Fugitive Denim

Rachel Louise Snyder

Buy the book »

A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade
Rachel Louise Snyder
288 pages (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)

A good way to understand the global nature of society is to look closely at one of its most mundane products – denim jeans. The Levi Strauss jeans that are on sale at the local Target store may trace their lineage to California’s gold fields, but today’s pair of pants is much more worldly. If each pair of jeans carried its own passport, it would likely bear stamps from such exotic locales as Uzbekistan and Bangladesh or India and Indonesia. Today, the denim jeans business is intimately connected to many of society’s most pressing global challenges: international trade, workers’ rights, pay equity, environmental degradation, poverty, overconsumption, and occupational safety, to name but a few.

Rachel Louise Snyder’s engaging and important new book, Fugitive Denim, tells the story of globalization by tracing the life of a pair of jeans from the fashion houses that dream up the latest styles, to the fields where the cotton is grown, to the factories where the fabric is assembled. Along each step of the supply chain the author stops to focus on the people and their stories, making the book readable and personal, rather than just a technical description of denim manufacturing.

The apparel industry has long been at the center of social change and controversy. The industrial revolution in late-18th-century England was led by the automation of the textile industry. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 young garment workers in New York City, helped spark the trade union movement and the creation of occupational safety standards. More recently, consumer boycotts have forced Nike and other clothing brands to pay closer attention to the working conditions at their contractors’ factories.

The very nature of the apparel industry puts it at the center of these critical issues. Apparel factories are labor-intensive operations requiring low capital investment. Fashions change frequently, making it easy for clothing brands to switch suppliers. As a result, many brands continuously change suppliers and countries of manufacturing in search of the lowest cost. With such constant movement, factories have little incentive to invest in better working conditions or in employee training.

Nevertheless, many major clothing brands have invested significant resources to combat sweatshops. In the wake of the bad publicity that Nike and other brands experienced a decade ago, clothing brands have put in place codes of conduct and undertaken intensive factory monitoring. Yet poor working conditions remain throughout the industry. Labor conditions are not the only problem facing the apparel business. The industry also faces charges of environmental degradation, such as the use of pesticides in cotton production and environmental pollution from chemicals used to treat denim.

Snyder offers a balanced description of these complex issues, providing examples that demonstrate that the problems and solutions are not always black and white. The author lives in Cambodia and raises questions that encourage the reader to view some of the issues in a different light. Are workers really “exploited” or have they been coached by nongovernmental organizations to use this term? Although child labor is inexcusable in the developed world, what if the child was instead forced to live on the street? Are jeans really organic if chemicals are used in treating, manufacturing, and shipping the product?

One of the problems with Fugitive Denim is that Snyder focuses most of her attention on the successes and very little on the failures. In particular, the book falls short in its description of the challenges of factory monitoring. She could have gone further in pointing out the responsibility that the clothing brands share in creating poor working conditions. For example, when a brand changes an order at the last minute, the factory’s employees have to work longer hours to meet the changed order. Factories often get mixed messages from their brand customers: The brand’s compliance representative wants the factory to meet a high code of conduct, but the brand’s buyer makes purchasing decisions only on price.

Snyder strongly believes that real change will occur only when consumers begin to base their buying decisions on the working conditions under which the jeans were made, not just on the jeans’ cut, color, and fit. Yet this sort of change requires that consumers are aware of their options and educated about the issues. Too often, consumers are not aware of these issues. Further, brand marketers are doing little to create demand for responsibly made jeans by helping consumers become more aware. The question of whether mass-market consumers will pay more for such products remains unanswered – but it’s still worth asking.

Laura Commike is a director of advisory services at Business for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit that provides socially responsible business solutions to many of the world’s leading corporations.