usage by 90 percent.

Traditionally, finishing a pair of jeans requires an average of 18 gallons of water, 1.5 kilowatts of energy and 5 ounces of chemicals. In total, that equals an astonishing 92 million gallons of water, 7.5 billion kilowatts of energy (enough to power the city of Munich for a year) and 750,000 tons of chemicals each year.

The Jeanologia system can decrease energy consumption by 33 percent, chemicals by 67 percent, and if implemented most efficiently, water usage by 71 percent—or, as the company proudly boasts, to one glass of water per pair of jeans.

Silla led me to the lab to see the system in action. In the laser room, in 10 or 11 seconds, the jeans were as faded and destroyed as my old shrink-to-fit 501s after three years of hard living.

Next, a dryer-like tumbler uses ozone to fade jeans. Using stratospheric ozone, or "good ozone," in finishing is "like putting a garment in the sun for a month, except we can do it in 20 minutes," Silla explained, and with a fraction of the energy or water the old process required.

Finally, we visited the washroom, where the e-Flow machine washes jeans among microscopic bubbles. "Nanobubbles do the softening, tinting and stonewash without the stones, all at once," Silla said. There is no water treatment afterward and the water that is used can be recycled for 30 days. "We are not at zero water stage yet," he said. "But we are getting there."

READ MORE: Author Dana Thomas on the Price of Fast Fashion and how to Really be a Conscious Shopper

While in Ho Chi Minh City, I toured a Jeanologia-equipped washhouse to see the process on a commercial scale. Jeanologia, my host told me, had "totally transformed production."

The factory processed about half of what the big Chinese factories churn out—all without the frenetic grabbing and flinging of garments, screeching sanders, sweltering heat or stress.

When I asked about job loss, my guide conceded that "eventually everything will be robotic." But instead of waves of layoffs, this factory retrains workers to use "more sophisticated machinery, or to manage," he said. And back in Valencia, after a four-month course to teach workers how to run the laser distressing machines, newly minted "laser design experts" are dispatched throughout the world.

Even with all these pluses, Jeanologia has had a tough time breaking into the jeans finishing market. What would really change the game, would be to win over the majors: Gap, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, PVH, VF Corp and Levi's.

"If we transform the way these people produce," he said, "that would be immense."

→ From Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Dana Thomas.

The Real Cost of Your Blue Jeans