Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World by Rachel Louise Snyder
Dungarees. Jeans. Demin. Blue Jeans. Bootcuts. Bellbottom. Stonewashed. Low Riders.
No matter what you call them, they’re the most popular pants in our little corner of the universe. Depending on whose reference materials you are using, the average American owns six or seven pairs. Author Rachel Louise Snyder explores the global economic, environmental and political ramifications of our indigo infatuation in “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World.”
The jeans story begins back in the 16th century. There are historical threads from France, England, Italy and India that all lead to dry goods salesman Levi (nee Loeb) Strauss making pants out of tent canvas for California gold miners that he called waist overalls.
Ever the responsive merchant, Strauss responded to complaints about chafing by substituting a twilled cotton cloth from France called “serge de Nimes.” The fabric later became known as denim and the pants were nicknamed blue jeans, with the story being that the term “jeans” was a bastardization of “Genovese”, a term used to describe heavy duty cotton pants worn by Italian sailors.
Strauss combined forces with tailor Jacob Davis and, sometime during 1873, the first riveted blue jeans were made and sold. (An original–115 years old–pair of Levi Strauss & Co jeans were sold to an anonymous Japanese collector for $60,000 on eBay back in 2005.) Denim’s integrity and wear resistance have made it popular world-wide. Jeans have evolved over the decades to become an enduring symbol of American individualism and toughness. Over the past fifty years or so a lot of clothes styles have come and gone, but the blue jean has persevered as an icon of coolness.
This makes denim a really big business. Big to the tune of about $55 billion in sales each year. Big to the tune of jeans being manufactured in over 60 countries. And big enough to provide an excellent example of the effects and complexity of globalization. Fugitive Denim paints a picture of the industry through the eyes of the people it impacts around the world, adding a solid dose of information about the environmental havoc caused by our quest for coolness.
In Azerbaijan we learn about farming cotton in the former Soviet Union. A single thread of cotton used in the production of denim may contain fibers from Texas, Azerbaijan, Turkey, India and Pakistan. Brown lung disease and cancers caused by exposure to carcinogenic chemicals (the average pair of jeans includes about ¾ of a pound of pesticides) are common problems with third world producers. While cotton production uses about 3% of the farmed land on the planet, 25% of the worlds’ insecticides are utilized in its production.
Cotton production is also very water intensive agribusiness. The Soviets essentially destroyed the world’s fourth largest body of water by diverting two rivers flowing into the Aral Sea for the irrigation of “white gold”. What’s left of the Aral Sea is so polluted that it will not support life.
The livelihood that cotton fields once provided for farmers has also declined as world market prices have been depressed for most of the past 15 years. In India, one of the world’s larger cotton producers, things got so bad that over 17,000 farmers committed suicide in 2003. The weapon of choice for these growers, who were typically so debt- ridden that they could see no other alternative, was to simply imbibe the chemicals that they had once sprayed on the crops. Many pesticides, by the way, were originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War I.
Cotton grown in the United States uses lesser amounts of pesticides, mainly because Monsanto has successfully dominated the seed market with genetically modified seeds that it “leases” to farmers. They sign contracts that prohibit them from replanting with anything other than Monsanto’s product. It’s a hell of a racket, reminiscent of strong arm tactics utilized by industrial monopolists back in the late 1800’s, except that this time they got governmental approval prior to putting on the squeeze.
Domestic growers are also more prosperous than their overseas counterparts thanks to generous government subsidies ($19 billion, 1995-2005) paid primarily (80%) to larger agribusiness enterprises. Government payments averaged 57 percent of cotton’s market value from 2003 to 2006. All these subsidies (which the WTO has ruled are illegal) make it possible for cotton produced in the US and exported to Mali to undercut locally produced crops in that African nation. The Memphis-based National Cotton Council is, of course, very unhappy about the Obama administration’s plan to curb these subsidies that is spelled out in the recently released budget plans.
Getting back to the business of jeans, harvesting cotton is only one part of the process. Once the 500 pound bales reach manufacturing facilities (scattered worldwide) they are woven, dipped, dyed and otherwise treated to get the weights and styles of fabric that are desirable by garment manufacturers. Organic cotton (Turkey is the largest producer) gets treated in pretty unsustainable ways, just like regular cotton. Walmart, by the way, claims to be largest buyer of organic cotton world wide.
Sixty plus countries around the globe have facilities that make jeans. The largest suppliers are Mexico and China. Other countries, like Cambodia, may have smaller shares of the world market, but garment manufacturing plays a significant role in their economy. In Fugitive Denim the author takes us to Cambodia, where ILO sponsorship created labor laws based on those in France that made their exports attractive to socially conscious retailers. We get to see life through the eyes of two women employed in the garment industry. And while the benefits (minimum wages, overtime pay, better working conditions, unions, etc) of the Cambodian/ILO collaboration are making life better for garment workers, the arrangement is tentative at best in an unstable economy rife with corruption and fearful of increased competition. Factories (many with Chinese owners) simply disappear overnight when their profitability is threatened.
The complexities of a global economy represent a real challenge for retailers, who-according to this book-seem to be trying to do the right thing by insuring that their garments are not being made by sweatshop labor. A pair of jeans labeled “Made in Peru” may contain cotton grown in Texas, woven in North Carolina, cut & sewn in Peru and washed/finished in Mexico.
The author takes us on a tour of Chinese plant along with a Vendor Compliance Officer working for The Gap (also Old Navy & Banana Republic). Like many companies these days (there were consumer boycotts and scandalous revelations back in the 1990’s), Gap Inc. has a long list of specific standards that are expected to be maintained at the over 280 factories in Southeast Asia. Companies that fail to meet these standards get their contracts cancelled. But with so many operators, NGO auditors, government agencies and the sheer number of facilities, keeping up with what’s going on factory floors is not unlike a game of whack-a-mole.
Fugitive Denim is a book mostly about people in the jeans industry who are trying to do the right thing. At the mid and higher end of the retail scale, earnest attempts at being socially and environmentally responsible seem to be the order of the day. At the lower end of the retail scale, a lack of transparency seems to be widespread. This books’ weakness is its failure to pursue avenues that might reveal the sweatshops that garment industry observers candidly admit exist. There’s a big difference between “Free Trade” and “Fair Trade” if you’re a garment worker striving to keep your family fed.