Blue River, Wider Than a Mile: A Personal Look into Blue Jean Manufacturing

I love my jeans.  Weather permitting, I wear jeans most of the time.  What I wear with them will vary, depending on whether I’m going to the grocery store or into the city for the evening.  As the years go by, and I find myself having passed the 50-year-old yard line, I feel like jeans keep me from getting too old too quickly.  An illusion, perhaps, but when I put them on they still feel like me.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop wearing jeans.  If I make it to 90, I’ll still be wearing them.  They provide some continuity to my human existence; a source of comfort in an ever-changing world.  Uh, that is until I came across an article on the manufacturing of blue jeans.

CNN reported on the Pearl River Delta in China, the blue jean capitol of the world.  This river is a hub for all kinds of manufacturing but has a striking, abnormal, deep blue color to it.  It’s a blue jean river thanks to a cocktail of dye, bleach and detergent that is repeatedly dumped into it.  Of course this water runs down into greater bodies of water, water that a population of 35 million people drink once “treated.”  Ah, yes, a real thirst quencher.

The river is also home to the Chinese white dolphin, which is in actuality pink.  I began thinking about these beautiful river beings, swimming about in toxic blue fluid.  What do they make of the changes to their home?  Are they turning lavender?

I did a little more research on the manufacturing of blue jeans and found myself reading about Tehuacan, Mexico, known as the “heartland of Mexico’s denim industry.”  Here, too, the river is blue, and its waters feed the irrigation systems, mostly for corn.  So the corn is being irrigated by toxic water (is this where blue corn chips come from?) and is ultimately ingested by animals and people in Mexico and the United States.  I could be sitting at home munching on some chips and guacamole and have no clue that I’m eating my jeans.

Suddenly my good ol’ blue jeans carry with them the images of blue rivers, toxic corn and lavender dolphins (no doubt slave labor is in the mix).  This is how the world is right now.  The majority of things we eat or buy have a complex industrial scenario behind them, often involving pollution, abuse and neglect.

In an effort to walk my talk toward a better world, I decided to send an email to the jean company that makes my jeans and find out how they are manufactured.  I also wrote on behalf of the Chinese white dolphins that, by virtue of their habitat and form, aren’t going to contact the manufacturers to let them know what they’re thinking.

They responded in a timely fashion, explaining that they are extremely attuned to manufacturing their jeans in a way that has no negative impact on the environment.  They participate in the Denim Clean Water Program and “require all denim laundries to participate in this program, based on BSR’s strict guidelines. This means that the water used in washing our jeans has been specially treated to ensure that it’s safe and clean for local communities when it leaves the denim laundry.”

Having done this research, I felt slightly better about my jeans (it is hard for me to fully trust the words of any large corporation), but no less concerned about the blue river.  I began pondering if the truth behind how things are made matters to people.  We are what we buy, and the mighty dollar speaks louder than words (though words sent to a company on why you are no longer buying their product help, too).  If we continue to buy without knowing the story behind what we buy, we are giving the green light to manufacturing practices that are toxic to the natural world and to people.

Fortunately green and “locally-made” businesses are popping up everywhere.  They do the work for us in making sure we are doing no harm by our purchases.  Yet, it’s still so hard for me not to head into Target and get a bunch of different stuff I need in one place and move on.  Convenience is something I treasure.  Conscious purchasing asks a lot more of me.  The question is whether I am willing to go the extra mile for the sake of a better world.

The answer is definitely yes, though I know I won’t be able to revise all my purchasing habits at once.  Life is too chockfull these days.  Little by little is a respectable, realistic approach for me, and it seems to feed on itself.  I do what I can, more and more, and the more I do the better I feel. And the better I feel, the more I change.

My guess is there’s an overwhelming sense that toxic manufacturing practices so permeate industry that change is beyond our control.  But it’s not beyond our control.  Corporations are behaving irresponsibly, and chemical contamination is growing exponentially.  Our rivers are being destroyed; precious drinking water resources and air contaminated.  Life in all its forms is being subjected to this human-produced toxicity.  Corporations will change when consumers show a preference for things made that do not harm humans and the living Earth.  We just need to get on board.

And, as I continue to revise my purchasing habits all along the way, at least I can be me, walking around  in my jeans, knowing the company that made them has some semblance of consciousness.  We need a whole lot more of that.

“Blue River, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style some day…”

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