Tube jeans die off

BAD JEANS, GOOD JEANS: "One of the most harmful products": What is behind the manufacture of jeans

BAD JEANS, GOOD JEANS: "One of the most harmful products": What is behind the manufacture of jeans

Jeans were once a hard-wearing work trousers, today they are an inexpensive fashion item. The price is paid by the environment and workers at the production sites. But more and more labels are focusing on sustainability.

Diana Hagmann-Bula

Jeans with a waistband on the navel were just in demand, now fashionable dungarees should be worn. And the stack in the closet grows by another model. According to a survey by "20 Minuten", just 3 percent of the 28,605 respondents only own one pair of jeans. 43 percent state that they have two to five such trousers, 7 percent more than 20. Jeans fans still don't rush into expenses. In some places a pair of trousers hardly costs more than lunch in a simple restaurant.

A high-risk job that is badly paid

But the jeans battle has its price. In 2012, an NDR report showed Chinese workers sandblasting - without a breathing mask and in a room with ventilation that doesn't deserve its name. A technique that comes to mind because the market demands the absurd: the new jeans should look used. Workers breathe in fine dust containing quartz, become ill and die from the incurable silicosis. In another scene, a young man bleaches trousers with potassium permanganate. The chemical is highly toxic and pollutes the waters around the factories. Making jeans is a high risk job. The compensation for this: a starvation wage and shabby accommodation.

There are other aspects that spoil the joy of jeans. For example: The once natural dye indigo is now made up of petroleum and chemicals, and is found in 90 percent of trousers imported from China, according to "The Guardian". According to UN statistics, the country produces the most jeans, ahead of Pakistan, Turkey, India, the USA, Italy and Mexico.

"One of the most harmful products"

"Jeans would be a long-lasting, valuable product," says Tobias Meier from the Basel sustainability consulting firm Ecos. But the fashion companies' greed for money and consumerism have made it "one of the most harmful articles in terms of chemical processes, working conditions and raw material consumption." Elaborate washing processes make the jeans look used, rinse out chemicals and make the pants, which are mainly made of cotton, soft. The plant also needs a lot of water to thrive. "10,000 liters of water are needed to make a pair of jeans," says Meier. In India and China, up to 90 percent of the cotton plants are genetically modified - so that they are more resistant to pests. "11 percent of all pesticides worldwide are used on cotton fields." Organic cotton is said to be the solution to most of these problems. "Meanwhile, all the big companies have such models on offer. It was noticed that things couldn't go on like this." Only the oil industry is more dirty than the fashion industry.

The development organization Public Eye, on the other hand, states that there is "no big cleanup". "After all, there are some companies that are improving," says David Hachfeld, but criticizes the fact that labels are committed to sustainability if they only introduce tiny improvements in the ecological area. "Progress can be made faster there than in the social sphere." The "mainstream of companies" continues to pay the lowest wages. According to Hachfeld, that means for a seamstress in Bangladesh: 70 francs per month for up to 14 hours of work six days a week.

Mark Starmanns from the Faire Mode network wears an eco model, the same for years if possible. An obligation if you are the editor of the "Good Jeans Guide" recommending brands that want to improve the dirty industry. Kuyichi, Kings of Indigo, Hess Natur and Nudie are on Starmann's list. In the past five to ten years, companies have tried to understand their supply chains. Large companies still find it difficult to get an overview, "not surprising with all the suppliers and sub-suppliers". However, the brands listed would "know where and how they manufacture". They mostly use organic cotton and are Gots-certified - a label that guarantees that there are no toxic chemicals involved.

Repairing jeans instead of throwing them away

Starmanns advises consumers to "give jeans a second and third life by having them mended". The Nudie brand, for example, operates a repair shop in Zurich. Or you can lease jeans: At Mud Jeans, the customer pays 7.50 euros per month and after a year decides whether to keep the pants or to exchange them for new ones. The company recycles the old couple. But the cycle is not yet fully open: Since the fibers become shorter when they are recycled, you can currently only add 20 percent recycled cotton, the rest has to be new material.

"People have to love what they buy and be careful with the world," Toni Tonnaer used to say. He founded the jeans brand Kings of Indigo (KOI) in Amsterdam in 2011. Anyone who clicks through the KOI offer on the Internet will find out where it is manufactured and with which method: "78% organic cotton, 15% recycled cotton, 5% elastomultiester, 2% elastane. Fabric from Turkey, Calik. Lasered-in look . Eco Stonewash. Eco Spray. Washed by Interwashing, Tunisia ", is the profile of slim-fit trousers.

Change of behavior instead of a one-time "donation"

Instead of just using synthetic indigo, the brand is spraying trousers with resins, says Mirco Marzola from the Glattbrugger company Hifi Brand. He sells KOI in Switzerland. "Because we do not belong to the wool-bast group, we cannot do without sandblasting entirely." Although Marzola has almost untreated pants, so-called selvedge jeans, in the collection, the used look sells better. To achieve the bleached effect, KOI use the gentler laser technology as often as possible. And wash with ozone to save water. "We are a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. Occupational safety is guaranteed."

Although not there yet: Marzola has stopped educating. "I don't want people to buy our pants as if they were donating to the Red Cross." He demands: conviction and behavior change.

This is how sustainable jeans ownership works:

  • Opt for brands (such as Kings of Indigo, Kuyichi, Nudie, Hess Natur) that use organic and as much recycled cotton as possible for their jeans. And who are GOTS-certified and a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. The labels guarantee occupational safety in the jeans factories and that no toxic chemicals are involved.
  • Why not buy selvedge jeans? They are almost untreated, do not look "used" - and therefore require less / no washing with chemical additives, rubbing or sandblasting, which makes the workers in the factories sick. Selvedge jeans have long been considered "the premier class of the world of denim" among jeans connoisseurs.
  • Have your jeans mended instead of throwing them away if they are chafed in one place
  • Doesn't sound particularly hygienic, but it is environmentally friendly: only wash jeans when really necessary. Instead, hang out in the fresh air to ventilate. Or put them in the freezer for a few minutes. "A myth that persists. I 'clean' my pants that way too," says Mirco Marzola, who sells the Kings of Indigo brand in Switzerland.
  • If you do wash, then do it gently: "Preferably with the hand wash program and not use aggressive detergents. Neither spin nor tumble the jeans. Both change the washing process and gnaw the material," advises expert Mirco Marzola. (dbu)