What’s the fuss about Sandblasting? – Laura Russell

Versace is the latest in a long line of companies to ban the practice of sandblasting in response to the ‘Killer Jeans’ campaign from the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC).

Sandblasting is used to create a ‘worn’ look mainly on denim garments. An abrasive similar to sand is sprayed onto jeans with force to remove surface dye. This abrasive contains silica, a mineral which has been found to cause the often fatal disease silicosis. Silicosis has three levels of severity; chronic, accelerating and acute. The latter can develop from only a few weeks to 5 years of exposure to high concentrations of silica and is the most frequent form identified in garment sandblasting operatives.

A number of retailers have taken the action to totally ban sandblasting. However, a ban on sandblasting is only the first step; implementation and monitoring of the ban will be the challenging part. If we look back to 2008 when the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) highlighted the practice of forced child labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, many retailers were quick to call for a ban on cotton from the country. But how easy was that ban to monitor and enforce? The constant hurdle that retailers face in implementing such changes is their distance from manufacture and transparency of their supply chains. If carried out using the correct equipment and protective clothing sandblasting can be a safe practice. The problem is that this equipment is expensive and employees are not trained in the dangers of sandblasting thus at times do not use protective equipment even where provided. To further complicate matters this is often a process subcontracted from the factory making the jeans to a different wash plant.

Unfortunately the alternatives for distressing denim also come with hazards. Potassium Permanganate, a chemical which can be used to strip the dye from denim, is a very cheap alternative, but if not handled correctly can have its own adverse health effects. The use of sandpaper either by machine or hand will create the same effect but dust is also produced. Finally lasers can be used to burn the top layer denim, but these are very expensive. 

One method of enforcing a ban on sandblasting is to audit factories. As mentioned previously this is difficult when sandblasting is outsourced or subcontracted to other factories. There can also be an element of keeping auditors happy by showing the correct ways of working during the audit but going back to unsafe conditions after auditors have left. Intertek have launched a Sandblasting Assessment and Management programme (SAM) to help brands assess their supply chain and implement change.

A number of Swedish and UK retailers including Arcadia Group (Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Burton), Aurora Fashions (Oasis, Warehouse, Karen Millen), French Connection and Superdry interviewed by the CCC claimed not to use any sandblasting in their manufacture, stating that the design did not call for this process. I find this a difficult conclusion to reach easily. Each year the fashion on denim changes but the ‘worn in’ look is often desirable.

H&M have been working to improve the conditions for workers sandblasting their denim since 2006 but have now chosen to ban the practice after concluding that necessary safety measures could not be guaranteed. The CCC report “Killer Jeans: A Report on Sandblasted Denim” details retailers’ response to the campaign.

In March 2009 the Turkish government banned all materials containing silica to sandblast denim. It is action like this from governments which is vital in the campaign to rule out sandblasting completely, but again needs to be effectively monitored.

 If you’re a consumer wanting to choose jeans which have not been sandblasted you can start by looking at the CCC list, but remember retailers need to be able to effectively enforce the ban. Alternatively if you’re looking for a more unique look, you could customise your own jeans – bleach and sand paper can be rather effective.

Photos of sandblasting units by Allison Joyce

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