Fugitive Denim


Year: 2008.

Author: Rachel Louise Snyder

Type: non-fiction book.

Full reference: Rachel Louise Snyder (2008) Fugitive denim: a moving story of people and pants in the borderless world of global trade. London: Norton & Co.

Availability: from the publisher (paper: UK£12.99), (new, from US$11.53; used from US$00.01), (not availble new; used from UK£3.29).

Page reference: Bin Kang, Y., Camargo, G. & Yu, Y., (2010) Fugitive denim. ( last accessed <insert date here>)


This book more or less parallels the themes of Pietra Rivoli’s Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, so the story is not an entirely new one. However, Snyder does an admirable job of putting a human face on the global genesis of blue jeans as a major product (Source: Elsen 2007, p.75).

There [have been] many academic reports and books about global textile and apparel trade…but they usually consisted of data, tables and cold analysis, rather than sewn with feelings and sentiments. ‘Fugitive Denim’ is probably the first human - call it ‘character-driven’ - and sensitive approach to the business, offering a long series of portraits of professionals plunged into the vast movement of textile globalization (Source: Mangenot 2007, np link).

When Rachel Louise Snyder looks at a pair of jeans, she sees faces and ghosts. She pictures Ganira Aliyev in red socks and ankle-high galoshes picking cotton in Azerbaijan. She recalls Cambodian Ry Muong, whose right hand has no fingers apart from her thumb, sewing belt loops onto jeans six days a week… It’s hard to tell who’s more haunted — the factory worker or Snyder, whose book, Fugitive Denim, takes the reader on an oddball tour of five nations caught in an upheaval of a decades-old global trading system … Her book, she jokes, is ‘a story about the people in our pants’ (Source: Pressley 2007, p.3).

Why ‘Fugitive Denim’? This may sound a strange book title but ‘fugitive’ is an allusion to indigo which is a fugitive dye used for giving denim its so specific blue color. By extension, “fugitive denim” is probably about the increasing difficulty to control business in the global trade with production moving from a continent to another one and components of a single apparel originated in up to five or six countries (Source: Mangenot 2007, np link).

So what we’ve got here, with the pants legging it between them, are scenes on location in the fibre, textile and fashion worlds … There is the underemployed Azeri cotton tester, qualified through family tradition and an award from the Gdynia Cotton Association to determine the indifferent grades of local staple for which there is unlikely to be an international demand at any price. There are the Cambodian factory hands, not sweatshop victims despite their grim living conditions, often the sole support for parents and siblings. Their precarious income depends on politically motivated trade agreements besides fickle western demand. Don’t presume those further up the supply chain are any more secure: a technician in Italy, daughter of a man who worked in the Legler company for 40 years, and married to a senior employee there, loses her job while Snyder watches, as the firm leaches manufacturing (Source: Horwell 2008, np link).

Snyder maps the global garment industry [and] talks comfortably to both sophisticated designers and factory workers, conveying their very different motives as she paints a picture of an industry far more tangled than most consumers imagine. She notes that economic and employment shifts are felt globally, describing Italy mourning the loss of manufacturing to cheaper factories in Asia, where low-paying jobs represent unprecedented opportunity to many workers (Source: Anon 2007, p.53).

Snyder ... delves into the lives of those for whom denim is their passion and/or their lifeline. When describing the work of the cotton pickers in Azerbaijan, she takes up a bag and interviews her subject while working alongside her. In the slums of Cambodia Snyder befriends two textile workers, eventually gaining access to their workplace and their sleeping quarters, and traveling to the country to visit their families … Snyder also spends time with mill owners, cotton growers and even designer-house ‘creatives.’ All have their good and bad moments and many are intriguing characters. One thing they all share in common are worries about the globalization of trade and its effect on their particular little corner of the economic universe (Source: Anon 2008, np link).

The pants of Rachel Louise Snyder’s subtitle are indigo-blue denim jeans, and the idea is to follow production from the Azerbaijani cotton farm to the Manhattan concept design store. That makes her book sound like a documentary of a process and far more linear than it really is, as none of the trash-laden Azerbaijani fibre ends up in the organic, socially responsible hundred-quid-plus Edun jeans on sale in NYC. Nor are Edun’s fabrics designed in the research department of the Legler company in northern Italy where Snyder also hung out; nor are they bandsaw-cut and production-line-sewn in the factories of Cambodia and south China, where she did her detailed needle fieldwork (Source: Horwell 2008, np link).

