JEANS are trousers made from denim. Some of the earliest American blue jeans were made by Jacob Davis, Calvin Rogers, and Levi Strauss in 1873. Starting in the 1950s, jeans, originally designed for working people, became popular among teenagers.
The word “jeans” comes from the French phrase bleu de Gênes, literally the blue of Genoa. Jeans fabric, or denim, originated independently in two places; The French town of Nîmes, from which ‘denim’ (de Nîmes) gets its name, and From Dongari Killa in India, from which the name dungarees was derived.
Denim trousers were made in Chieri, a town near Turin, Italy, during the Renaissance and were popularized in the 19th century. These trousers were sold through the harbor of Genoa, at that time the capital of the independent Republic of Genoa an important naval and trading power. The Genoese Navy required all-purpose trousers for its sailors that could be worn while swabbing the deck and the denim material met this need. These trousers were laundered by dragging them in nets behind the ship, and the sea water and sun would gradually bleach them to white.
Also, Jeans (at the time known as “dungarees”), along with light-blue stenciled “cambric” shirts, became part of the official working uniform of the United States Navy in the first part of the 20th Century. A working uniform was selected to protect traditional uniforms from being soiled or torn in the ship’s rugged working environment, leaving them for ceremonial occasions. They were first issued in 1901. The same type of uniform consisting of jeans and chambray tops was issued as prison uniforms in some correctional facilities mainly because of the durability and low-maintenance of denim which was deemed suitable for the rugged manual labor carried out by inmates.
Nowadays, everyone wears jeans, but it’s not every day we think about what it takes to make that pretty blue color. In south China’s Xintang township – AKA the world’s jeans capital - More than 100,000 people worked in jeans industry that comprised about 3,000 companies in 2010. About 40 percent of all jeans in the United States come from the township. With a whopping 260 million pairs of jeans produced annually, production comes at a high cost.
Walking along the shore of the Pearl River Delta in Xintang, China, piles of trash – many of which contain scraps of blue denim – are found. The Pearl River Delta is at the center of much of China’s manufacturing industry. Its banks are lined with thousands of factories that produce huge amounts of waste, much of which gets funneled into the delta. And as the blue jeans capital of the world, a large number of the wastewater pollution comes from the production of the beloved blue textile. The satellite images of the water stained blue are particularly disturbing.
Arguably, the industry provides jobs for people who might otherwise not have one. But residents of Xintang pay a hefty toll with the destruction of their habitat and health. The process to create those sexy whitewashed denims requires several chemically intensive washes, with cadmium, lead, and mercury used for fabric printing and dyeing. In tests conducted in water and sediments surrounding the factories, traces of cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper in 17 out of 21 samples were discovered. One sample contained 128 times China’s legal level of cadmium. That means that 260 million pairs of pants distributed each year contain traces of potentially harmful chemicals. And because of poor environmental regulations, the wastewater from factories is washed into Xintang’s local river, which in turns spills darkly into the Pearl River Delta. It is also said that people who work in dyeing and washing have reproductive and fertility problems.
Things did not end this way though. On November 11, 2009, thousands of residents of Helenberg Estate, on the northern bank of the Shuinan Zhichong, took to the streets, demanding a cleaner environment. The residents’ demands were listened to, and since then, environmental protection has become one of the local government’s top priorities. The environmental protection bureau was given the right to veto investment and construction projects, suspend production and even close down polluting businesses.
The city has spent 800 million yuan ($118.96) in treating the Shuinan Zhichong, Fenghuang, Xipi, and Niushizhen rivers. A large part of the investment was used to compensate those forced to relocate from river banks. several water treatment plants with a total daily capacity of more than 400,000 tons were treating and monitoring all factory water discharge and 80 percent of household water discharge.
By taking the challenge of turning four black rivers green, Xintang is making obvious progress in reducing dye pollution in its rivers despite their annual production. Market value of homes on the banks of the Shuinan Zhichong River – once a slow moving flow of tar-like sludge – have nearly tripled since the cleanup has begun. People now are just waiting to see fish back to inhabit their river.
Next time you put on your pair jeans on the way out, you’ll know there is a worthy story behind them.