Sandblasted jeans: Should we give up distressed denim?

Workers at a sandblasting factory in Bangladesh in March 2010. Photo by Allison Joyce.

Jeans with a distressed, already-worn look have been popular since the 1990s, but one way the effect is achieved is by blasting them with sand - and this can give factory workers an incurable lung disease. So should we stop buying them?

"I have difficulty breathing... When I return from work I feel so tired. My eyes are in pain from all the dust," says an 18-year-old worker at a garment factory in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is home to more than 4,000 clothes-making factories and many of the world's leading jeans companies use factories based there.

The worker, who agreed to speak anonymously to the BBC World Service, says he works 11 hours a day in the choking atmosphere, to earn a salary of $70 a month.

"I know the effects this is having on my health, but I continue to do it because I need to feed myself and my family," he says.

Start Quote

It hasn't become a big scandal in the way it should have done”

End Quote Sam Maher Clean Clothes Campaign

"I am a poor man, so I do this to survive."

Manual sandblasting of jeans requires just a hose, an air compressor and sand - workers literally blast the jeans with sand, to give them a worn look and to soften the denim.

Silicosis is caused when small particles of silica dust from the sand embed themselves within the lungs.

It causes shortness of breath, coughing, weakness and weight loss. It's incurable - and in its acute form, fatal.


Last year, Levi Strauss & Co and H&M publicly announced a ban on sandblasting of their denim.

After lobbying from campaign groups, many other companies have followed suit, saying they have either banned sandblasting from their supply chains, or are in the process of doing so.

But this is not always easily done.

Brands that have banned sand

Sandblasting of a pair of jeans at a factory in Bangladesh in March 2010. Photo by Allison Joyce
  • Armani, Benetton, Bestseller, Burberry, C&A, Carrera Jeans, Charles Voegele, Esprit, Gucci, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co, New Yorker, Mango, Metro, New Look, Pepe Jeans, Replay, The Just group, Versace
  • Some companies say sandblasting does not occur in their supply chain, but have not publicly banned it
  • Others say they will soon stop ordering sandblasted jeans

Companies in the garment industry tend not to own the factories that make their clothes, and work is often sub-contracted out from big factories to smaller, less well-regulated ones.

"We are still in the very early stages of the ban," says Sam Maher, co-author of a report on sandblasting by the international pressure group, the Clean Clothes Campaign.

"There is still the worry that it is more of a paper commitment."

"It's such a poorly-controlled industry. Companies need to have a much stronger grip on their supply chain than we believe they do."

There are other ways of producing distressed jeans - using lasers, or scraping by hand or machine, for example - which result in a similar effect. So consumers have no way of knowing whether they are buying jeans that have made a worker ill on the other side of the world.

Turkish ban

The sandblasting backlash began in Turkey, one of the world's biggest exporters of jeans.

In 2004, a doctor in a village in the Bingol region in the east of the country became suspicious, after conducting medical tests on a group of young men about to start military service.

Dozens of them were suffering from silicosis and all had been working in denim sandblasting factories in Istanbul.

Start Quote

I believe that distressed denim will be seen as one of the great madnesses of this generation”

End Quote Orsola de Castro Creative Director, From Somewhere

It was the first time that the illness - which has a long history among workers in construction and mining - had been found within the garment industry.

To date, 46 garment workers have died from silicosis in Turkey, and there are 1,200 registered cases - though doctors suspect the true number of people affected there is much higher.

Five years after the discoveries in Bingol, the Turkish government banned sandblasting. But in other countries the issue has received scant attention.

"It hasn't become a big scandal in the way it should have done," says Sam Maher.

The Clean Clothes Campaign believes that sandblasting just moved from Turkey to other countries - including Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, and Egypt.

Spot checks

It is hard for journalists to gain access to factories making jeans in Bangladesh, but one factory owner did agree to show the BBC around.

"One hundred per cent of our buyers are outside the country. We are dealing with world renowned buyers," says Mohammad Jahangir Alam, Executive Director of Express Washing and Dyeing Limited, just outside the capital Dhaka.

Silicosis - the facts

X-ray showing the lungs of a patient with silicosis
  • One of the most common occupational diseases, traditionally found in sandblasting workers in construction and mining
  • There is no cure for silicosis. In less severe cases, treatment helps with associated symptoms
  • Silicosis traditionally takes many years to develop, but some workers in Turkey contracted silicosis in months
  • In 2009 the Turkish government banned sandblasting of jeans, and in 2011 it agreed to pay disability allowances to those unable to work as a result of silicosis
  • Sandblasting is permitted within the EU and the US, but the amount of silica must be below 1% in the EU and below 0.5% in the US

His factory has some sandblasting machines which he is happy to show and demonstrate - but he insists they are no longer in use.

"We have stopped sandblasting totally... The sandblasting unit is absolutely closed, it is under lock and key - this section is not being used nowadays."

"Everything is visible, nothing is secret," he says.

"Buyers are employing a lot of manpower for auditing this sort of thing... there are evaluations without notice. Sometimes in the evenings, buyers suddenly come."

The Clean Clothes Campaign wants the European Union to ban the import of any clothes produced using the sandblasting technique, and for the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization to add sandblasting in the garment industry to their lists of hazardous occupations.

They also argue that companies should provide medical help for any workers who may have contracted silicosis.

"It is not really enough to say 'From now on, we won't do it,'" says Sam Maher. "They also need to take responsibility for those workers that have already been made ill... without treatment, they are going to suffer a fairly horrific death."

No-one knows how many people around the world could have contracted silicosis as a result of making distressed jeans.

