In the 1980s rips and tears in denim jeans started to become a fashion trend and by the 1990s distressed jeans were the height of fashion. Even today, fashionable teens and younger people will pay premiums to have their jeans look as though they have already been worn for years before they even try them on; in some areas a pair of properly worn yet “new” jeans of a name brand label can cost upwards of $100. One way that fashion designers get their jeans looking good and old is to use sandblasting. However, sandblasting – while effective for giving denim that worn in look – is extremely dangerous to the health of textile workers. Thankfully, many designers and retailers are starting to take a stance now against this unhealthy practice.
The Dangers of Sandblasting One of the most common ways to give jeans that worn in (and sometimes worn out) look is through sandblasting. As simple as it sounds, this involves hooking a hose up to an air compressor and then adding a pile of sanding and literally spraying the denim with sand, wearing it out long before its time. While sand itself is not environmentally unfriendly and is natural, breathing in the small particles of silicate that form naturally in sand is very dangerous for human health. The condition, called silicosis, results from these small silica particles embedding themselves in the lung tissue. Early symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss. While silicosis usually takes years to develop in workers in hazardous industries, some sand blasters in Turkey have developed the disorder in just months.
Much of these worn jeans are made of denim that comes from factories in various developing countries including Turkey and Bangladesh. Sadly, in these countries the safety of workers is not always a priority and many workers perform their duties with no protection or inadequate safety equipment. The result? Thousands of men, women and young people are developing incurable lung diseases from inhaling fine particle silicates. These problems can lead to breathing issues, lung disease and even cancer. Many of these people work in these dangerous, choking conditions for pay that is just a fraction of the United States minimum wage. One organization, the Clean Clothes Campaign, is trying to get the European Union and the World Health Organization to declare sandblasting in the textile industry a hazardous occupation, and to ban the practice.
Taking a Stand for Worker Health Many fashion designers and retail shops today are taking a stand against sandblasting their denim. In fact, in 2011 Levi Strauss and H&M both issued a ban disallowing any of their factories from using sandblasting. Other companies who have banned this dangerous practice include Armani, Benetton, Gucci, New Yorker, and Versace. The entire country of Turkey banned the practice in 2009, and other European countries are considering following suit. Additionally, retail giant Target has announced that they will stop buying sandblasted denim for sale in their stores and are working towards ending this practice by the end of the year.
Many other fashion designers and outlets are expected to follow suit, requiring that their manufacturers stop using sandblasting in any way. Obviously from an ethical standpoint we should all strive to never put the health of another human at risk simply for our own enjoyment; it seems ridiculous to think that people are dying so that others across the globe can have clothing that is in style or comfortable. But the good news is that we can save the health of textile workers and have the fashion that we desire because there are other methods of imparting that worn look on denim. Specifically, many manufacturers use lasers or scrapping to break in the denim, providing a similar affect to sandblasting.
Will the Fashion World Change? No matter what our other priorities are, be they comfort or fashion, the simple truth is that creating a healthy world must win out. In Turkey alone about 50 people have died from textile related silicosis and more than a thousand more people have been diagnosed with the disease. Add this to the unreported and undiagnosed cases, as well as cases in other countries, and the numbers are quite serious. Some companies are putting a lot of effort and money into monitoring their textile providers, ensuring that they are not sand blasting. In other areas the issue is receiving little attention and the dangers to workers continues. Every company and consumer must take the initiative to ensure that they are not part of this dangerous commercial practice.