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Friday 30th of September 2022

Nairobi, Kenya

This Pair Of Levi’s Has Traveled 18,000 Miles. What It Means In Terms Of Global Inequality.

Posted On : April 2, 2022

Fashion Tribe Influencer

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The vendor hung The Jeans on his stall on a dusty street corner in a Johannesburg township early one Saturday morning. They were a used pair of Levi’s 550s. Straighten your leg. A more relaxed fit. 36″ waist, 34″ inseam Cotton, 100% cotton, in a soft, brushed blue. The hems on the left pocket were frayed, and there was a small tear above one belt loop, but The Jeans looked brand new.

The vendor knew that people who buy secondhand clothes in this area regard Levi’s as a luxury brand. Levi’s are “an American tradition, symbolizing the vitality of the West to people all over the world,” according to a message stamped on the inside of one of The Jeans’ pockets. He’d probably be able to sell them for $10.

However, The Jeans, as iconic as they are of the American West, were also global citizens. “Made in Lesotho,” said a gleaming tag stitched inside the right hip. The tiny, mountainous country, which is completely surrounded by South Africa, is approximately 250 miles away from the market where The Jeans were now hanging. Instead of a five-hour overland trip, these jeans had most likely circled the globe before being resold in southern Africa.

The Jeans’ cotton was most likely grown in one country, spun and woven into fabric in another, cut and sewn in a third, and worn and donated to charity in a fourth before arriving in South Africa, country number five.

That journey from one neighboring African country to another, via an 18,000-mile detour to the United States, is a metaphor for Africa’s role in the fast-fashion industry, as well as Americans’ role in it.

The clothing industry, which is one of the most environmentally damaging in the world, accounts for 10% of global emissions, which is more than air travel and maritime shipping combined. Meanwhile, the people who make the world’s clothing – primarily women in the Global South – rarely earn more than their country’s minimum wage, which in many African countries is less than $200 per month.
Nonetheless, the continent is increasingly bearing the burden of both manufacturing and disposing of America’s clothing.

Workers’ benefits are bare bones.
Blue jeans are possibly the most popular garment in the modern world, made from cotton, a plant fiber that has helped shape much of today’s world as we know it.

“Without cotton cloth, we would have no global economy, staggering social inequality between the Global North and South, no work for women outside the home, and no industrialization, which was all powered by slavery on expropriated and overtaxed land,” claims Maxine Bedat, author of “Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment.”

Denim was invented in a Nevada tailor shop in the 1870s and popularized by Levi Strauss & Co. as workwear for lumberjacks, cowboys, and railroad workers. Jeans had also become a leisure item by the mid-twentieth century. Today, the average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. Every year, 1.25 billion pairs are sold worldwide.

The Jeans were among them at some point in the last few years.

But first, they had to be sewn. Based on their “Made in” tag, this particular pair could have been stitched together in only one location: Maseru, Lesotho’s capital, in a scruffy industrial district of aluminum factory shells.

Despite the fact that the southern African country is a minor player in the global garment industry, jeans are big business in the country of 2 million people. Women make up the vast majority of those who work in clothing factories here, as they do nearly everywhere else in the world. As a result, The Jeans were almost certainly made by women in Lesotho.

About 100 of them, because that’s how many hands a pair of jeans passes through from the moment the roll of denim is unspooled on the factory floor to the moment it’s packed in a shipping container.

What would the first moments of The Jeans’ existence have looked like?

They would have made a lot of noise. A swarm of flies buzzes through the vast interior of a blue jeans factory. Hissing from irons The clacking and clattering of washing machines The only thing that isn’t silent are the workers, who are hunched over their machines, laser-focused on assembling a single item a belt loop, a pocket, a leg seam – in order to meet targets that number in the hundreds or thousands of pairs per day.

For more than a decade, Rorisang Kamoli has worked in Levi Strauss factories in Lesotho. She’s in her early thirties, petite, and wears thick-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses with long braids. Here’s what she’d have done if The Jeans had passed through her hands.

She’d run her fingers over the rivets, the tiny patented bronze buttons sewn to the front pockets of every pair of Levi’s, and the fly button. She’d twist each one to make sure it was secure, and she’d feel for rough, sharp edges that would make The Jeans dangerous to wear.

Years of quality control work have caused her thumbnails to split open and her fingers to become calloused. Her mind is equally exhausted as she considers the people in America who buy these jeans for $69.50  roughly half her monthly wage.

“Americans don’t care how we live to make these products; they just want to wear them,” she says.

