BIOETHICS CASE STUDY: The Ecology of Stone-Washed Jeans

What?! What's to be ethical in blue-jeans?

Bioethics is often approached through dramatic dilemmas—about hospital treatment (the right to die, or the possible right of the doctor to withhold treatment from the dying), or seemingly irresolvable conflicts between humans and other species (from the snail darter to the spotted owl). How often do we overlook the simple (and perhaps more important) cases that pervade our everyday lives?

Consider ordinary stone-washed blue jeans. Who bothers to think deeply about how they're made, or how this affects our environment? Literally, what is the ecology of jeans?

This story is about Levi's and their affiliates in El Paso, Texas—but it's important to note that the individual manufacturer is not important; it is the process itself, and that the story is genuine (just like a good pair of Levi's!).

Stone-washing denim involves two elements of concern. First, the "stones" are actually volcanic pumice. Is this worth the depletion of natural supplies (given the obvious popularity of the jeans)? In addition, the pumice dust was a major pollutant in water discharged into the Rio Grande from the apparel plants.

Second, the amount of water used to wash all this denim was substantial—an estimated 5 to 15% of all the water used by a city of over a half million! And it was all treated water, suit-able for drinking. Add to that El Paso's location in the desert, where about half the water is "mined" from underground sources that do not quickly replenish. Who monitors duties to the future generations of water users?

This particular story has a pleasant sequel. Levi's found another (chemical) process to simulate the stone-washed "look." In addition, the apparel companies now treat and recycle their wastewater. Water use has reduced dramatically. It is a model of how to take responsibility for the ecological consequences of one's own actions. It is a step towards sustainable practice.

Even so, garment industries still rank #8, 9, 10, 11, 14, and 16 among the top water-users in El Paso—using over one billion gallons of water in a year. What's the value of water for jeans?

But the jean story continues. It also includes the earlier history of the very cotton that is spun and woven into the denim fabric. Cotton has strong agricultural demands. One student from a cotton-farming family described the importance of pesticides to his peers: you have to spray once before the seedlings emerge, to reduce competition from weeds, and then again, just before the boll appears, to reduce the impact of weevils. What happens if you don't spray? His answer was sure: "you lose the crop." That view may not account fully for available alternatives, but it does underscore how environmental issues and values permeate the very "fabric" of a pair of jeans.

Finally, consider all the energy in the process: running the farm machinery, spinning the fiber, weaving the fabric, sewing the jeans— and transporting everything one place to another, to another, to the retail store. If the Valdez oil spill raised our consciousness about oil and the environment, we might well look for the reasons in products like our jeans.

Does this mean one should boycott Levi's? One would have to boycott Gap, Polo, DNKY, Kmart, etc., too. The lesson may not be in the specifics, but in the syndrome.

The case of blue jeans raises more general questions. Should we consider any manufac-turing process that is not sustainable ethical? What other everyday products hide their ecologies? For example, what is the environ-mental impact of a ballpoint pen, or a tube of toothpaste, or a cup of coffee (see below)? Will more technology save us?

The recent controversy over labor in making Nike shoes demonstrates vividly that even common, unassuming goods can connect us to persons living half a world away. Jeans, too, connect us to our environment. And isn't that one of the fundamental lessons of ecology: the great interconnectedness of all things?


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