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Levi’s, H&M Announce Ban on Sandblasting Denim Jeans

Leon Kaye | Thursday September 9th, 2010 | 4 Comments

I had always thought sandblasting was only used in industrial applications, or for fine-tuning architectural details.  The process has existed since at least the 1870s, and does not necessarily involve sand, or silica:  sodium bicarbonate and other minerals like kieserite are used, and agricultural byproducts like crushed fruit pits or nut shells can be blasted as well.  Sandblasting is also a one-man Italian industrial music band, but one application of concern is the sandblasting of denim and other textiles.

Sandblasting is one of several techniques that apparel manufacturers use to create that worn denim look—you know, the look that takes a few years, but if you have plenty of coin to spend and do not want to wait, you can purchase worn-looking jeans that most likely have been sandblasted in some far-off factory.  Clothing manufacturers will claim that they do everything within reason to ensure that workers are protected from the nasty effects of sandblasting, but as plenty of news articles have demonstrated, what is said in San Francisco or Västerås headquarters does not always get translated down one’s supply chain.  Yesterday, two large clothing companies have pledged to implement a global ban on sandblasting in all of their future product lines.

H&M’s and Levi’s Strauss & Co’s executives believe that a move to eliminate sandblasting as an industry practice will encourage other manufacturers to do the same.  Effective immediately, both firms will no longer place new orders for sandblasted clothing, and after the end of this year, both firms promise that no active production using the technique will exist in their operations.

The ban is important because no matter how rigorously workers may protect themselves, the threat of respiratory diseases like silicosis and other health threats are a reality.  Many emerging economies like Turkey, India, and of course, China have seen the garment industry as a steppingstone to the building of wealth—and workers often pay the price.

Turkey, for example, banned the practice of sandblasting apparel in early 2009 following the death of 43 workers that investigators traced to the process.  Many Turkish workers who were interviewed claimed they never would have taken the job had they been warned about the health risks.  Meanwhile, Turkey’s labor ministry has recommended that workers affected by sandblasting be allowed to accept early retirement benefits—though many of them never contributed to Turkey’s pension plan because they worked at unregistered business that did not participate in the system.  The result:  Turkish taxpayers will end up supporting many of these workers, often young men from small towns, who will not be able to work again—some as young as 20.

Fashion is a pleasure that should not have to be guilty, though some trends, whether they are tight fitting new “worn” jeans, or sagging “worn” new jeans, are absurd.  Who knows if other chains with brand recognition like that of H&M or Levi’s will join the ban on sandblasting, but it is a solid first step.  In the meantime, if you want great looking worn jeans, that is what consignment and thrift shops are for.  Chances are you’ll find something more unique and a little less guilt free.

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