Obviously, you can always read the label, but that's meaningless in most cases. As Rachel Louise Snyder explains in her unusual investigative book, Fugitive Denim, a pair of jeans sporting a ‘Made in Peru’ label might have cotton from Azerbaijan, weaving from Italy, cutting and sewing from China, washing and finishing from Mexico and distribution from Los Angeles. Jeans made in Bangladesh may actually have been made in China, which has a history of dumping carcinogenic dyes and chemicals, creating wastelands and dead rivers. In most cases, this labelling is a legal, if misleading, way of manufacturers creatively interpreting the World Trade Organisation's ‘rules of origin’. To get around country quotas established by the US and Europe, manufacturers find creative ways of ensuring that a garment can be finished in one country, when it was actually made in several others. Your jeans have travelled through dozens of hands in half-a-dozen countries before they get to you: their carbon footprint may be bigger than yours (Source: Holmquist 2008, p.7).

We understand, by the book’s end, that everyone in the business - from the cotton growers to the textile workers to the chi-chi boutique buyers, are struggling to keep pace with the upheaval in their lives, the result of the ever-expanding global marketplace. For them, it’s an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride every day as prices and policies change with the speed of a casino slot machine (Source: Anon 2008, np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Snyder: Essentially, I wanted to be able to tell a story of globalization that would explain the tangled intricacies of it in the most entertaining, engaging way. So it’s a book that follows the making of a metaphoric pair of jeans from the cotton fields – I actually spent a horrendous day picking cotton on the Iranian border – to the schwanky New York lofts of Bono and his wife’s clothing company (Edun). It’s funny and poignant and is ultimately a story of a lot of people trying to carve out their own survival in an incredibly difficult world…one of the problems with Fugitive Denim from the start has always been how to describe it that accurately captures what it is… a[n] often funny and sometimes irreverent book on globalization that reads like a novel, but is researched like the nonfiction chronicle that it is?…I wanted a way to tell that story, but I didn’t want it to be dry and mired in all this intense economic data. I wanted it to be a story of lives. Of life. And survival. And humanity. That sounds very lofty. It’s also just a story about cool people. And jeans (Source: in Jen 2009, np link).

‘For me, it was all about the people and the narrative,’ Snyder said. ‘I just stayed focused on the people …’ [Snyder] picked denim as the subject for her first book because of its symbolic power. ‘Fundamentally, denim has a cool factor and it lends itself a little bit to people talking about it in literary terms,’ Snyder said. ‘It had this symbolic weight that I wanted, but it also captured globalization.’ In the book, Snyder writes, ‘No other fabric has held the symbolic fortitude of denim - the rebellion, the antiestablishment rhetoric, the edginess - and no other article of clothing than jeans has been the focus of more literature.’ Snyder spent two-and-a-half years researching for the book. She found that consumers are all too familiar with the issue of sweatshops. The focus is now shifting to the environment. She also hopes the book will remind readers about the impact of globalization (Source: Tucker 2007, p.9).

At the local SOS clinic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where most of the expatriates seek medical care, I noticed a framed quote on the wall one day: ‘’’What you wear thirty years from now won’t matter but what you learned and how you used your knowledge will’’. It was an odd piece of decor for this particular country. It occurred to me as I sat there that perhaps my greatest hope for this book might simply be to offer a counter-point to the sentiment expressed in that saying ... What I wanted to do was find the complex humanity in the world of manufacturing – beyond simply the good factories and the bad, the making and breaking of rules, and the unwieldy negotiations of trade deals, I wanted the struggle illuminated in the people who lived between all these extremes ...What western Europe and the United States have, frankly, is the greatest consumer market in the world. They have you and me. If those stores where we shop know that we demand decent labor conditions – good wages, worker’s rights, functional unions – if the corporations know we demand transparency, they in turn will demand it of their own contractors, and they will offer it themselves. Governments, business, and, yes, workers, all have some power to change things, but so do consumers. In the end, the real power may lie with us (Source: Snyder 2008a, p.312 – 314).

Ryssdal: How do we then, as American consumers, who want the cheapest prices but the best quality products… I mean, is there a way for us when we go to the store and finger through all these jeans… I mean, we can’t possibly know all this. Snyder: No, that’s the real disappointing thing is that we’ve now come up with these standards for food where it has to say where our food is processed and where it’s grown, but we don’t have those same standards for clothes and I think we need to. There is some ministry movement toward more accurate representation, but as of yet, no law (Source: Ryssdal 2010 link).

Snyder visits and befriends people involved in the design, retail, sewing, washing and other stages of the garment’s production in countries across the globe, from the USA to Cambodia to Azerbaijan. The book’s structure consequently mirrors the chaotic nature of the industry itself, flitting back and forth between a range of individuals in different countries, underscoring the sense of interdependence and connection between them (Source: Ramsay & Wrathmell 2009, p.59).

Discussion / Responses

Far from a dry treatise on globalization, I found myself immersed in the lives of several characters and wanting to know more about them…Snyder has managed to put a wonderfully human face on a very complex issue of pitting our ecosystem against the undeniable forces of globalization and consumerism … Snyder avoids preaching or forcing conclusions. Rather she puts facts in front of the reader, with the references for validation, and magically mixes the facts with an incredibly creative wit (Source: Kinnear 2007, np link).

