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Shelf Life

How many countries are in your jeans?

Kai Ryssdal Jan 29, 2008
Shelf Life

How many countries are in your jeans?

Kai Ryssdal Jan 29, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: The International Monetary Fund announced its best guess for 2008 economic growth today.

It isn’t exactly breaking news to tell you worldwide GDP’s gonna be a little bit slower this year: down 0.3 percent to 4.1 percent overall.

The IMF says nobody’s going to dodge at least some fallout from the U.S. subprime meltdown. It’s one more indicator of how truly global the economy really is.

Another indicator might be your blue jeans. Rachel Louise Snyder follows tells the story of a pair of pants the global marketplace in her book, Fugitive Denim.

Ryssdal: Rachel, nice to have you with us.

Rachel Louise Snyder: Thank you. Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: So listen, bear with me for a second, would you?

Snyder: Sure.

Ryssdal: Alright, if I take my jeans off right now and look at the label inside — I’m not actually wearing jeans, but if I were — it would only really have one country as the “made in” label, right?

Snyder: Probably. I have to say, I’m so tempted to ask you if you’re… you are wearing pants right?

Ryssdal: I am actually wearing pants — the beauty of radio — but just for the sake of it, if it was jeans, only one name in that label. What’s the real story behind that?

Snyder: Well, really, it’s not representative of the number of countries involved. You’ll have the cotton grown in a place like Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan — and in my book, it’s Azerbaijan — and maybe Turkey and then that’s woven, all the cotton from those countries is woven for consistency into one large roll of fabric and then its dyed in a different country like Italy and then sent maybe to India, where it might be cut, and then sent somewhere else. But you might have six or eight different countries involved in that process because of the way trade rules are set up.

Ryssdal: How do we then, as American consumers, who want the cheapest prices but the best quality products… I mean, is there a way for us when we go to the store and finger through all these jeans… I mean, we can’t possibly know all this.

Snyder: No, that’s the real disappointing thing is that we’ve now come up with these standards for food where it has to say where our food is processed and where it’s grown, but we don’t have those same standards for clothes and I think we need to. There is some ministry movement toward more accurate representation, but as of yet, no law.

Ryssdal: We are now so conscious in this country of the pesticides on our foods and where they come from and organic everything… you couldn’t if you tried do that with clothes because, first of all, they are so chemically involved, but also it’s so obscured by the route that they take through the global economy.

Snyder: That’s true, that’s true. It’s been said that there are three-quarters of a pound of chemicals used in the production and manufacture of our jeans. A lot of those chemicals are washed off by the time they get to our shelves, but they do have to go somewhere. I think the environmental consequences are far graver.

Ryssdal: Is there a moment in time that stands out for you in the lifespan of this book — not, that is to say, of the two-and-a-half years you spent writing it, but a moment in time of the life cycle of this product?

Snyder: One of them, I would have to say, was just sitting out in the countryside in Cambodia with this garment worker after I’d known her for about two years and connecting all that she did in the factory to all that she was able to give to her family. You know, they had a big house, they had all these cows, they had a fish pond, they had a vegetable garden, all kinds of things that they never had.

Ryssdal: All because of a pair of blue jeans.

Snyder: Yeah.

Ryssdal: When you really sit down and think about it, do you think they are happy and pleased with their role in the life cycle of the pair of jeans I have on right now?

Snyder: I would say that they are more satisfied professionally, but I would say that lives are more complicated than just simply profession. And so there’s things like, with the Cambodian women, you know, they still live in a misogynistic, patriarchal society. So they still have to contend with the fact that they’re expected to go off and put their brothers through school, but they themselves may never have a chance at education. So in that way they’re unhappy, but I think they’re happy to be earning money.

Ryssdal: You’ve heard Rachel Louise Snyder on the program before. She’s got a new book out. It’s called “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade.” Rachel, thanks a lot for your time.

Snyder: Thank you Kai.

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