Blue Jeans Part I: The True Cost of Blue

Blue Jeans, Part I: The True Cost of Blue
Photo: imelda, Creative Commons, Flickr
So you think you really need that new pair of designer blue jeans, huh?

Well it is a free country. However, when you make your purchase, please keep in mind the fact that fads come and go. The world and your fellow humans remain.

Blue jeans are as American as apple pie and the 4th of July. In the 1930s, they were garb for Depression-era migrants. In the 1950s they were icons of individualism and social revolt. They are versatile (the jeans worn by Okies in their search for the California gold of crops and sunshine fit James Dean imitators very well), as well as ubiquitous as current day cell phones, and a lot more durable.

At one time, all jeans were made in America. Some were assembled in union shops, which paid a fair wage. Others were made in sweatshops. Take GUESS (GES – $39.66), which until 1996 ran about 80 of these outfits in Los Angeles, employing Latino women who made less than minimum wage and no overtime. In 1996, when the women tried to organize, GUESS shut down its California factories and moved to Mexico.

Others, like privately-owned Levi Strauss (whose Japanese subsidiary trades under LVISF: PK – $20.65), have engaged in similar maneuvers. In 2002, the once-proud and singularly American brand name of Levi Strauss sold out to Walmart’s price-point war. Today, the Levi Strauss name appears on products made by foreign firms in Mexico and Asia, and Levi Strauss has become an importer rather than a manufacturer.

In fact, most blue jeans are now made overseas, where labor is cheaper and workers don’t dare complain about harsh working conditions. To do so is to lose their job, or worse.

These foreign-made jeans include not only GUESS and Levi, but many brands and styles made by VF Corporation (VFC – $79.39), including Lee, Brittania, Gitano, Chic, Rider, Rustler, and most Wranglers. VF, which has one facility in Texas, says in its corporate profile: “…approximately 32% of our domestic Net Sales in 2006 were manufactured in VF-owned facilities, primarily in Mexico and Central America, and 67% were obtained from contractors, primarily in Asia”. In other words, all but one percent of VF’s products are made overseas.

Similarly, jeans sold by L.L. Bean (a privately-held mail order company, USA Works, Lands’ End (owned by Sears, Roebuck & Co. , XETRA: SER.DE – $43.35) and Gap Inc. (GPS – $20.15) are made in China, Indonesia, Asia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Mexico, all third-world economies where even the lowest-paid job is a step up from abysmal poverty.

While the executives at the above-mentioned companies rake in astronomical salaries, some poor woman in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico labors in the heat, stink and dust of a blue jean factory for less than one dollar an hour to keep her family fed. Two pounds of tortillas – enough to feed a family of four – costs a dollar. One pound each of rice and beans (other staple foods for Mexico’s poor) costs another dollar. Meat, at $3-5 per pound, is a luxury reserved for holidays. The remaining $4 goes to pay rent, the cost of electricity, the few clothes the family can afford, and medicine.

Life is a day-to-day struggle just to survive. There is no saving for a luxury like a vacation or a new car. If the breadwinner becomes ill, or dies, the children go to relatives. If there are no relatives, they become feral, prowling the streets and stealing to stay alive. Some are as young as four. If they survive long enough, they, too, go to work to make blue jeans.

We contribute to this situation, but we can also help change it. Please read all the articles in this series to understand the environmental impacts of jean manufacture, and identify the ways we can help prevent the destruction of third-world economies and lives. Our consumer dollars, wisely spent, are the greatest weapon in the war against social injustice.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any jeans manufacturer or retailer.

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