Because there is no history of it within the garment industry, doctors are unlikely to diagnose it among workers in that sector. Campaigners say many cases are likely to have been mistaken for tuberculosis. The symptoms are similar - indeed it is common for a person to suffer from both at the same time.

Levi Strauss & Co told the BBC it was not aware of a single case of silicosis among any worker within its supply chain, and said that before the ban come into place, work was done according to the strictest safety standards.

Workers at a factory in Bangladesh distressing jeans by hand Distressing jeans by hand is a safer method than sandblasting

Orsola de Castro, Founder and Creative Director of the ethical fashion label From Somewhere, argues that consumers also have a role to play.

"Clothes don't magically come from trees," she says. "There is a supply chain behind it, and there are real human beings behind our jeans."

One way of cracking down would be to introduce a labelling system to identify denim that has not been sandblasted - though this would take time to implement.

Much simpler would be for consumers to stop buying distressed jeans, says Orsola de Castro.

"I believe that distressed denim will be seen as one of the great madnesses of this generation... a sign of fast fashion at its most ridiculous."

"I don't think it can be a badge of pride, I think it needs to be a badge of shame."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I just hope this doesn't end up being like the "ban children making rugs" idea - where the INTENTION was good but the (fairly predictable) consequences were dire. (Making carpets was the BEST work they could find - without it, many became child prostitutes or starved).

    With this, I am guessing people are working at the sandblasting factories as that is the BEST work they can currently find.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    distressed denim is deader than dead. its deader than stonewashed. Black (or dark) 501's are the only jeans allowed from 2012 0nwards.

    Jump to it. You sheep.!

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    I don't care as long as they are cheap, there is a recession on remember?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Why has it taken BBC & other media so many decades to report this to the public, it must be common knowledge among textile manufacturers.

    If fashion jeans prices have to go up to provide proper equipment & health & safety then so be it, it should just be done.

    Once again, manufacturers/brands are found to be knowingly violating human health for profit, one reason why unions were invented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    133. LippyLippo

    It seems perfectly obvious to me that you are prepared to sacrifice the development of Bangladesh and keep its citizens in perpetual poverty, so long as you don't feel any little twinges of liberal guilt.

    Thankfully, you don't get to make that decision. The people of Bangladesh do, when on average they have a better quality of life (YES, you heard me right) due to employment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Bought my first pair of Levis in 1961. Even then it was fashionable for them to have that weathered look and we used to jump into the sea with them and then lie under the Mediterranean sky hoping fancifully that the combination of salt water and sun would created the bleach effect we were looking for. But the kudos came from having worn them blanch yourself, not from buying ready worn jeans. Yuk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.


    Slave owners used to make exactly the same kind of arguments you have raised. Read George Fitzhugh for example, who suggested that employers take better care of workers if they own them as opposed to merely renting them. The idea that these workers should do this kind of work because they otherwise wouldn't have food is equally lamentable. Why don't the rich in Bangladesh just share?

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    isn't it a sad situation, you can not win if these people did not do this job they would not earn any money, until the world is willing to change things they will remain the same. it is not a case of if you don't like don't do it. large companies make millions out of these people and keep them as low paid as possible to increase profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Well I need a new pair of jeans, so if anyone want's to make me an offer for the genuinely distressed old ones.....
    Meantime, let's ban electricity too. It's extremely dangerous stuff when not handled correctly. Kills more people than nuclear power stations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    This is disgraceful exploitation - and we support it by our stupid wasteful practice of wearing garments whose wear pattern leads its makers to possible lung and chest didease.
    If we had enough patience and did enough manual work, our jeans would become distressed enough to impress somebody or other - who? I won der?

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    If they were not available they could not be bought! Stop specifying the look that requires sandblasting; stop making them them focus of this or any year's fashion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    The whole point of third world manufacturing is to undercut the cost of paying a decent wage and ensuring the health and safety of workers,

    Any firm that says otherwise is in denial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Truly baffling as to why people want to buy worn out clothes! I bought my first pair of Levis in 1967 for £2.50. . . it was a matter of pride not to bleach or otherwise artificially age them. It took about 6-9 months for them to fade to "stone wash".
    Isn't there something rather unethical to deliberately wear out clothes that are then sold for more than the workers will earn in a year?

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    @Amadeus2k8 trouble is that by continuing to buy the garment you are rewarding the bad behaviour of the supplier. If you stop buying and say why then the supplier has to do something about the conditions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    We learn from the headline that there's some ethical problem with distressed jeans. We learn from the headline that said ethical problem is a medical condition associated with production. But what isnt mentioned here is if there's any way to protect the workers. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to issue them with face masks .

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    No. I will still buy them. The problem is not the consumer here it is the manufacturer. These factories should improve their health and safety conditions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    137. Kate-M
    "Most of my clothes are Fair Trade as I try my best to avoid contributing to exploitation."

    What you call 'exploitation', in your sadly misguided way, those very workers call a chance to a better life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    103. ianbluenose
    "No.94 Willo. These people live in pverty anyway."

    Are you saying they get no economic benefit from working there? THEN WHY DO THEY DO IT? Some of the claptrap on this board is amazing. You really do have no clue about the actual economics of the actual world. The way to improve conditions in Bangladesh is MORE "sweat shops", not less. Why do you seek to destroy their employmnt?

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Why not buy Fair Trade jeans? Bishopston Trading have had great success with theirs. Most of my clothes are Fair Trade as I try my best to avoid contributing to exploitation. There are plenty of companies to choose from these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I buy worn jeans because its all I can get, seriously, where are the shops that sell brand new jeans ?


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