If Your Jeans Are Cheaper Than This, You’ve Got A Problem

Photographed by Ben Lamberty
Call me macabre, but I would really like to know how much jeans cost that guarantee their makers weren't maimed, poisoned, harassed, starved, or even killed in the process. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I know that’s no fun. But it’s a question that just keeps popping up no matter how much I try to not think about it.
I guess it stems from the fact that I consider myself a feminist. And it would be hypocritical to talk about women’s empowerment, but not support the women bent over their sewing machines for 12 hours a day making my fashion (as critics of Beyoncé’s allegedly sweatshop-made fitness line have pointed out). Then again, I’m not trying to spend my entire budget on one pair of £200 premium, Japanese, indigo-dyed, raw selvedge jeans. Is there a sweet spot between sustainable status-symbol jeans that cost hundreds, and the cheapest of the cheap?
Yes, Death Is A Thing
First, a little bit of soul-searching about the state of the fashion industry. A Phuket News report that came out on May 15 warned that another Rana Plaza — the infamous Bangladesh garment factory that collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,000 workers — is just waiting to happen. Factories with padlocked emergency exits, expired fire extinguishers, and poor construction are everywhere in Bangladesh, not to mention in developing nations around the world. Despite efforts by two different coalitions to improve the safety of garment factories in Bangladesh, sweatshops are still operating there and globally, cutting every corner they can to make you clothing as cheaply as possible. And workers are paying the price.
This February, a fire broke out in a Bangladesh factory. Because it was in the morning before the workday started, no one was killed. But on May 7, another fire ignited an Indian garment factory, killing three workers. On May 18, it happened at a Cambodian factory; the only reason no one was killed that time was because it started during lunch break. Three days later, nine workers were killed in two separate fires in China and Bangladesh.
So yes, people die making our clothes.
The Short Answer...
According to one industry expert I talked to, it takes £2.75 in just fabric to make jeans in Bangladesh. And if minimum wage in Bangladesh for garment workers is £48 per month, and if sewers work for 50 hours a month, and jeans take about 45 minutes to sew, labour costs would only be about 42 pence per jean. Cool, £3.20 jeans sound great…but that doesn’t include rivets, zippers, factory overhead (such as making sure machines have safety features, the rooms have ventilation, and workers are being treated humanely), washing, finishing, distressing, shipping, tariffs, store overhead, marketing, and all the other sundries that go into getting jeans into your hands.
“When I walk into [a store] and I see a pair of jeans for £15, I scratch my head because I have no idea of how they do it,” Ron Balatbat, head designer at AG Jeans, told me last year. Amie Gaines, head designer at Level 99 Jeans said that you can’t go below £15 and have jeans that are made without the risk of exploiting and endangering workers.
So, unless these cheap jeans are sold at a loss to the retailer, or it’s on markdown at a consignment shop, £15 is the presumptive minimum ethical threshold for jeans.
But, Obviously, It's More Complicated
There are other ways jeans can kill, besides the obvious factory fires and collapses. (As if that weren’t enough.)
First, there are the toxins. Synthetic indigo dyes, which are derived from coal tar and toxic chemicals, are used in 90% of jeans made in China, according to a report in The Guardian. As part of a documentary called RiverBlue, campaigners from Greenpeace tested the outflows near denim factories in Xintang, China, and found five neurotoxic and carcinogenic heavy metals — cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper — in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples. Other campaigners found manganese, which can be associated with brain damage, in the rivers. According to a University of Vermont report on Levi’s, the cheapest type of denim dye is sulfur-based, which is extremely damaging to the health of people exposed to it, and to the environment — it tends to remain in wastewater even after treatment. Textile workers have been shown to have high rates of bladder and nose cancer, likely because of benzidine, a chemical compound in synthetic dyes. And more chemicals like sodium hydroxide, hydrosulfate, and formaldehyde are used in the denim manufacturing process.
Next we have sandblasting, a cheap and dirty way to get that worn look for jeans. It can be lethal to workers, who can develop silicosis from inhaling the particles. Most companies refuse to use this process, but as of last year, Al Jazeera reported it was still being used in China for labels like American Eagle and Hollister (the company has since denied that it still employs that method).
