In which country are American Eagle clothes made?
This is how much a pair of jeans should cost to be ethical
Photographed by Ben Lamberty
With all the circus about fast fashion and the increasingly rare, well-paid seamstress, I regularly ask myself how much exactly a pair of jeans, for example, would have to cost to be ethically harmless. Jeans are now really available in all price ranges, some of them are so cheap that I pay more for a dinner at my favorite Japanese restaurant. Something can't be right there.
And actually it is long too late to ignore the consequences of cheaply produced jeans: in May 2016 alone, eleven people died in factories in China and Bangladesh within two weeks because of a fire or deterioration in the building fabric. Most of the production facilities are dilapidated and so poorly equipped that such incidents are no longer a surprise. So it's true: people die to make our clothes. How much do I have to pay so that I can wear my favorite denim look with a clear conscience? 50? 100? 250?
Yes, death is still an issue
First of all, a short excursion to the state of the art in the fashion industry. A report from Phuket News of May 15, 2016 warns that another Rana Plaza - the infamous textile factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed in 2013 and buried over 1,000 women workers - is imminent. Factories with locks on the emergency exits, expired fire extinguishers, and generally poor construction can be found all over Bangladesh, and in many developing nations around the world. And despite two different coalitions designed to improve conditions for women workers in Bangladesh, sweatshops still operate there and in other parts of the world, looking for every loophole to just make your clothes cheaper. On the back of the workers.
In February last year, a fire broke out in a factory in Bangladesh. Because it broke out in the morning before the work day began, no one was killed. On May 7, 2016, a textile factory in India burned and killed three people. Just 11 days later, the same thing happened in a factory in Cambodia; only because the fire broke out during the lunch break no one was killed. Another three days later, nine people lost their lives when two different fires burned out in factories in China and Bangladesh.
So it's true: people die to make our clothes.
Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP / Getty Images.
According to an expert we spoke to, it takes $ 4 in material costs to make a pair of jeans in Bangladesh. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is $ 68 a month, dressmakers there work around 50 hours a week, and jeans take around 45 minutes - so the labor costs can be estimated at just under 45 cents. Cool! $ 4.45 (equivalent to just under 4.10 €) sounds great ... but that doesn't include the rivets, zippers, factory overhead (something like controls that the machines are working properly, that there is ventilation in the factory, or, that workers are treated humanely), washing, finishing, finishing, shipping, customs duties, store overhead, marketing, and all the other little things you need to get your jeans into your hands.
"When I go into a store and see a pair of jeans for € 4.99, I really have to wonder how they do it," says Ron Balatbat, Head Designer at AG Jeans. Amie Gaines, Head Designer at Level 99 Jeans, says you can't go under € 25 or € 20 without accepting that female workers have been exploited and endangered.
So 20 € is the minimum that a pair of jeans has to cost in order to have been produced ethically, at least in theory, without the retailer making a loss or selling them at a reduced price.
But of course it's a little more complicated
There are other ways that jeans can kill.
Above all, toxins. Made from coal tar and toxic chemicals, synthetic indigo is used in 90% of all jeans from China, according to a report in The Guardian. For documentation River Blue Greenpeace activists examined water leaks near denim factories in Xintang, China, and found five neurotoxic and carcinogenic heavy metals - cadmium, chromium, lead, copper, and mercury - in 17 of 21 water and sediment samples. Other researchers found manganese in rivers, which is associated with brain damage. According to a University of Vermont study of Levi's, the cheapest dye is based on sulfur, a substance that is extremely harmful to those exposed and the environment - sulfur can still be found in wastewater even after it has been filtered. Textile workers are increasingly suffering from bladder and nose cancer, probably from benzidine, which is a component of synthetic dyes. Other chemicals such as caustic soda, hydrosulfite, and formaldehyde are also used in denim production.
Next up, we have sandblasting, a cheap, dirty way to add that worn look to your jeans. This method can be fatal for female workers because inhaling the particles can cause them to develop pneumonia. Most brands have stopped using this method, however Al Jazeera found that it was still used for brands like American Eagle and Hollister in China at least last year (American Eagle denied that they still used sandblasting and assured that the method has been phased out since 2011).
