The Hundred People Behind Your Favorite Pair of Jeans


“Have you ever stopped to think about how many people were involved in making the clothes you buy? Chances are you have heard about or read The Travels of a T-shirt in a Global Economy or listened to Planet Money’s piece on making a t-shirt. Both are incredibly interesting examinations of the effects of global trade on the fashion industry, developing countries and garment workers.

Before I set off to start my MBA/MS program through the Erb Institute in 2016, I wanted to pull the curtain back on the apparel industry and see how my clothing was made. I spent that summer in Vietnam and India working with Asmara International — a forward-thinking global fashion company that designs clothes and serves as a middleman between international apparel brands and factories across Asia. I visited several manufacturing factories and spoke with general managers and chemical suppliers to those factories. What I thought was a pretty straightforward process of producing a pair of jeans turned out to be anything but.

What struck me most was the sheer number of people involved in producing a single garment. Every step — from weaving the fabric, to designing the garment, to sewing it together — involved dozens of people. I estimate that at least 100 people directly touch any piece of clothing you buy off the rack.

And because it took me understanding that to begin to make more thoughtful decisions about the brands and clothes I bought — and the frequency in which I bought them — I want to share a snapshot of the processes and people behind your favorite pair of jeans.

From fiber to fabric

Your favorite pair of jeans likely contains cotton and another fiber such as elastane, which gives it a little stretch. You’d be hard-pressed to find a closet nowadays that doesn’t contain some cotton. Nearly 40 percent of all fiber produced in the world is made of cotton, which is grown from seed by farmworkers in any of the 58 countries that produce cotton. Over 60 percent of the world’s cotton is produced by an estimated 40 million small farmers, 99 percent of them in developing countries.

The elastane fibers in your jeans help keep their shape and are made by manufacturers that spin petroleum-based polymers into thread (58 percent of fabric produced globally is made of petroleum-based materials). Next, both the cotton and elastane yarns are sent to a mill to be spun into denim. (…)”

Erb Institute University of Michigan

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