The Rupp Report: Wishful Thinking And Reality In The Jeans Business
Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor
The whole world wears and buys jeans — it is a multi-billion-dollar business. When Levi Strauss started his business in the early 1870s to transform denim fabrics into pants, reinforced using copper rivets, he was proud to provide a product that was very durable. By the way, the word "denim" comes from "de Nimes" — meaning from Nimes, a city in southern France. Initially, it was an indigo-dyed fabric for sailcloth.
For decades, jeans were produced in countries like the United States, with leading brands such as Levi's® and Wrangler®. Then, the production of the finished jeans — the cutting and sewing of the denim — moved to Central America. However, the main share of jeans production moved 10 years ago - yes, to China, and particularly to Xintang in southern Guangdong Province. Xintang is called "the secret capital city of blue jeans." In some 3,000 mills, workers produce more than 800 million pieces per year. Experts say that every third pair of jeans made on this planet comes from Xintang.
Over the years, the production of jeans has been turned on its ear. Quality is no longer the prerequisite for success. It's the price and the look of the product. The price depends on the bargaining ability of the buyer. The average price is between 35 and 40 renminbi — less than 5 euros or about US$5.50 to $6.50 — for a pair of jeans. However, this is not the only problem. The real problem is modern jeans fashion — in other words, the destruction of a product to make it fashionable. Successful jeans for young customers must have a used look.
Years ago, the first finishing of denim garments had to do with stonewashing them using pumice stones. Today, what the producers in Xintang call "finishing" is a harsh accumulation of treatments such as bleaching, spraying, lasing, damaging, and even the globally banned sandblasting. Nobody knows exactly what kinds of chemicals are applied. In particular, bleaching agents are very problematic for the workers, their skin and the environment. Officially, more rigorous environmental laws are established, but in certain jeans factories, nobody cares about them.
Bleaching and sandblasting are the big problems for the employees. Nobody is protected against the smells and the dangerous chemicals. Moreover, sandblasting is executed in an open room, where the particles are flying around. These young workers will suffer from a disease that mainly occurred in the past in coal miners: pneumoconiosis, also called silicosis. The employees are working under conditions that no one in the Western world would accept: 15 to 16 hours per day, 30 days in a row. Then they have one day off. Most of them live and sleep in a small room with a group of colleagues. The workers are paid by the piece, so the pace in the workshop is extremely high. Fibrous materials from the various treatments are blown off using high pressure in a very noisy process. Some workers are said to become deaf after one year.
Not only the people, but also the environment is severely harmed. Wastewater is mostly discharged without any cleaning into the Pearl River.
"Clean" Jeans (?)
The producers know exactly that Western laws demand that no harmful chemicals are allowed on the textile products. So, for example, the jeans are washed very often to wash out any prohibited chemicals. Two hundred liters of water are used to wash out 1 kilogram of jeans. Then they are "clean" enough to be exported. There are some exceptions: It happens from time to time that deliveries are stopped at the borders.
This report was not written to accuse any one party in this game. It was written to open the eyes of the parties in the game. Today, most consumers don't know what they are doing when they buy these products. Of course, they know where it comes from, but they have virtually no idea how it was treated. However, with the rising consciousness of the younger population regarding environmental and social components of textile production, it is just a matter of time before this game has to start with new rules.
Today, every party in the game passes the buck to the next party and shrugs his/her shoulders, claiming the other party is responsible. Big brands are still closing their eyes. As one well-known retailer claims on its homepage: "Our vision is that all business operations shall be run in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable." Why, then, is it not possible to get in contact with the retailer about this issue?
But many organizations that are concerned about the workers in these factories, and also discerning companies are asking more questions about sustainability and demanding even more traceability of the goods in question. And — the players should not forget — more and more, every bad story to be published is being picked up in the social media and going around the world. Nobody from the big labels is willing to talk about this issue. It's not enough to fill the homepage with nice words; you've got to live it. Of course, the first aim of business is to make money - however, the issue also has to do with dignity and respect for every human being.
March 12, 2013