Early one Saturday morning, the vendor hung The Jeans on his stall on a dusty street corner in a Johannesburg township. They were a pair of secondhand Levi’s 550s. Straight leg. Relaxed fit. Waist 36, inseam 34. One hundred percent cotton, in a soft, brushed blue. The hems on the left pocket were frayed, and there was a small tear above one belt loop, but otherwise The Jeans could have been new.
People who buy secondhand clothes here see Levi’s as a luxury brand, the vendor knew. A message stamped onto the inside of one of The Jeans’ pockets explained that Levi’s are “an American tradition, symbolizing the vitality of the West to people all over the world.” He could probably sell them for $10.
But however symbolic they are of the American West, The Jeans were also global citizens. A glossy tag stitched inside the right hip read “Made in Lesotho.” Encircled entirely by South Africa, the tiny, mountainous country is about 250 miles away from the market where The Jeans now hung. But instead of a simple overland journey of five hours, these jeans had likely lapped the globe before ending up for resale back in southern Africa.
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Across the course of their life, The Jeans probably had their cotton grown in one country, spun and woven into fabric in another, were cut and sewn in a third, and were worn and donated to charity in a fourth, all before ending up here in South Africa, country number five.
That journey from one neighboring African country to another, via an 18,000 mile detour to the United States, is a parable of Africa’s role in the fast-fashion industry, and Americans’ implication in it. The clothing industry, one of the world’s most environmentally destructive, is responsible for 10% of global emissions, more than air travel and maritime shipping combined. Meanwhile the people who make the world’s clothing — mostly women in the Global South — rarely earn above their country’s minimum wage, which is less than $200 a month in many African countries. Yet the continent is increasingly shouldering the burden of both creating America’s clothes, and disposing of them after they finish with them.
Threadbare benefits for workers
Blue jeans are perhaps the modern world’s most popular garment spun from cotton, a plant fiber that has helped shape much of today’s world as we know it.
“Without cotton cloth, we would have no global economy, no staggering social inequality between the Global North and South, no work for women outside the home, and no industrialization, which was all powered by slavery on expropriated and overtaxed land,” argues Maxine Bedat, the author of “Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment,” a book about the denim supply chain.
Born in a Nevada tailor’s workshop in the 1870s, denim was popularized by Levi Strauss & Co. as workwear for lumberjacks, cowboys, and railroad workers. By the mid-20th century, jeans had become a leisure item too. Today, an American woman, on average, owns seven pairs of jeans. A whopping 1.25 billion pairs are sold worldwide every year.
Sometime in the last few years, The Jeans were among them.
First, though, they had to be sewn. Based on their “Made in” tag, this particular pair could have been stitched together in only one place, a scruffy industrial district of aluminum factory shells in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
Although the southern African country is a minuscule player in the global garment industry, jeans are big business for the country of 2 million. The vast majority of those who work in clothing factories here, like nearly everywhere in the world, are women. So it was almost certainly women in Lesotho who made The Jeans. About 100 of them, because that’s how many people’s hands a pair of jeans passes through, from the moment the roll of denim is unspooled on the factory floor until it’s packed in a shipping container.
What would The Jeans’ first moments of existence have looked like?
They would have been loud. The cavernous interior of a blue jeans factory buzzes like a swarm of flies. Irons hiss. Washing machines clack and clatter. The only thing that’s more or less silent are the workers, hunched over their machines assembling a single item — a belt loop, a pocket, a leg seam — with laser focus, trying to keep pace with targets that run into the hundreds or thousands of pairs daily.
Rorisang Kamoli has worked in the factories that produce for Levi Strauss in Lesotho for more than a decade. She’s slight, in her early 30s, with thick-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses and long braids. If The Jeans passed through her hands, here’s what she would have done. She would have run her fingers over the rivets, those tiny patented bronze buttons sutured to the front pockets of every pair of Levi’s, and the button on the fly. She would have twisted each one, to make sure it was secure, and felt for rough, sharp edges that would make The Jeans dangerous to wear.
Years of this quality control work has left her thumbnails split open and her fingers calloused. Her mind, too, is equally weary, thinking about the people in America who buy these jeans for $69.50 — about half her monthly wage.
“[Americans] just want to wear these products — they don’t care how we are living to make them,” she says.
Among the things she suspects Americans don’t consider: her cracked thumbnail. Whether anyone can raise two children on $150 a month. What it feels like to have a colleague killed in a protest while trying to convince the companies to raise that wage to about $160 a month. The terror of watching half the world swap jeans for sweatpants during a global pandemic, when your life depends on blue jeans.
