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© Marithé + François Girbaud 2020

"When you buy a pair of jeans, you're not actually buying the indigo or cotton."

What you are really paying for is the cost of the human labour involved in manufacturing them from free natural resources; the wages of those who picked the cotton, spun, wove and dyed it to make fabric from which the jeans were cut and sewn, packed and shipped by truck, boat, and plane to the store where you bought them (and we want to know who makes our clothes!). And don’t forget your contribution to those who built and rent the store, or those who sell the merchandise in it. 

 

What you do not pay for is the result of several billion years of nuclear fusion that preceded the formation of the sun, which led to the appearance of plant and metal components and the singular fish that emerged in the ocean. Neither do you pay for the 60 million-year-old planktonic life and geothermal energy that constitute the oil and gas.¹

 

The air and light used in denim laser treatment is still free, but for how long? The truth is, nature doesn’t charge us for the oil or photosynthesis it provides, or even for the damage we inflict on it, but if we continue on this current trajectory, the generations who follow us will pay a heavy price.

Thirty years ago, when the iron curtain was raised and I saw people from the East wearing jeans that had been treated with acid (permanganates), I realised what an enormous mistake we had made and the responsibility we shared for the proliferation of the treatments that we had helped develop. We were effectively helping to destroy the ecological equilibrium of the planet. Since 1989, we have sought alternatives to these treatments, and made it our mission to sensitise the industry to the issue. “Snow” and “acid” washes heralded the end of an era.

Through our research, we discovered it was possible to change the way we treat denim, and to make this sector of the industry cleaner. We saw that with the help of technology, we could eliminate the dangerous chemicals and manual processes that kill those working in laundries. Today it’s proven that we have viable alternatives that can save water, energy and workers’ lives all over the world.

 

We’re changing the way we make fabrics and how we treat them, and we talk endlessly about recycling and circular economies. Planned obsolescence is at the heart of the fashion system, but some sectors have gone too far, producing clothes that are so cheap they’re easy to discard, which creates mountains of indestructible, ‘throwaway’ clothing, further harming the environment. Figures estimate that only between 15 % and 20 % of textiles that have been disposed of are collected for reuse or recycling, and less than 1% of clothing is recycled back into the garment industry after consumer use.²

"What is the point of talking about the sustainability, transparency and traceability of a product when we are still driven in our pursuit of consumerism, devouring the dogma of social network influencers."

Take the announcement of the latest great discovery – the return of acid washes. Treatments from a bygone era, crimes against humanity committed when we were ignorant of the impact of what we were doing. As designers, brands and industries, we have to accept responsibility for what we do and the message we communicate. There are no excuses anymore; everyone has to be held to account.

 

These days, we know a lot about the food we put into our bodies, we have labels and measures to help us understand what we are consuming. Why would we want to remain ignorant about what we put on our bodies? International standards and methods have been established for the garment industry to audit and certify the traceability of a product, but they need to be applied.

 

 We can’t ignore the mistakes we made in the past and can’t allow them to be repeated. 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, waters are polluted and rising every day. The creative possibilities of jeans as a product are enormous, but every trend should express a new statement and vision. In the ‘60s, we made ‘destroyed’ jeans, but that was a form of protest against the bourgeois system – we had something to say; it wasn’t simply decoration

"Buying jeans is still a political act today, but for different reasons."

Extract from François Girbaud's article in the new magazine "Inside Denim" which focused on innovation, sustainability and social responsibility in the global denim industry.