Snyder’s tour reveals that clothing can be made in ways that are progressive, humane, environmentally secure and productive – a far cry from the common notion of a “sweatshop: or the drama of child labor – while still fulfilling the industry’s need for low-cost manufacturing, semi-skilled labor, quick turnarounds despite the looming quota system revamp. It will be all but impossible to fully re-map the industry, because the individual skills and long-guarded knowledge of certain players – from the cotton experts to the dyers, from the seamstresses to the finishers – are deeply rooted, and difficult to extract or export (Source: Snyder 2008b, np link).

Pearce [author of Confessions of an eco-sinner] and Snyder reflect these moral dilemmas in their books, presenting absorbing accounts of the complex ways in which our lives are affected by and implicated in the political and economic consequences of globalisation. They do so to empower their readers to make more sustainable consumer decisions. These books, therefore, provide an important stepping-stone to formal academic debates within the geographic discipline, offering intellectually informed, and yet accessible, reads to a wider mainstream audience (Source: Ramsay and Wrathmell, 2009, p.59-60).

There are both strengths and weaknesses with [Snyder’s] approach. At times the book’s scope seems to overwhelm Snyder as she jumps from country to country, apparently with little connection. Certainly fashion has an economy, but frequently repeated lists of international trade quotas and multi-fibre agreements risk rendering the subject as dry as a cotton plantation…But these quibbles are insignificant in the greater scheme of a highly pertinent view of the fashion world today, and one that also reflects many people’s growing concerns about it, from the sweatshops that feed our desire for cheap jeans, to the environmental repercussions of making them and then throwing them away. Clothing is a global industry, one of the biggest: a shirt is almost certainly made from cotton from one country, which is woven in another, with a sleeve made on one continent and buttons on another. The ‘Made in China’ label is likely to be a sop to international trade quotas and has little to do with the shirt’s provenance. Snyder, who lives in Cambodia and Chicago, is better placed than most to track this. She has a true journalist’s eye for the telling detail, noting the cotton tester in Azerbaijan whose aspirations to a European lifestyle are channeled into fantasies of eating cheesecake in cafes, or the grandmother of a Cambodian factory worker who chews on a shard of mirror as she describes her husband’s painful death. ‘Some people have security blankets; others, I suppose, have broken glass,’ Snyder says (Source: Freeman 2008, np link).

Snyder offers a balanced description of these complex issues, providing examples that demonstrate that the problems and solutions are not always black and white. The author lives in Cambodia and raises questions that encourage the reader to view some of the issues in a different light. Are workers really “exploited” or have they been coached by nongovernmental organizations to use this term? Although child labor is inexcusable in the developed world, what if the child was instead forced to live on the street? Are jeans really organic if chemicals are used in treating, manufacturing, and shipping the product? One of the problems with Fugitive Denim is that Snyder focuses most of her attention on the successes and very little on the failures. In particular, the book falls short in its description of the challenges of factory monitoring. She could have gone further in pointing out the responsibility that the clothing brands share in creating poor working conditions. For example, when a brand changes an order at the last minute, the factory’s employees have to work longer hours to meet the changed order. Factories often get mixed messages from their brand customers: The brand’s compliance representative wants the factory to meet a high code of conduct, but the brand’s buyer makes purchasing decisions only on price. Snyder strongly believes that real change will occur only when consumers begin to base their buying decisions on the working conditions under which the jeans were made, not just on the jeans’ cut, color, and fit. Yet this sort of change requires that consumers are aware of their options and educated about the issues. Too often, consumers are not aware of these issues. Further, brand marketers are doing little to create demand for responsibly made jeans by helping consumers become more aware. The question of whether mass-market consumers will pay more for such products remains unanswered – but it’s still worth asking (Source: Commike 2008, p.76).

Even the dwellers in Edun, the pain-in-the-bootylicious-bum company that wants to make not very many pairs of expensive jeans, are aware that, with permanent investment in the firm’s worldwide growers and machinists, it may easily go bust. And Edun’s scenes, like the others, were recorded circa 2005-2006, long before the retail curtailment that now lies ahead of us all (Source: Horwell 2008, np link).

Snyder is always aware of deadlines for quota negotiations and tariff repeals, but she doesn’t anywhere envisage a looming financial downturn, a change of climate in all senses, doesn’t consider that the zip-lockers of Phnom Penh have depended not on the steady business of necessity, but on the extreme excesses of the past decade. Much of the cotton picked, spun, woven and seamed across these chapters must have ended up as landfill in the west within a couple of years of being plucked from the stalk. She has a brilliant brief chapter on Verité teaching comity – deportment, etiquette, how not to chew gum while ballroom dancing – to Shenzhen production hands; but there is never a mention of the financial basis for the denim churn; China has in effect loaned the US the credit to pay for the purchase of zillions of pairs of pants, and much else besides, from its own unspent monies. [Yet] no one else could have written anything like her fresh report on an arbitration council hearing…reading Snyder, I can see the American empire will also have its expansion and fall charted in cotton. (Source: Horwell 2008, np link).