When Ms. Kamoli was growing up, Lesotho had a different export — its men went to work in the gold, diamond, and platinum mines of neighboring South Africa. But beginning in the 1990s, the mines began to close. The men returned, and, as new garment factories opened, the women went to work.
But the new opportunities made for a bitter independence. “Sometimes I feel angry with jeans. I hate them. Why should I have to work so hard, for a wage that’s not enough, to make a thing like this?” Ms. Kamoli says.
Secondhand imports flood Africa
Lesotho’s garment industry exists in large part thanks to an American trade deal called the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which, since 2001, has allowed Lesotho and three dozen other African countries to import certain goods, including clothes, to the U.S. duty-free.
It also means that nearly all of Lesotho’s Levi’s are America-bound. So it’s fairly safe to say that’s where The Jeans went next. Americans buy clothing voraciously, purchasing dozens of clothing items per year — an average of 68, according to the clothing rental service Rent the Runway.
In the 1950s, American families were spending 10% of their income on clothing, and purchasing just a few items a year. Now that figure is 2%, but thanks to the rise of so-called fast fashion, that amount buys nearly a new closet’s worth of items annually.
For someone, somewhere, The Jeans were one of those many purchases.
Then, along came the pandemic. Around that time, The Jeans and their owner parted ways. Who needed jeans anymore, when pants with an elastic waist existed and you were never leaving your house? Clothing donations spiked by more than 50% in 2020, according to the online secondhand retailer ThredUp.
Because The Jeans were in near-perfect nick, their owner could have been forgiven for thinking they would be a great item to donate to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army. Someone would snatch them right up at a local thrift store, they might have reasoned, and the charity would earn some much-needed cash for its programs.
Except that’s not what happens to most of the clothes Americans donate to charity, and it’s not what happened to The Jeans either.
On average, American charity stores sell just 10% to 20% of the donations they receive. The rest end up in the hands of textile recyclers — companies whose entire reason for being is to make old clothes disappear. They buy charity shop donations by weight, then sort them. About 45% is considered “salable,” that is, high enough quality that it can be worn again, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. Another 50% can be made into either rags or insulation, and the worst quality stuff is simply thrown away.
“Watching the process of sorting and grading feels a little like a visit to the slaughterhouse,” wrote George Packer of visiting a textile recycler in Brooklyn.
The Jeans, it’s clear, made the cut for resale. So they were pressed, with hundreds of other pairs, into a cube about the size of a dishwasher, and loaded on another shipping container.
Globally, 70% of donated clothes end up in Africa. But it’s not, as many assume, because Africans are desperate for the rest of the world’s castoffs. In the decades after independence, many African countries had major textile industries of their own. After Western governments and global lenders began putting pressure on those countries to liberalize their economies in the 1980s, trade restrictions fell, and clothing imports from the rest of the world flooded in.
In recent years, some African countries have attempted to fight back. But when a bloc of East African countries banned the import of secondhand clothes in 2016, American textile exporters reacted predictably. They pressured lawmakers, and soon the U.S. was threatening to withdraw the African Growth and Opportunities Act, the trade deal that gives African countries duty-free access to American markets for many goods. In the end, only the central African nation of Rwanda stood its ground.
And so The Jeans probably landed in South Africa’s coastal neighbor Mozambique. Technically, it’s illegal to import any secondhand clothing into South Africa — a move to protect its own clothing factories — but the rule is flagrantly ignored. Truckloads rumble unhindered across its border every day, much of it bound for a single market in downtown Johannesburg.
There, on a four-block stretch of De Villiers Street, wedged between a minibus taxi stand and the city’s main train station, dozens of hawkers sell secondhand clothes from bed-sized bins: heaps of gauzy blouses, T-shirts from American 5K races, vintage dresses, and yes, jeans. “AmaSkinnyJean! AmaSkinnyJean!” they shout, using the Zulu prefix to pluralize words. “Cheap cheap cheap!”
The market also sells to wholesalers like the one who bought The Jeans. He then brought them 20 miles north, to a neighborhood whose name means “Olive Wood Forest” in Afrikaans, although it is a patch of prairie dotted with small houses and tin shacks, with no trees in sight. Like many South African townships — the mostly working class bedroom communities that huddle on the edge of all its cities — Olievenhoutbosch has a clothing market, where every weekend a couple dozen vendors set up shop on a corner near a dusty police station.
One weekend last November, The Jeans were among the clothes on offer.
“How much?” asked a customer.
R150, the vendor answered. $10.
She pulled the bills out of her wallet, Nelson Mandela’s face beaming up from the blue and red notes.
And just like that, The Jeans, and all the stories they carried, belonged to me.
Reporting for this story was supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.