Behind the Scenes of my “New” Used Jeans
My most recent acquisition is a pair of used Levi’s jeans, made in Mexico of 100% cotton. The housing co-op where I live has a ‘free box’ in the laundry room, where any resident can drop off unwanted clothes for other residents to wear. I’m not sure how old these jeans are, or how many hands they’ve passed through to date, but I’m fairly positive that they have had a tumultuous life so far!
My jeans would have begun with the harvesting of cotton, likely in the United States or China (Cotton USA, n.d.). Cotton is the most heavily pesticide-sprayed crop in the world (WWF, n.d.), and also one of the most heavily irrigated (CNAD, n.d.). In fact, 10% of the world’s annual pesticide and 15% of the world’s insecticide consumption is applied to cotton plants (CNAD, n.d.).
Before 2003 this cotton would have been manufactured into my Levi’s jeans in American factories; however Levi’s now outsources 100% of its production (COA, n.d.). This cotton was likely transported by truck or boat to a US-owned factory in Torreon, Mexico, releasing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. Torreon has become the North American jean capital, producing an average of 6 million garments a week, 90% of which are exported to the US and Canada (MSNa, n.d.). Production in these foreign-owned factories (or ‘maquilas’ as they are commonly known) is favored because of Mexico’s low minimum wage, lack of environmental and labour regulations, low taxes, and ability to import components and raw materials duty-free and re-export the finished product to the US (MSNb, n.d.).
Next the cotton would be dyed. To achieve the deep blue colour of the denim, the material would be dipped in all kinds of chemicals, including caustic soda, chlorine, laccase, detergents, peroxide, oxalic acid, and sodium bisulphate, all of which the workers would be exposed to (MSNa, n.d.). Because cotton resists colouring, one-third of the dyes would not adhere and would be carried off in the wastewater stream (Ryan,1997). Enforcement of environmental laws in export processing zones (EPZ), where Torreon is located, is notoriously lax, explaining why the creeks surrounding the factories are a deep blue colour, and the groundwater that feeds nearby farms is severely polluted (MSNa, n.d.). An extensive laundering process would then be required to ‘set’ the colour. Lucky for the factory owners, there are no limits to the amount of water they are permitted to use, despite the foreseeable water shortage in Torreon (MSNa, n.d.). Next the jeans would need to be dried and baked, further exposing unprotected workers to the toxic fumes that are released by the huge dryers, heaters and ovens (MSNa, n.d.).
The workers making my jeans (90% of whom would be women) (FAS, n.d.) would have earned an average of $1.75 per hour (SWa, n.d.), low enough to be considered a sweatshop wage. These wage levels would be barely enough to pay for food and water, let alone adequate shelter, medical care, transportation and school fees for their children. As my visits to maquilas have confirmed, these women work up to 12 hours a day cutting and sewing the denim. Confronted with unrealistic production quotas, the women become afflicted with repetitive strain injuries, back problems, and eyestrain, for none of which they can afford to get medical care.
It can be argued that Mexico’s economy benefits marginally because of revenue from property and income taxes, as well as from the wages to their workers. However, the majority of the revenue flows back to the USA and to Levi Strauss Inc. The low labour costs in Mexico, combined with a lack of duties or trade tariffs, mean that Levi Strauss is able to decrease its production costs and increase its profit margin. In 2005, the company’s sales topped $4 billion (COA, n.d.). The scale of inequality is most evident in looking at the hourly wage of Levi Strauss CEO Philip Marineau – an astounding $11,971 per hour (SWa, n.d.), which is almost eight thousand times the rate of his factory workers.
Levi’s Strauss Inc. does have a code of conduct that includes protecting the workers’ rights to freedom of association (i.e., formation of unions). In fact, in 1991, Levi Strauss Inc. became the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive ethical code of conduct for their manufacturing and finishing contractors (Levi Strauss Inc, n.d.). However, having a code does not guarantee that it is enforced. In Lajat’s Gomex Palacio garment factory in Mexico, a major supplier to Levi’s (and where my jeans may have been made), documented labour violations included not paying overtime, exposure to dangerous chemicals, dirty bathrooms and blocked exits (COA, n.d.), as well as denial of the right to organize via blacklisting, intimidation, police attack and firings (SW, n.d.). In February 2006, contrary to Mexico’s labour law, Lajat illegally closed the factory after the workers successfully formed a workers’ union (SW, n.d.). Levi’s did nothing when Lajat illegally closed the factory, nor did they demand that Lajat live up to Levi’s code. Mexico’s federal labour tribunal and local labor board then granted Lajat workers registration for their independent union.
After much public pressure, Levi’s finally gave in and agreed to enforce their code of conduct, giving the workers 100% of what was owed them, but did not reinstate the right to organize that the workers had wanted (SW, n.d.). Labour and human rights violations by factories supplying Levi’s have also been claimed in Turkey (for illegal firing and union-busting), in Saipan (for labour violations which led to a class-action lawsuit), and even in the US, where Levi’s was charged $10.6 million for ‘willful and malicious retaliatory conduct’ against workers seeking compensation (COA, n.d.).
My jeans’ unseemly life cycle didn’t necessarily improve once they left the maquila in Mexico, however. Transporting the jeans back to Canada emitted more carbon dioxide, further contributing to climate change. Once here, Levi’s aggressively marketed the jeans, promoting unattainable and unhealthy ideals and playing heavily on consumers’ physical and emotional insecurities (Gales and Rajagopal, 2002). As Nancy Shalek of Shalek Advertising Services so eloquently put it, “advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable” (Harris, 1989). The amount of money put forth to manipulate the consumer can also be considered unethical. Only 1% of Nike’s advertising budget, for example, would raise the wages of workers in Nike’s six Indonesian factories to a livable standard (UNESCO-UNEP, 2002), and Levi’s advertising budget isn’t far behind at $303 million dollars in 2004 (AdBrands, n.d.).
Not surprisingly, a consumer apparently fell for the advertising messages and purchased the jeans. The purchaser likely used a plastic bag, which added one more oil-based plastic bag to Canada’s 567
million plastic bags a year (McGill Tribune, 2002). Judging from their current status, my jeans didn’t get much use before they wound up in my co-op’s ‘free box’, though they’ve undoubtedly been washed a few times, using both energy and detergents. This adds up: machine wash and dry a poly-cotton t-shirt ten times and you’ve already used as much energy as was used to manufacture it in the first place (Ryan, 1997)! Now that the jeans are in my hands, I use biodegradable soaps and hang them to dry; however the washing machine will still use energy.
When these jeans leave my closet for good, I will likely return them to the free box. If they aren’t picked up by someone in the building, they will be given to our local Goodwill, to be sold at discount rates to someone in the Ottawa community. Eventually they will be thrown into the garbage, contributing to the 40,825 kg of trash the average Canadian will produce in their lifetime (Waste Reduction Week, n.d.).
I won’t, however, be replacing these jeans with a new pair. I bought my last pair of new jeans in May 2002, and I haven’t looked back. Every pair that I have since acquired has been from a thrift store, a clothing-swap, or made on my sewing machine out of old clothing scraps. Not wanting to support what I consider to be an extremely exploitative industry (both socially and environmentally), I have opted instead to try to clothe myself in the wastes of our society, which (lucky for me, I guess) are quite plentiful these days. Our personal packaging says a lot about who we are, and as my friend and co-worker Jessica Lax says, “My identity goes deeper than the texture, colour, or cut of my shirt.”
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