Impact / Outcomes

Ultimately, these books [Snyder’s Fugitive denim and Pearce’s Confessions of an eco-sinner] provide us with a renewed sense of urgency to make changes to our everyday lives and our patterns of consumption, however small... The strengths of these books are not, then, the answers that they give us, but the questions that they force us to ask. We may now stop to think twice about the things we put in our trolley on our weekly shop, and how much we are prepared to pay. And perhaps we will have a new-found respect and responsibility for the millions of people who produce our everyday things (Source: Ramsay and Wrathmell, 2009, p.59-60).

Unlike many who have seen the worst effects of the west’s endless desire for more and cheaper clothes, Snyder is pragmatic … She puts forward the quite reasonable suggestion that, instead of buying five pairs of cheaply made jeans, those who can afford it should buy one pair of ethically sourced ones. (Source: Freeman 2008, np link).

You should of course recycle your jeans, preferably in a developing country. They do carry our lives on them, but they’re no more precious than any other object we keep around the house… china or art or jewelry (Source: Rachel 2009, np link).

I’ll never (I hope) put on another pair of jeans (or anything else) without checking the “made in” tag and thinking about the lives that have touched the clothes (Source: bnj 2008, np link).

Snyder gets snotty at times. She makes me squirm when she claims to know what an interviewee is thinking. (‘He doesn’t say this outright,’ she writes, ‘but I can tell he feels it.’) And she sometimes resembles a theatre critic who dwells on the costumes and forgets to mention that the playhouse burned down. Yet I’ll never view my Levis quite the same way again (Source: Pressley 2007, p.c3).

Sources / Further Reading

Anon (2007a) Reviews: Fugitive denim. Publishers Weekly 24 September p.53

Anon (2008) Fugitive denim: globalization tales of the traveling pants. Knowledge@W.P.Carey 26 March, ( last accessed 8 October 2010

bnj (2008) Fugitive denim: a moving story of people and pants in the borderless world of global trade. 6 May ( last accessed 7 October 2010)

Commike, L. (2008) Fugitive denim: a moving story of people and pants in the borderless world of global trade. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, p.76 ( last accessed on 21 June 2011)

Elsen, C. (2007) Fugitive Denim. Library Journal Reviews 15 October, p.75

Freeman, H., (2008) The cotton trail. The Guardian (London) 29 March ( last accessed on 21 June 2011)

Holmquist, K. (2008) Jeans blues. The Irish Times 9 February, p.7

Horwell, V. (2008) Tangled up in Blue. New Statesman 28 February ( last accessed 8 October 2010)

Jen (2009) Interview with Rachel Louise Snyder. Romancing the Book, March ( accessed on 10 October 2010)

Kinnear, D. (2007) The losely woven and intricate cloth of globalization. (customer review) 31 December ( last accessed 8 October 2010)

Mangenot, A., (2007) Fugitive denim: a human and sensible approach of global textile trade. 27 November ( last accessed on 4 October 2010)

Miller, D., Woodward, S. et al (nd) Global denim project. ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Pressley, J. (2007) Global jeans: a story about the people in our pants. Ottowa Citizen 30 December, p.3

Rachel (2009) Comment on: Jen (2009) Interview with Rachel Louise Snyder. Romancing the Book, March ( accessed on 10 October 2010)

Ramsay, N. and Wrathmell, S. (2009) Spotlight on... Fugitive denim by Rachel Louise Snyder and Confessions of an eco-sinner by Fred Pearce. Geography 94(1), p.58-60

Rivoli, P. (2009) The travels of a t-shirt in the global economy: an economist examines the markets, power and politics of world trade (2nd edition). Oxford: Wiley

Ryssdal, K. (2008) How many countries are in your jeans? American Public Media 29 January ( last accessed on 5 October 2010)

Salazar, J. (2010) Fashioning the historical body: the political economy of denim. Social Semiotics 20(3), p.293-308

Snyder, R.L. (2008a) Fugitive denim: a moving story of people and pants in the borderless world of global trade. London: Norton & Co.

Snyder, R.L. (2008b) Fugitive denim: a moving story of people and pants in the borderless world of global trade. 28 May ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Tucker, R. (2007) New book looks at the people, places behind denim. Women’s Wear Daily 21 August, p.9

Compiled by Gabriela Camargo, You Bin Kang and Yvonne Yu, edited by Jack Parkin (last updated June 2011). Page created for as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University.