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

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.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

22 responses

  1. God, mark me in the “who knew” category. I am glad that H&M and Levi Strauss are taking action on this- it just seems so amazing to me that this practice exists at all when it’s apparently so harmful to the workers. All so our jeans can look “worn.”

    I’ve got an idea! Send home all those sick workers in the jeans themselves! They have clothes to wear for a few years and the bonus of real life Turkish soil imbedded in the creases for that totally authentic look.

    1. Thing with your idea is that it’s not very practible.
      It would mean that the companies would need a few years before they could be sold- and even then they might not be as worn as they would look if they were sandblasted.
      There aren’t nearly enough workers to wear all of the jeans that companies like H&M and Levi Strauss and Co. Even counting te fact that they will have several pairs of jeans this way, there are way too many jeans.
      Why would a company give jeans to its workers, when they could sell them, albeit at a discount?

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