Thirty years after Neil Diamond released his ode to denim, the phrase Forever in Blue Jeans still strikes a chord.
What would rock stars wear if jeans didn’t exist? What would you and I wear?
I can’t remember the last time I wore something other than jeans. Maybe a pair of shorts one hot summer day, a dress in July for a wedding…
I’m no rock star, but I consider jeans my personal uniform. Ever since I bought my very first pair with my own money at the age of 13, my identity has been tied to one pair of faded Levi’s or another.
Part of what I like about jeans, and Levi’s especially, is their ordinariness; they are functional, straightforward, lacking in pretension.
They are also durable, stain-resistant and, above all, reliable. Year after year, they are the same: two square pockets in the back; legs that go straight down, without much fooling around; industrial copper rivets reinforcing the seams, same as the original 501s.
Blue jeans suggest inclusiveness without the short-term trappings of trendiness.
“They made you distinctive yet free from the fear of looking odd,” as David Ransom, co-editor of New Internationalist magazine puts it.
Well done, Levi Strauss.
For decades on end, billions of people have tied their identities to your 155-year-old invention. You have made blue jeans a global institution — and they, in turn, have made Levi Strauss & Co. the largest garment company in the world.
Was it brilliant marketing or luck?
A few things have remained constant about jeans, however: they have been made with cotton, and they have been made using cheap labour.
Before the first pair of Levi’s, denim had been around in the United States since the days of slavery.
Workers wore cotton “jean” or “denim” cloth because the material was strong and took a long time to wear out.
In California during the Gold Rush, miners wore them for the same reason.
Leob Strauss, who later changed his name, patented the durable denim pant design with its copper rivets in 1873 in partnership with a tailor who bought fabric from Levi Strauss & Co., but who couldn’t afford to patent his own product, which in those days were called “waist overalls” (and would continue to be until 1960).
Strauss died in 1903, but his company continued to thrive. By the 1920s, Levi’s jeans were the leading product in men’s work pants.
And when in the 1930s Hollywood cowboys such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper started donning them on screen, the pants rose to mythic status.
By the 1950s, Levi’s jeans had earned a ‘bad boy’ reputation thanks to Hollywood, which this time had its blue jeans covering the behinds of motorcycle heroes and rebels without a cause.
Especially among young people, the rebel reputation stuck. And it lives on, to the delight of jean companies everywhere, more than half a century later.
Now, let’s talk about the real ‘bad boy’ stuff behind the myth.
Jeans are made of cotton. And cotton crops, spread across five per cent of the Earth’s cultivable surface, are sucking communities dry of their water and causing them hunger.
It is also shrouding them in poison; cotton is responsible for one quarter of the world’s pesticide use and one million cases of human poisoning every year.
You would think in this highly technological age, jeans would be made in factories by machines, but that couldn’t be further from the truth — most jeans are made by young women using their own machines in their own homes.
Hundreds of thousands of home sweatshops are behind Levi’s and other designer jeans that we buy for the sake of fashion.
Because making jeans is so labour-intensive, jeans are made where the wages are the lowest in the world — Guatemala, Bangladesh, the Philippines.
They are also stitched in the immigrant ‘rag trade’ areas of Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Sydney and London.
Compared to other jean companies, Levi Strauss & Co. looks positively saintly in terms of its public labour and environmental records.
In 2006, it introduced a variety of organic cotton jeans, some of which included recycled buttons, rivets and zippers, and natural indigo dye, and which were packaged with organic fabric or recycled paper and printed with soy-based ink.
When human rights violations occurred in its factories in Burma and China, Levi’s promptly withdrew its production contracts.
When child labour was discovered in Bangladesh, Levi’s offered the exploited children education.
However, when higher labour costs began to hurt the bottom line, Levi’s returned to China, assuring the public it had found factories willing to adhere to its strict code of conduct, a code it refuses to open to independent monitoring.
Even where the conditions are known and accepted by the rest of the world, the practices can be inhumane.
In Mexico, a country engaged in Free Trade with Canada and the US, a woman sewing Levi’s jeans makes $1.75 per hour. Compare that with the CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., who makes $12,000 per hour. And the company in general; in 2005, Levi’s profits topped $4 billion.
Companies with considerably worse reputations than Levi’s include Guess?, Tommy Hilfiger and Dickies. All three are union busters who fire workers when they try to unionize to improve their wages.
But don’t despair. If, like me, you’re identity is inextricably tied to the kind of pants you wear, there are alternatives, such as hemp jeans and organic cotton jeans, and best of all fair-trade organic jeans, all of which you can find on the internet.
They probably won’t look like Levi’s.
But after 135 years, it’s probably about time we changed brands anyway.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.