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Blue Jeans: A Tainted Biography

Ever since the birth of blue jeans on May 20, 1873, by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, they have become a global fashion staple with more than 4.5 billion pairs sold every year. [1] Originally dubbed waist overalls, blue jeans were a hit from the start. By putting rivets in men’s work pants to make them much more durable, Davis was able to make an article of clothing that Strauss could entrepreneur to a larger scale. Today, jeans still live up to their age-old reputation of being the everyday layman’s reliable and comfortable pants. [2]

But the blue article hanging in everyone’s closet has a dark side that has been buried deep in history: consumerism, the idea that increasing the consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal. [3] As blue jeans have paved their way through history, instead of being purchased for their durability and comfort, they have become known for being a fashion staple. Blue jeans have also fallen into the trap of consumerism. A capitalist consumer market is beneficial for the economy as it preserves the cycle of economic growth by making people spend more money, which in turn increases the need for production and employment and incentivizes innovation. But when consumerism goes overboard, companies tend to cut corners, harming the environment and turning entire towns blue with indigo residue. [4]



One of these blue towns happens to be Xintang, China, the birthplace of one in three pairs of jeans sold globally. In each of Xintang’s 3,000 jean factories, jeans are washed to tone down the color and remove excess pigment so as not to dye the wearer’s skin.[4] These washes use vast quantities of water mixed with toxic chemicals including bleach, silica, sodium hypochlorite, and sodium hydroxide. These can burn, cause diarrhea, inflammation, low blood pressure, severe irritation, conjunctivitis damage, corneal damage, and cardiovascular collapse for those working with such chemicals. [5] Trendy wash jeans, in particular, use even more water and toxic chemicals as they are made to give a worn impression.

The dyes used in jeans are equally toxic. Jeans typically consist of indigo and several azo dyes, all of which can be carcinogenic and cause various symptoms including muscular spasms, paralysis, general weakness, and even death. [6] These symptoms are common in Xintang, but at first, workers did not correlate it to the chemicals their factories were using. Despite the river not being potable anymore, several million residents downriver still used the East River as a source of drinking water. To make matters worse, most of the factory workers are temporary laborers without a contract or health insurance. In 2011, when residents found out that the chemicals they worked with were causing these health implications, riots erupted in the small town. [7] In addition to the chemicals, jeans produce fabric fibers that also pollute the water. In fact, 1900 individual fibers can be rinsed off a single synthetic garment and end up in the ocean. These microfibers from the fashion industry make up 85% of the human-made material found on shorelines. [8]

From its birth, blue jeans were destined to not only pollute water but also waste water. Just growing the cotton to make a single pair of jeans takes about 1,800 gallons of water. The average American buys 4 pairs of jeans per year, resulting in 7,200 gallons of water used per year just for jeans for one average American. [12] But the blue jean sector is only a small fraction of the entire textile industry. 85% of water used in textile processing goes into dyeing fabrics, the majority of which pollutes local water sources, and in total, 25 billion gallons of water is required for one year’s worth of global textile production. [10]

Blue jeans also require tree-driven natural resources. Rayon is a popular fiber used in the fashion industry, including the blue jean sector. Blue jeans use rayon to help maintain their shape even after many washes and wears. [12] Rayon comes directly from tree pulp. In 2015, 5.2 million tons of rayon were produced, of which 30% originated in endangered and ancient forests in the United States, Brazil, and Laos. It is rayon, along with other materials from trees like viscose, modal, and lyocell, that caused more than 150 million trees to be logged and processed into blue jeans. [13]

Blue jeans contaminate water and decimate trees, but the consumerism driven by the popularity of blue jeans goes on to threaten yet another limited and precious natural resource: clean air. Whether commuting to buy an item in-person or delivering and returning an item online, automobiles play a large role in consumerism. As demand increases, many producers have been forced to rely on mass production which often implements harmful methods such as using toxic chemicals or producing large amounts of air pollution. Together, automobiles and factories are responsible for up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use. [14]

It is evident that consumerism has its disadvantages when it comes to saving the environment, but if society becomes more accepting of a shared economy, it may be possible for consumerism and the environment to coexist. A shared economy is an economic system where people can share access to goods and services through an online platform.[15] Some examples of shared economy businesses are Airbnb and Uber. Airbnb allows users to rent out their homes to others. Uber allows users to rent out driving services to others. In such a system, no new products need to be made as the ones already existing are simply shared. Companies like Rent the Runway, Nuuly, and Express Style implement the shared economy plan in the fashion industry. Allowing users to rent clothes from others, such companies make sure clothes are used to their full extent. [16][17] It satisfies the consumer’s need for new clothing but recycles the same materials to help blue jeans cover up its stained footprint.

