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A River Runs Denim

A River Runs Denim

Do you know where Lesotho is? I’ll be honest, I don’t.

I do know that it’s in Africa. I look it up on Google Maps every time I wear my favorite corduroy pants that were made there. But I just can’t seem to commit to memory where in Africa Lesotho is. “Lesotho” doesn’t seem like a real name of a country to me, but more of an assassin’s name in the Star Wars. Each time I try to remember where exactly Lesotho is, I start imagining what the assassin would look like: how far his eyes are apart; the type of laser gun he favors; and other such nonsense. I picture the assassin wearing my brown cords blasting princesses and Jedi into smithereens.

This is the way my mind works. It can’t be helped.

So, where is Lesotho, let me look …

I can’t believe I couldn’t remember this! Lesotho is in—and by “in” I mean completely surrounded by—South Africa. There can’t be many countries completely surrounded by one other country. Stick that in your back pocket and save it for Jeopardy. It’s my gift to you.

Speaking of back pockets, let’s get back to my cords. They were made in Lesotho for GAP. The Lesotho-GAP combo might sound familiar because they were recently in the news.

An investigation carried out by the London Sunday Times found that a factory that produces for GAP and Levi’s was dumping their garbage in the garbage dump.

That doesn’t seem like much of a story, does it?

But there are needles and scissors in the factory’s garbage, which are hard on the bare feet of the kids who scour the dump for anything of value.

Dumps in the developing world are awful, awful places where the poorest of the extremely poor try to make ends meet. I visited one in Cambodia and the physical anguish of trying not to vomit or cry while holding my nose was only outweighed by the mental anguish of what I was witnessing.

But what can we expect of the brands or the factories? Should the factories have a special repository for sharp objects?

Heck, I’ve thrown away a dull pair of scissors before and even razor blades. It’s just that nobody is walking across my garbage looking for something of value. Maybe the factories could use some kind of receptacles like doctors have for sharp objects. But I bet they would be dumped and picked through; a pair of scissors can be sharpened and sold.

So, I’m not really outraged by the factory using the garbage dump for their garbage. However, the fact that a river downstream of the factory runs denim…that’s kind of a big one. From the article:

Dark blue effluent from the factory of Nien Hsing, a Taiwanese firm, was pouring into a river from which people draw water for cooking and bathing.

This news is a blemish on Lesotho’s garment industry, the largest private sector employer in the country, which has been considered a sort of success story and a hope for a brighter future. Bono’s clothing line, Edun, sources as much of their products as possible from Lesotho. In this powerful video, Bono pleads for other apparel brands to follow him in sourcing from the country.

Other brands did follow. And other factories sprouted. They brought the good—jobs. And they brought the bad—denim rivers. Hopefully the pollution into the river from the factory making our GAP and Levi’s jeans can be halted. Hopefully Lesotho’s economy can grow so parents can get good paying jobs and their kids don’t have to work in the dump.

Development isn’t perfect and neither is the garment industry. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask more of our brands and the factories they support.

At the end of the video, Bono is seen in a village in Lesotho carrying a crying baby. I’m up late writing this and, for a moment, I thought that it was my own baby girl Harper who is down for the night. The cry sounded exactly like hers.

If that’s not enough reason to do better and ask more, I’m not sure what is.

Take action: Encourage Levi’s and GAP to work with the factories to find solutions to these problems in Lesotho.

Kelsey Timmerman is the author of Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. He believes that corduroys are nothing more than socially acceptable sweatpants. If you want to learn more about where you are wearing, participate on Twitter or email him at
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