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Fugitive Denim A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade; Rachel Louise Snyder; W.W. Norton: 352 pp., $26.95

December 16, 2007|David Futrelle | David Futrelle has written on culture and technology for Salon and other places.

A good pair of jeans look like they've been lived in for years. Whereas a rip or a stubborn stain on a pair of khakis will send them back to the mall, we'll spend top dollar on jeans that make us look as if we've been rolling around on the floor of the garage. Of course, most of the abuse a typical pair of jeans endures is ersatz, the result of elaborate staining and distressing treatments inflicted long before they hit the stores, in what the industry euphemistically calls "laundries."

In "Fugitive Denim," a fascinating chronicle of the $55-billion-a-year global denim industry, Rachel Louise Snyder notes that our jeans are "frayed and bleached and patched and hammered and coated with all manner of invisible treatments . . . sprayed with chemicals . . . overdyed . . . or coated in resin and baked in enormous ovens." Techniques vary: Mass-market jeans endure what Snyder calls "dye-and-destroy machines," while the high-end kind are artfully hand-damaged with sandpaper and pumice stones.

Like jeans themselves, a lot of things about the industry are not quite what they seem. Labels, for example. A pair of jeans sporting a "Made in Peru" label, Snyder explains, "might have cotton from Texas, weaving from North Carolina, cutting and sewing from Lima, washing and finishing from Mexico City, and distribution from Los Angeles." In most cases, this labeling is perfectly legal, based on creative interpretations of the garment industry's convoluted "rules of origin." The bizarre around-the-world-in-80-factories journeys our jeans and other clothes make before they end up in our closets aren't simply the result of manufacturers' skimping on production costs but also of the elaborate quota systems that limit exports from some countries and promote those from others.

"Fugitive Denim" is a hard book to categorize, neither a paean to the glories of globalization nor a diatribe against it. Rather, it's an amalgam of genres -- part expose, part history, part travelogue, part economic primer -- that comes at its subject from many angles. (In the book's epilogue, Snyder confesses that she was never quite sure how to describe the book to people while she was writing it; eventually, she just began calling it "a story about the people in our pants.")

But if the book is hard to pin down, it's also hard to put down. Snyder, an American journalist based in Cambodia, is a master of the telling detail. She picks cotton in Azerbaijan, hangs out with hipster designers in New York and Milan, meets with factory workers and labor arbitrators in Cambodia and rides along with factory inspectors in China, soaking up the atmosphere and getting to know the people so she can give us nuanced accounts of both. This is at once the book's greatest charm and biggest drawback. Her account of a day in the cotton fields alongside her native informant is grimly fascinating ("Sharp branches poke at my ankles and I can feel a mild ache beginning somewhere in my lower back"), but then how much detail do we need about, say, the moves of a "cotton-classer" on the dance floor of an Azerbaijan night club who "preens, arms darting out at elbows, legs at knees, like he is a marionette, controlled by hidden maestros"?

Much of what Snyder tells us about the jeans industry is predictably depressing. The cotton pickers, all women, are stoop-shouldered and dangerously thin, looking decades older than they are. People clock brutal hours in factories only a few notches above sweatshops, yet remain desperately poor. Snyder swats away mosquitoes in one Cambodian worker's tiny, sweltering room, as her hostess jokes, "When I'm rich, I will buy a fan."

Still, Snyder -- an optimistic sort -- finds reasons for hope. The money that the factory girls in Cambodia send back home, paltry by our standards, has raised their families' standard of living, and the girls have managed to carve out newly autonomous lives for themselves. Although abuses continue in China's sweatshops, wages have risen by as much as 40% since 2000. Workers are demanding more money and better working conditions, and strikes are common. Public outrage in the United States over sweatshops in the 1990s led several big companies, notably Nike and the Gap, to institute reforms; overseas factories now can't get contracts with either of those companies without meeting stringent conditions.

It's much harder to be optimistic about the environmental consequences of our jeans fixation. While cotton takes up only 3% of the world's agricultural land, Snyder notes, it uses roughly a quarter of the world's insecticides. The process of dyeing and "treating" the cotton involves, among other nasty chemicals, caustic sulfur dyes and formaldehyde (to help create a permanent crease or set color).

"The average pair of jeans carries three-quarters of a pound of chemicals," Snyder reports. While most are washed out long before the jeans reach the market, they're deadly to factory workers and destructive to the environment. In large part because of pollution from textile factories, many of China's biggest rivers are no longer fit for human contact; one report suggests that China's economy could implode by 2015 as its fresh water runs out. Maybe we should go back to messing up our jeans the old-fashioned way, like we did when we were kids playing in the mud.

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