Blue jeans are getting uglier by the day. Around Christmas last year we wrote about environmental and social hazards associated with the “jeans capital of the world” in China. We’ve since discovered that giving jeans a distressed look, achieved by blasting them with pressurized silica, is often fatal for the people who work in jean factories. (Silica is sand and has numerous uses. China is buying up sand from Israel, for example, to use in its roads!)
Called sandblasting, Turkey banned the practice in 2009 because so many workers began to die from silicosis. Other countries such as Bangladesh, Egypt, and Mexico are reportedly continuing to allow what has killed 46 people in Turkey alone since November 2010. Further compounding the problem, a handful of brands, including Armani, Dolce & Gabana, and Matalan, refuse to discontinue sales of their “killer” jeans.
More than one organization has launched concerted initiatives to end sandblasting. One such program, the Clean Clothes Campaign, has managed to convince several major labels such as H&M, Levis, and Versace to give up their sandblasted lines.
It’s easy to see why. An excellent report from the Fair Trade Center reveals the physiological impact that silica particles, inhaled, have on the body, and the extent to which the fashion industry is complicit in hundreds of deaths.
Here is a small tidbit that might convince the most devoted fashionista to never buy another pair of sandblasted jeans:
…These [silica] particles are so tiny that they are invisible to the naked eye. The body is unable to expel the silica particles causing diseases such as silicosis. The particles penetrate the pulmonary alvcoli and connective tissue, gradually impairing lung capacity and their ability to oxygenate the blood… Silicosis is one of the oldest known occupational diseases and when fully developed, it is chronic.
In the United States, sandblasting is only permitted if silica makes up no more than 0.5% of the abrasive used to “distress” jeans, and if employees don protective wear. Other countries lack these stringent requirements.
A.K.A. Potter’s Rot
Before the ban on sandblasting took effect, 5,000 Turkish workers had already contracted silicosis in often unregistered jean factories. Caught early enough, the disease also known as “Potter’s Rot” need not be fatal. But often it is.
Despite these disturbing statistics, Armani and others have ignored pressure to give up their sandblasted clothing lines. Not only that, but they cost a small fortune. Sage Clothing in the United Kingdom advertises a pair of Armani sandblasted jeans (on sale, mind you) for more than 100 British Pounds.
Like those that took action before them, these companies will eventually be forced by public pressure to take the high road. At least, we sure do hope so.
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