In a supreme act of consumerism, we moderns have learned to buy time, that rarest and most precious of commodities. We do this in many ways, but one way that is doubly inventive is our penchant for distressed jeans. They are the ultimate symbol of purchasing an unearned identity, of paying for an imaginary personal past.
That in and of itself is worthy of exploration, but here I want to talk here about the unseen price we pay in the production of those jeans. Here is a menu of techniques used to give our jeans their pre-worn look:
[The] industry has developed a wide range of techniques [to simulate wear and tear] ... The very first distressed jeans were sold as stone-washed… washing them with a large pile of pumice stones is still common today, though it is increasingly supplemented by cellulose enzymes… One can [also] opt for acid wash, moon wash, monkey wash, show wash, white wash and mud wash. Chemicals such as potassium permanganate are applied to shift the tinting…. There is ozone fading or water jet fading. There are various forms of sandblasting, or handsanding…”
(from an article called “Buying Time” by Daniel Miller in a book entitled Time, Consumption and Everyday Life.)
Besides the fascinating awareness that we choose to walk around in clothes that proclaim a simulated life that we were perhaps too busy, unskilled or impatient to actually experience ourselves, simulated pre-worn jeans have two severe deficits:
the processes used to get the pre-worn affects are often detrimental to the health of the workers. For example, workers who use the sandblasting technique often contract silicosis, a serious lung disease;
the chemical wastes of these processes are polluting local waters and lands in the localities that manufacture the jeans.
Upon reading this, I got an idea, one that solves all the problems in one fell swoop. So I offer this as a not-so-tongue-in-cheek proposal:
Let manufacturers give new jeans to their pre-worn workers and let the workers spend a year wearing them while farming, teaching, being a kindergarten teacher, parenting, whatever they need to do to live their lives. Let the jeans legitimately get all dirty and worn and just the right touch of torn. Then collect the jeans and sell them at American malls and around the privileged world for inflated prices (just like jeans sell for now) and pay the workers a fare wage for their labor.
The benefits are multiple:
the workers/wearers will not be exposed to harmful chemicals
the environment will not suffer (no water, energy, waste will be consumed in the process other than that used by workers in their on-going daily lives)
the workers will be able to earn money wearing these jeans all the while doing valuable jobs that can truly benefit their community, thereby doubling their productivity
the jeans will have an authentic history and bear marks that carry real work and real memories
We could even get fancy and attach a photo of the prior owner of the jeans to the manufacturer’s sales tag, telling a bit about the prior owner, their town, their family, and what they did while wearing the jeans. This will personalize the pants, narrow the gap between purchaser and worker (we are seeking to do that with our local farmers, why not our jean wearers?) and can truly make a village out of the world. (That way we can more or less justify the jeans-miles-traveled so that we may clothe ourselves in pre-worn comfort and fantasy.)
This is, of course, offered part in gest and no doubt it is unlikely to be pursued or truly profitable (although half the world wears jeans; so there are lots of lesser-privileged people who could moonlight as pre-worn jean workers who can sell their services for other more-privileged members of the jean-wearing public). But as long as we are trying to live more ethically, it seems we should not be trafficking in a market in discretionary goods that harms people, water and land (which goes back to hurting people) for the sake of purchasing pants that offer us the unearned adventures of a surrogate life.
There is already enough in life that we need that leaves traces that are problematic. Being conscious of what we don’t need, and being aware of the toll such consumerism is taking, is part of the Grand Project of the 21st century.