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Deadly denim practice persists

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By San Jose Mercury News
Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Three years ago, when Levi Strauss & Co. announced it had banned the use of sandblasting, labor advocates hoped the move by the top-selling jeans maker would help end the deadly practice, which gives denim a fashionable look but is linked to a fatal lung disease.

But even as Target Corp. and Gap Inc. joined Levi Strauss in proclaiming bans, sandblasting persists in factories that make those retailers' clothes in China, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh, countries responsible for the bulk of the 5 billion pairs of jeans made each year, research by nonprofits, medical groups and labor organizations shows.

“There clearly is sandblasting going on. I don't know how anyone could really deny it,” said Katie Quan, associate chairwoman of the Labor Center at the University of California-Berkeley.

Counterfeit jean production, outsourcing in the supply chain and vast factories that make jeans for dozens of brands under one roof make it difficult to track jeans from production to the shopping mall. But the groups say their research establishes that workers in many of these overseas factories are sandblasting — spraying sand on denim to make it appear bleached or distressed — without necessary protective gear.

Levi Strauss says its suppliers have removed sandblasting equipment from their factories and that it regularly conducts on-site inspections at factories.

Although Levi Strauss still sells bleached and distressed-looking jeans, the company says none of the styles requires sandblasting.

“The look and feel of denim is noticeably different,” a spokeswoman said.

The disconnect between what retailers say happens in the factories and what labor groups report foreshadows immense challenges for other garment industry reform efforts, such as those under way in Bangladesh following a factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 people. The garment industry is built on a vast network of subcontractors hidden from regulatory oversight, experts say, so that even well-meaning fashion brands are unable to change the conditions in which their clothes are made.

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