A former textile worker who was at the heart of the fight against a harmful sandblasting technique to produce "distressed" jeans is now a sector leader in the movement toward "clean" jeans. Abdülhalim Demir lost almost half of his lung capacity to silicosis disease caused by the now-banned sandblasting technique. He spearheaded the campaign to ban the practice and has since developed a "vegan and recyclable" denim that won't harm future generations of textile workers.
Like many other Turkey-based victims of the sandblasting technique that was banned in 2009, Demir hails from Taşlıçay, a village of the Bingöl province in eastern Turkey. Thriving on breeding livestock, villagers had to change their lifestyles due to the threat of PKK terrorism plaguing eastern Turkey in the 1990s. They took up arms against the terrorist group and sold their livestock. Like other young villagers, Demir had no prospect of a source of income in the village and followed others into bigger cities. At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and traveled to Istanbul to find a job, with no money in his pocket, nor a place to stay. A textile workshop offering accommodation for workers was the best job opportunity he had. The job looked simple too, although the working environment was not the best that he had seen.
Crammed in a dark room full of sand, Demir joined others blasting sand on new denim jeans to make them look old and worn out as the new fashion fad took over the world. In a few years, workshops specializing in distressed denim flourished though the human resources were still scarce. Demir was among the few who became a professional in the sector and was now earning more than he imagined. More young workers, mostly from the same village as him and from other regions of Turkey, flocked to Istanbul to join the sector, knowing nothing about the hazard that sandblasting posed to their health. None of them ever heard of silicosis, a deadly disease common among people working with silica, a mineral used in cutting and drilling in the industry. Inhaling silica, even for a short period of time, is sufficient to contract the disease. For Demir, like for most of the other workers, it was too late when they were diagnosed with silicosis. Some 187 workers hailing from Taşlıçay alone, were diagnosed with silicosis. Additionally, 122 succumbed to the disease, but Demir was relatively lucky as he lost less than half of his lung capacity due to the disease.
The disease ended any future job prospects for survivors, including Demir. He was not ready to give up though. In 2008, one year before the ban on sandblasting, he organized a "solidarity committee" with fellow workers with the same disease, launching a struggle to raise awareness of their situation. Their campaign eventually led to the ban, but their work was not over yet. One year later, they managed to have the Health Ministry add silicosis patients working in the textile sector to those eligible for free treatment. In 2011, the government also gave silicosis patients the right to receive pensions.
Yet, Demir's fight was far from over. Turkey banned sandblasting and gave workers their rights, but textile manufacturers found another place where they could exploit cheap labor: Bangladesh, where sandblasting was not yet illegal. "I couldn't sleep at night then. I didn't know that it would cost me my health when I started working, but now I knew. I knew that people doing this will likely die of it," he told Anadolu Agency (AA). This was when he decided to "go global" and started visiting prestigious fashion houses in the United Kingdom in 2011. "I visited each one and gave them a presentation about the production of denim. I was asking them if they knew how something they promoted as 'chic' was done and at what cost," he says. His presentations attracted the attention of activists and inspired the "Killer Jeans" campaign for the ban on sandblasting globally. Demir also joined the Clean Clothes Campaign which aims to improve the working conditions of people in the garment industry. He gave his voice to the campaign which eventually convinced more than 100 brands to drop working with suppliers using sandblasting in production.
Demir says producers came up with an alternative method for distressed jeans production, but it also is harmful for workers health. He points out that Europe included potassium permanganate to their harmful chemical lists in 2018, and this chemical used in denim distressing causes scars on the skin and directly affects fertility. Demir himself now seeks healthy alternatives to denim production techniques. He founded the Turkish branch of the Clean Clothes Association in 2013 and then created his own denim brand. "Clean clothes are those whose production does not harm the environment, does not involve child labor, exploitation of cheap labor and workers' health," he says.
With the Bego Jeans brand (an abbreviated form of Be Today, Go Tomorrow), he wants to show manufacturers that they can profit by making "clean clothes" and "reform the sector."
All vegan, 100% recyclable products, his manufacturing differs from other jeans products. For instance, they don't use leather in brand tags and replace them by sewing the brand on the jeans. For buttons, they use rice that can be soluble in nature within two years. Another novelty Demir introduced is "jeans with deposit" which buyers can return in five to 10 years for recycling.
Demir wants his customers to be more aware of "clean clothes," and each product he manufactures contains a QR code where buyers can read "the story" of each pair of jeans they bought. "They can see who did it and how it is made on our website. We receive positive feedback from customers. Nobody wants someone's blood spilled in the making of the things they wear," he says. He recently launched a Clean Fashion Movement for further reforms in the textile industry and plans to set up an "exemplary" facility to bring together the "entire supply chain under one roof." Afterward, he wants to bring together as many brands as he can under one company for "healthier" production.