The Well Spent Book Club: Fugitive Denim

In her book, Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade, author Rachel Louise Snyder defines Globalization as a “subversive ecosystem,” composed of many, many complex interdependencies. However, instead of trying to strip away that complexity, Fugitive Denim is an attempt to elucidate it with an extended, hyper-detailed case study. By tracing the arc of something so commonplace that it may as well be the global uniform – blue jeans – Snyder, an investigative journalist by trade, gives us a powerful lens through which to see globalization as people, places, and processes, rather than some abstract concept we vaguely understand.

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From the politics of cotton subsidies and the challenge of irrigation in Azerbaijan, to production facilities in Shenzhen and hip boutiques in New York City, Snyder gives us an exhaustive look at denim from seed to sale. The globe-trotting story she tells, however, is far from a mechanical accounting of an industrial process. The power of her work comes from the individuals she meets and the stories she tells about their lives. Globalization the concept is abstract; globalization the process is absolutely, unequivocally human – and sometimes totally absurd and infuriating.

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I was particularly struck by the story of Nat Ouk, a young Cambodian woman forced into demoralizing factory work to support her mother and siblings after her father’s death. Globalization isn’t an abstract force when Snyder recounts Nat’s words. “I believe life is over for me now,” the young woman tells Snyder. “I cannot find a word to describe my worry.” By largely avoiding sweeping generalizations, and focusing instead on the people that make up the process, Snyder’s story of blue jeans in the global market becomes an incredibly affecting narrative.

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The real power of Snyder’s work, however, is that it isn’t limited to the tragic, intensely human stories of young sewers and cutters (although that alone would make it more powerful than most textbooks on globalization). Snyder also manages to address the environmental impact of cotton (the most pesticide-intensive crop on the planet, with nearly three-quarters of a pound per pair of jeans); the health impacts of farming, including debt-induced suicides across India; the absurd façade of corporate responsibility and production monitoring; and the frustrating ineffectiveness of international treaty regulations. Through it all, Snyder maintains the focus on individuals over broad assertions. The title says the book will be a “story of people and pants”, but the lesson of Snyder’s work is that pants are people, and that getting dressed in the morning is one of the last steps in a dangerous, global process.

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Given how thoroughly she digs into the process of designing, producing, shipping, selling, and buying jeans, it feels mean-spirited to criticize her for not going far enough. Still, I would have liked to see her tackle the post-purchase life of denim. Some denim is recycled into no-VOC home insulation, while other pairs of jeans are donated and resold at thrift stores, while others are baled en masse and shipped back to the developing world, where some claim the large-scale donations are putting local craftsmen out of work. These industries, I imagine, have just as many human stories to be told.

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Overall, the book is incredibly engaging, and like a good journalist should, Snyder manages to make us feel both infuriated and hopeful. She ends on a pragmatic note, challenging readers to buy less and buy better. Without pulling the punch, she pointedly asks “who needs five pairs of jeans anyway?”

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Some questions for discussion:

  • There are very few places in the book where Snyder brings us, the readers, to task for our role in the global denim trade. Does she let us off too easily? Should she have demanded that we do more?
  • Nick Kristof (far from a heartless free-market libertarian) famously argued that the developing world needs more sweatshops, not fewer. Is Snyder unfairly using western lifestyles as the point of comparison for garment industry workers, rather than acknowledging (as Kristof does) that the actual alternative might be even more dangerous and degrading?
  • Does her work convince you that a US-based system of production (cotton grown in Texas, denim woven at the Cone Mills plant in North Carolina, jeans sewn in Brooklyn, for example) can avoid the challenges of globalization? What might a sustainable model of producing denim look like? Is there one?

For next month’s book club, we’ll tackle Benjamin Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. In this book (which is the follow-up to the fantastic Jihad vs. McWorld), Barber takes a hard look at the role of marketing in capitalism and asks whether our consumer “needs” are a giant dupe.

J.D. is an environmental consultant in the New England region. He has worked on issues of sustainable development and green consumption for more than a decade, advising companies in the US and Southeast Asia.

  • Sarah

    I wish I had read this book. Because I haven’t, my input is less informed.

    But I appreciate your prompt to think critically about realistic alternatives to sweat shops – ones that consider the impact of removing a sweat shop from an impoverished and unstable community. I think this point is often ignored among conscious consumers – especially in menswear, where there is a preference for exclusively buying American. (Not that it’s bad to seek out and support US-made goods; but this strict policy can be myopic.)

    Kristof has a point that can’t be ignored. Sweat shop work is surely a step up from garbage picking. But I wonder if the resources dedicated to building a manufacturing plant in an economically devastated area might be better allocated to a more humane, sustainable form of development? I’m sure that’s easier said than done. But I’d be interested to know what kind of alternatives are viable – meaning they truly improve local living conditions, they are approved by local leaders and decision-makers, and they support community-wide empowerment.

    I can’t help but think that one variable has the most power in the complex system of globalization: US consumer demand. Our thirst for new products, and more products (which also means affordable products so we can collect more), drives pricing, speed of production, and quality of production. Unless that changes, I don’t see much happening in the world of retail and manufacturing.

    Thanks, JD, for the thoughtful questions.