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When A Pair of Jeans Costs Less Than Breakfast, We’ve Got A Problem

by: Rosie Dalton | 4 years ago | Features

Image: Nobody Denim is a Melbourne-based label which makes all of its product in the same Melbourne factory it has since the '90s. It's also accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia, which means you can rest assured the people who made your jeans are treated fairly.

In her book, Wardrobe Crisis, fashion journalist Clare Press explains that a pair of jeans should never cost less than a cooked breakfast. Even though this is a concept with which we have become increasingly familiar over the past decade or so. It is not unusual, for instance, to see denim on sale for as little as $20 today. And that’s before we’ve even made it to the bargain bin. But in many cafés across Sydney, my eggs and coffee would set me back more than that. So what is wrong with this picture, then? Apart from the fact that the retail price of those jeans is vastly disproportionate to the actual cost of producing them.

When the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 claimed the lives of more than a thousand people, many of us thought that things would have to change. Perhaps this is something we even accepted as a given, believing big fashion businesses simply must have updated their policies in the wake of such a catastrophe. But, mostly, we would be wrong. “Six months after Rana Plaza, CNN reported that things were running much as they were before the disaster for Bangladesh’s four million garment workers,” Press explains. “Stupidly low pay, cramped, dangerous conditions and less-than-zero rights. If you’re shocked, ask yourself how your new jeans can possibly retail for twenty bucks after import, tax, marketing and store mark-ups. The big brands will tell you it’s because of economies of scale, but they would say that wouldn’t they?”

After Rana Plaza, the cost of those cheap jeans didn’t seem to go up, so it stands to reason that their production journeys didn’t get any better for the garment workers either. If fast fashion companies are just telling us what we want to hear, then, and sweeping everything else under the rug, it’s time we started asking our own questions about where our denim came from and how it can possibly be so cheap. Today, the global denim industry is worth approximately $60 billion dollars — and that figure is growing all the time. Along this spectrum, we now see everything from $500 pairs of jeans to their $20 counterparts. But it also isn’t enough to just judge our jeans on price alone. We actually need to go to the brands behind the pairs and find out what they’re doing to ensure their denim doesn’t cause any unnecessary harm.

Buying ethical denim is perhaps one of the most important places you can start when trying to become a more sustainable shopper. Because, by their very nature, jeans take a great toll on the environment. Which comes down to the fact they are primarily made up of cotton; a fibre notorious for its environmental harm. Not only does cotton production consume extreme quantities of water — having actually been responsible for the destruction of Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea, formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world. But it is also heavy on the pesticides and insecticides, too, when it isn’t grown organically. The Guardian points out, for example,that “just 2.5% of farm land worldwide is used to grow cotton, yet it accounts for 10% of all chemical pesticide use, and 22% of insecticide use. Clearly, its environmental impact is vastly disproportionate to its actual growth.”

With that in mind, then, supporting businesses that are trying to make a difference to the way we produce denim is not only good for our wardrobes, but good for our world as well. And the World Wide Fund for Nature really puts this into perspective for us, explaining that “it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.” So, given that jeans make up a crucial part of our everyday wardrobes, wouldn’t we be much better off making them count? To do this, we need to seek out brands that are known for their positive approach to making jeans that look good and are good too.

Melbourne’s own Nobody Denim is a great example of a brand trying to make a difference. Not only does the company encourage transparency, openness and honesty, but they also use the best possible materials and support ethical labour practices in the process. For instance, Nobody is committed to manufacturing onshore here in Australia, which allows them to be both responsive and responsible. Accredited by Ethical Clothing Australia, they also work closely with the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) in order to maintain an ethical workplace and ensure everyone involved in making their jeans enjoys a fair wage and safe working conditions. Plus, their jeans are really, really good-looking.

So next time you find yourself faced with the temptation of that $20 pair of jeans, consider treating yourself to the eggs instead. And saving up for an ethical pair like those crafted by Nobody Denim. It’s important to remember here that the price tag of a garment doesn’t always reflect its cost. Which is to say that just because you could buy a pair of jeans for less than breakfast, doesn’t mean you should — its social costs far outweigh its material ones.  In reality, nothing comes that cheap and somewhere along the line, a real life person probably had to suffer in order to craft those jeans you can buy for so little. With that in mind, then, an ethical pair not only has the power to make us look good, but feel good too. Supporting a company like Nobody means you are also supporting the local workers employed to produce their denim. Denim that is not only super comfortable and built to last, but which also checks five of our Well Made Clothes values. So once the principle of cost per wear comes into play, these modern cuts and premium fabrications are really just a good investment.

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