Her cracked thumbnail is one of the things she suspects Americans overlook. Is it possible to raise two children on $150 per month? What it’s like to have a coworker killed in a protest while trying to persuade companies to raise the minimum wage to around $160 per month. When your life depends on blue jeans, the terror of seeing half the world swap jeans for sweatpants during a global pandemic.

Lesotho had a different export when Ms. Kamoli was growing up: its men went to work in South Africa’s gold, diamond, and platinum mines. However, the mines began to close in the 1990s. As new garment factories opened, the men returned, and the women went to work.

However, the new opportunities resulted in a bitter independence. “Sometimes I get irritated with jeans. They irritate me. Why should I have to work so hard for such a meager wage to create something like this?” Ms. Kamoli explains.

Africa is being inundated with secondhand imports.
Lesotho’s garment industry exists in large part due to an American trade agreement known as the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which has allowed Lesotho and three dozen other African countries to import certain goods, including clothing, into the United States duty-free since 2001.

It also means that nearly all of Lesotho’s Levi’s are headed to America. So it’s safe to assume that’s where The Jeans went next.

According to the clothing rental service Rent the Runway, Americans buy dozens of clothing items per year – an average of 68.

In the 1950s, American families spent 10% of their income on clothing and only bought a few items per year.

That figure is now 2%, but thanks to the rise of so-called fast fashion, that amount now buys nearly a new closet’s worth of items each year.

The Jeans were one of many purchases made by someone, somewhere.

Then there was the pandemic. The Jeans and their owner split up around that time. Who needed jeans when you could wear pants with an elastic waist and never leave the house? According to the online secondhand retailer, ThredUp, clothing donations increased by more than 50% in 2020.

Because the Jeans were in near-perfect condition, their owner could have been forgiven for thinking they would make an excellent donation to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army.
They might have reasoned that they would be snapped up quickly at a local thrift store, and the charity would earn some much-needed funds for its programs.

Except that’s not what happens to the majority of the clothes that Americans donate to charity, and it’s also not what happened to The Jeans.

American charity shops typically sell only 10% to 20% of the donations they receive. The remainder are collected by textile recyclers, which exist solely to make old clothes disappear.

They purchase donations from charity shops by weight and then sort them. According to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, approximately 45 percent is considered “salable,” that is, of high enough quality to be worn again. Another 50% can be recycled into rags or insulation, while the worst quality material is simply discarded.

“Watching the sorting and grading process feels a little like a visit to the slaughterhouse,” George Packer wrote of his visit to a textile recycler in Brooklyn.

70% of all donated clothing ends up in Africa. But it isn’t, as many believe, because Africans are desperate for the rest of the world’s leftovers. Many African countries had major textile industries in the decades following independence. After Western governments and global lenders began putting pressure on those countries to liberalize their economies in the 1980s, trade restrictions were lifted, and clothing imports from the rest of the world flooded in.

In recent years, some African countries have attempted to fight back. However, when an East African bloc banned the import of secondhand clothing in 2016, American textile exporters reacted predictably.

They applied pressure on lawmakers and the U.S. was threatening to withdraw from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade agreement that allows African countries duty-free access to American markets for a wide range of goods. In the end, only Rwanda, a country in central Africa, stood firm.

As a result, The Jeans most likely landed in South Africa’s coastal neighbor Mozambique. Technically, importing any secondhand clothing into South Africa is illegal – a move designed to protect the country’s own clothing factories but the rule is flagrantly ignored. Every day, truckloads of goods rumble unhindered across its border, the majority of which is destined for a single market in downtown Johannesburg.

On a four-block stretch of De Villiers Street, sandwiched between a minibus taxi stand and the city’s main train station, dozens of hawkers sell secondhand clothing from bed-sized bins: gauzy blouses, T-shirts from American 5K races, vintage dresses, and, yes, jeans.

“AmaSkinnyJean! AmaSkinnyJean!” they yell, pluralizing words with the Zulu prefix. “It’s cheap, cheap, cheap!”
The market also sells to wholesalers, such as the one who purchased The Jeans. He then drove them 20 miles north to a neighborhood whose name means “Olive Wood Forest” in Afrikaans, despite the fact that it is a patch of prairie dotted with small houses and tin shacks and devoid of trees.

Olievenhoutbosch, like many South African townships – the mostly working-class bedroom communities that huddle on the outskirts of all its cities – has a clothing market, where a couple dozen vendors set up shop on a corner near a dusty police station every weekend.

Last November, The Jeans were among the clothes available.
“How much?” a customer inquired.
The vendor responded with R150. $10.
Nelson Mandela’s face shone up from the blue and red bills as she pulled them from her wallet.

Content courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor & NFH

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