Then, there’s the sheer amount of water used to produce jeans, often in parched areas of the world where water access is a matter of life or death. World Wildlife Federation has estimated that a pair of jeans consumes 13,000 litres of water during its life, which is equivalent to almost 24,000 bottles of water. An average pair of jeans uses around 11 litres of water just in the finishing process, but the lion’s share — 49% of that H2O — goes to growing the cotton.
Finally, growing conventional cotton requires the use of pesticides and fertilisers, which run off into the water supply. An estimated 1 million people die from pesticide ingestion and exposure every year, according to NIH statistics, with agricultural workers around the world being the most at-risk.
Photo: Farzana Hossen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
...The Long Answer
Toxic chemicals, sandblasting, water usage, pesticides, and dangerous labor conditions — who knew the beloved jean could be so lethal? But there are ways in which certain brands are addressing these problems. Sure, some sell pairs at the £200 price point, but others cost as £60.
Project Just, a website that empowers consumers with information on how their clothes are made, just released its first Just Approved guide. For this debut list, Just did a deep dive into the world of denim, and came up with four brands, plus one honourable mention, that are doing everything right to create jeans that are non-toxic, in safe conditions, using less water, by people paid a fair wage, among other feel-good things. (Full disclosure, I was on the committee that chose the denim brands.)
Let’s start with those chemicals. Kings of Indigo (starting at £80) uses natural indigo dyes, the plant-based dye traditionally used to colour denim. Patagonia employs a new, non-toxic dyeing process which uses even less water and CO2, without natural indigo. (I know you weren’t expecting Patagonia to be into denim, but it makes surprisingly attractive, super stretchy, bordering-on-athleisure jeans for £70.) Levi’s, which got a nod from Just for its innovations, was one of the first apparel companies to establish a “restricted substances” list, which bans dangerous chemicals from its products (and production), plus commit to getting to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.
When it comes to getting that vintage look without using sandblasting, the answer lies in lasers, which Kings of Indigo uses, or the new technique called "ozone processing," which the unisex line Nudie Jeans uses to get that light wash.
If you’re concerned about water, dip into Levi’s Water>Less line, which uses as little as 1.5 litres of water to get the worn-in look, as opposed to 42 litres for a normal pair of jeans. Kings of Indigo and Patagonia also use water-reduction techniques. And according to a carbon footprint study, compared to an average pair, MUD jeans (not to be confused with your middle school fave, Mudd) uses 78% less water and 61% less CO2 to produce. Those retail for £80 as well.
As for avoiding pesticides and chemical fertiliser, the best way to do that is to buy jeans made with organic cotton. Patagonia and Nudie both use 100% organic cotton. Kings of Indigo uses Global Organic Textile Standard-certified (GOTS) organic cotton in 90% of its materials. GOTS is the leading third-party certification system for organic cotton, and is a great indicator that you’re getting something sustainable. MUD uses cotton that is either organic or through Better Cotton Initiative, a rapidly expanding nonprofit that trains farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and water. It’s not as good as organic, but it is, erm, better than regular cotton.
And now to the biggest problem: Worker safety. Kings of Indigo can trace its supply chain, shows a full list and map of suppliers and pays some workers a living wage. It also publishes its report by Fair Wear, an independent, non-profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labor conditions for garment workers.
MUD Jeans is a certified B-Corp, which means it’s written into the brand's bylaws that it cares as much about the environment and people as it does about profits. It shares its first- and second-tier suppliers’ names and countries, as well as the results of an audit on one facility by Fair Wear. Nudie is intimately acquainted with its entire supply chain — 69% of Nudie jeans are made in Italy, and the brand is implementing a living wage at its Indian manufacturer. Patagonia is Fair Trade certified for its sewing production; it knows all of its first-tier suppliers, many second, and is working hard on mapping its entire supply chain.
So there is your answer: £70 (full-price) for jeans should be the rule-of-thumb minimum between the likely ethically problematic and the potentially humane. While a three-figure price alone won't necessarily guarantee that your denim isn't made under poor conditions, it's definitely the first, clearest sign that your jeans didn't kill someone. If you find a pair of jeans that is selling full retail price for below £70 — and especialy £15, do your sisters in Bangladesh, China, and India a solid and walk away.
Further reading
... or find everything in 'Fashion Conscience' here.

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