Then we have the vast amounts of water that are used to make jeans. It often affects arid areas of the world, of all places, where access to water is a matter of life and death. The World Wildlife Federation estimates that a pair of jeans will use around 11,000 liters of water in their lifetime. An average pair of jeans requires around 41 liters of water for the finishing process alone - the lion's share, 49%, goes into cotton growing.
And last but not least: conventional cotton cultivation works with pesticides and fertilizers that settle in the groundwater. According to the US National Institute of Health, an estimated 1 million people die each year from ingestion of pesticides and farm workers are the hardest hit.
Photo: Farzana Hossen / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.
Toxic chemicals, sandblasting, water consumption, pesticides, and dangerous working conditions - who would have thought that their beloved jeans could be so deadly? But there are ways some brands are addressing these issues. Sure, some sell their jeans for € 250, but others can be found for € 100.
Project Just, a website that aims to involve consumers with information on how their clothing is made, has just released its first Just Aprroved Guide. For their first list, they looked at the world of denim and introduced four brands, as well as an honorable mention, that are doing everything right to create jeans that are non-toxic, safe, use less water, workers fairly remunerated, and brings other feel-good factors with it.
Let's start with the chemicals. Kings of Indigo (starting at € 100) use natural indigo, the plant-based dye traditionally used to dye denim. Patagonia uses a new, non-toxic dyeing process without indigo that also uses less water and CO2. I know you don't think of denim when you think of Patagonia, but they have amazingly beautiful, super stretchy, almost athleasure-like jeans for just under € 100. Levi's, which are recognized by Just for their innovation, was one of the first brands to put out a list of banned substances and to eliminate these toxic substances in their products (and their production) - in addition, they have set themselves the goal of by 2020 to completely avoid the emission of toxic chemicals.
When it comes to getting the vintage look without sandblasting, the answer is: laser. Kings of Indigo use this; the unisex line Nudie Jeans relies on the new technology with the fancy name "ozone processing" to achieve its light washes.
If water is important to you, then dive into the Levi's Water> Less Line (pun very much intended) - it only uses 1.5 liters of water per pair of pants to create the used look, as opposed to 42 liters that are normally used are consumed in the process. Kings of Indigo and Patagonia also use water-saving methods. According to a study on the CO2 footprint, MUD jeans use 78% less water and 61% less CO2 in production compared to ordinary jeans. MUD Jeans are also available for just under € 100.
To avoid pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it is highly recommended that you buy jeans made from organic cotton. Patagonia and Nudie both use 100% organic cotton. Kings of Indigo use organic cotton with GOTS certification in 90% of their materials. MUD uses cotton that is either organic or certified by the Better Cotton Initiative, a fast growing non-profit that teaches farmers to use less pesticides and water. Not as good as organic cotton, but still better than conventional cotton.
And now the biggest problem: worker safety. Kings of Indigo knows all of their suppliers, provides a full list of them, and pays some workers wages to cover living expenses. They also publish their report on Fair Wear, an independent non-profit that works with companies and factories to improve working conditions for women textile workers.
MUD Jeans is a B-Corp, in other words, part of their philosophy is that they care about people and the environment as much as they care about profits. They publish the names and countries of origin of their suppliers and also the revision of one of their factories by Fair Wear. Nudie knows each of their chosen suppliers - 69% of all Nudie jeans are made in Italy, and the brand is working to pay decent wages to their workers in India too. Patagonia's sewing production is Fair Trade certified; They too know a large part of their suppliers and are working hard to become more transparent.
There you have your answer: 100 € (full price) should be about the minimum we should spend on jeans in order to hang a product that is at least probably humanly made in our closet. Of course, three-digit prices don't guarantee that your jeans weren't made under questionable conditions (unfortunately!), But they're a good first indicator that nobody had to die for them. So if you find a pair of jeans that are less than € 100 full price - especially when we're talking about the € 20 pieces - pay tribute to your sisters in China, Bangladesh, and India and leave the jeans there.
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