The Rupp Report: Wishful Thinking And Reality In The Jeans Business

Last week, the Rupp Report wrote about the initiative against rip-off artists, as it is called in
Switzerland, or against Fats Cats, as called misleadingly in some other countries
(See ”
Rupp Report: Is Enough Now Enough?, March 5, 2013)
. Sometimes, it seems that the top managers
of financial institutions live in another world and are simply unaware of the opinion of the people
on Main Street. This ignorance can be recognized too in the global blue jeans manufacturing
industry. The growing consciousness about the ecological and social behavior of some big retailers
could lead — at least in the Western world — to some immense problems.

Evergreen Jeans

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.

Finishing (?)

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

No Protection

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