A new company called Huue may be able to cover up this trail as well. Founded in 2018 by Michelle Zhu and Dr. Tammy Hsu, Huue is a chemicals company that has found an environmentally friendly alternative to indigo and azo dyes. After examining how color compounds occur in nature, the company used bioengineering to mimic plant enzymes and create a natural dye from sugar. Unlike indigo, Huue’s dye uses no petroleum, fossil fuels, cyanide, formaldehyde, skin irritants, or poisons. While the technology for Huue is still undergoing improvements, it provides a bright future for jean dyeing. [1]

Since 1873, blue jeans have been an essential member of the fashion industry. But its tainted history of toxic material use and heavy dependence on the fast fashion industry fueled by consumerism fades the true color of the blue jeans from what they were intended to be: durable, fashionable, and affordable clothing. Jeans today are not used to the full extent of their durable design, but with the help of shared economy and environmentally responsible manufacturing, instead of staining rivers across the globe, the once tainted biography of blue jeans can be re-written and passed down to a new generation living in a greener future.

Citations

1. “Home (Copy).” Huue., https://www.huue.bio/home-1.

2. Co., Unzipped StaffLevi Strauss &. “The History of Denim.” Levi Strauss & Co, 3 July 2019, https://www.levistrauss.com/2019/07/04/the-history-of-denim/.

3. Hayes, Adam. “Consumerism.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 20 Nov. 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/consumerism.asp.

4. Sally, et al. “Guangzhou Clothing Wholesale Markets – an Introduction of Shahe Clothing Wholesale Market Area: Business in Guangzhou.” Business in Guangzhou and China, 15 Apr. 2021, https://www.business-in-guangzhou.com/guangzhou-wholesale-markets-an-introduction-of-shahe-clothing-wholesale-market-area.html.

5. Brennan, John. “Toxicity of Household Bleach.” Sciencing, 2 Mar. 2019, https://sciencing.com/toxicity-household-bleach-21461.html.

6. “Toxic Plant Profile: Indigo.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 4 Nov. 1988, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-11-04-li-1326-story.html.

7. Guang, Li, et al. “The Denim Capital of the World: So Polluted You Can't Give the Houses Away.” China Dialogue, 14 May 2020, https://chinadialogue.net/en/pollution/6283-the-denim-capital-of-the-world-so-polluted-you-can-t-give-the-houses-away/.

8. “Inside the Lonely Fight against the Biggest Environmental Problem You've Never Heard Of.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Oct. 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/oct/27/toxic-plastic-synthetic-microscopic-oceans-microbeads-microfibers-food-chain.

9. Webber, Kathleen. “The Environmental and Human Cost of Making a Pair of Jeans.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 18 Dec. 2019, https://www.ecowatch.com/environmental-cost-jeans-2544519658.html.

10. Tfl. “How Many Gallons of Water Does It Take to Make a Single Pair of Jeans?” The Fashion Law, 8 Apr. 2020, https://www.thefashionlaw.com/how-many-gallons-of-water-does-it-take-to-make-a-single-pair-of-jeans/.

11. Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “Clean Water.” Our World in Data, 1 July 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/water-access#:~:text=666%20million%20(9%25%20of%20the,access%20to%20safe%20drinking%20water.

12. “Does Rayon Stretch? (with Wear, over Time, or When Wet..).” SewingIsCool.com, 6 Nov. 2019, https://sewingiscool.com/does-rayon-stretch/#tab-con-4.

13. “Deforestation for Fashion: The Cost of Rayon.” Earth.com, 20 June 2018, https://www.earth.com/news/deforestation-fashion-rayon/.

14. “Consumerism Plays a Huge Role in Climate Change.” Grist, 7 Apr. 2021, https://grist.org/living/consumerism-plays-a-huge-role-in-climate-change/.

15. Team, The Investopedia. “Sharing Economy Definition.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 19 Nov. 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/sharing-economy.asp.

16. “Put Your Closet in the Cloud.” Rent the Runway, https://www.renttherunway.com/.

17. Wardini, Laurice. “Laurice Wardini.” ClothedUp, 8 Nov. 2021, https://clothedup.com/sites-like-rent-the-runway/.



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