February 11, 2008 —
Americans spend around $16 billion dollars a year on blue jeans, most of which are now made overseas. But if you're curious about where your jeans really come from, the words "made in Bangladesh" are probably telling you only the end of a story that spans thousands of miles, touching the lives of people in as many as five or six different countries.
Writer Rachel Louise Snyder lives in one of the countries that is often right in the middle of the global denim supply chain: Cambodia. For two years she followed cotton pickers, textile workers and sewers in an effort to capture every step of the process that brings that classic American look to Target for $24.99. Unsurprisingly, as the price of jeans has gone down in the last three decades, the environmental costs have skyrocketed.
Snyder recently adapted the award winning report she did on the subject for This American Life, into a full length book: "Fugitive Denim." It's not the depressing tale of sweatshop abuses you might expect — in the case of Cambodia, pay and working conditions for textile workers have improved dramatically since a decade-old free trade deal with the United States banned sweatshops in the country. Much as with many of the other questions raised in this era of global trade, calculating a sum of positives or negatives that blue jeans bring to the world is as complicated as the journey they take to our stores.