Blue Jeans Part III: The True Cost of Blue

Stonewashing a single pair of blue jeans takes 5 gallons of water and about a dollar’s worth of electricity.

Blue Jeans Part III: The True Cost of Blue
Photo: Tigerzeye, Creative Commons, Flickr

This may not seem like much, but in third-world countries, where most blue jeans are made, five gallons of potable water represents about ten liters, at a cost of $2. The dollar’s worth of electricity represents more than an hour’s labor, the cost of enough tortillas to feed four people, or about a third of an average household’s monthly utility bill. Most important, water is a finite resource becoming increasingly scarce in third-world countries.

Cotton grows in several colors. One is Nankeen, which produces a greenish-brown denim. Other colors, identified by the Native Cotton Project of Peru, include cream, beige, rust, brown, dark brown, mauve and avocado. As a result, there is no need to dye denim blue or any other color. Yet manufacturers continue the process, using sodium, potassium, petroleum derivatives like benzene (the basis for artificial indigo dye, and a potent cancer-causing agent), aniline and formaldehyde (used to preserve cadavers and another carcinogen in its own right). These chemicals enter regional water supplies, poisoning the earth and its people.

In the Tehuacán valley in central Mexico, where blue jean manufacture is a primary industry, the once-famous mineral springs and spas are completely decimated. Though many blue jean manufacturers have moved on to Asia and Central America (where wages are even lower), spreading pollution and illness in their wake, Tehuacán still has over 500 clothing manufacturers.

The manufacturing processes has turned local water supplies and the surrounding land toxic and blue. The earth is now sterile and any seedlings that survive the soil pollutants succumb to the toxic water. The people of the area, who once grew their own genetically-pure maize to make tortillas, must now turn to merchants selling GMO corn from American producers at double or triple the cost of corn just a few years ago.

The greatest polluters, acknowledges Martin Barrios, a Tehuacán activist, are the laundries where jeans are sent for distressing – a process that makes jeans look worn (and a fashion statement without parallel in the natural world). This process involves huge quantities of potassium permanganate, once used to induce abortion. Other chemicals include sulfur, caustic soda and hydrocyanic acid, a close relative of cyanide.

The toll on crops is visible, the human toll less so, though today’s developmentally disabled children may be tomorrow’s "welfare roll" in a country unable to provide for its currently disabled. History makes it clear that the polluters won’t pick up the tab, and the situation is the same in every third world country from China to Africa, where a job making jeans puts food on the table and poison in the water and land.

It may soon be possible to produce indigo dye via bacteria, a "greener" road to making blue jeans blue. In the meantime, cultivation of naturally-colored cotton would be a step in the right direction. Hemp (forbidden in the U.S. because of marijuana regulations) could also be used to make denim, and hemp does not require vast amounts of water, fertilizer or pesticides. Yet no large, multinational corporation has invested money to explore these environmentally-friendly alternatives.

We, the consumer, can change this by buying only certified organic cotton blue jeans, preferably those made in the U.S. Consult this page for a list of American-made jeans, but be aware that “made in the USA” (or made from American cotton in the USA) is still not the same as organic, though it’s a vast improvement on jeans made from foreign-grown, uncertified cotton in foreign sweatshops.

You can also write major blue jean manufacturers like GUESS, Levi Strauss and VF Corporation to demand they change their production methods to protect the innocent. Go to: GUESS, Levi or VF’s site and send them an e-mail.

Speak up! Nothing drives the direction of commerce like the consumer.

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

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