Versace Draws a Line in the Sand

When it comes to the pursuit of the hottest looks in haute couture, fashion empire Versace has signaled that there is one cost they are not willing to pay: the health and safety of international garment workers. In a corporate statement released yesterday Versace confirmed that they would be joining other brands such as Levi Strauss, Karen Millen and H&M in a voluntary ban on the use of sandblasting in their production facilities. Sandblasting is a technique used to distress denim and give it that much sought after worn-in look, but the actual process which involves workers blasting the fabric with a high-powered jet of silica, has been proven to cause Silicosis an irreversible disease of the lungs that can often times be fatal.

Britain prohibited sandblasting in1950 due to health concerns, by 1966 the technique was outlawed throughout Europe for the same reasons. However in much of the developing world where health and safety standards for workers are either very poor or go unenforced altogether, sandblasting is still being used. According to the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker’s Federation dozens of textile workers in Turkey died last year from acute cases of Silicosis and hundreds more were diagnosed with the disease despite the Turkish government passing a ban on manual sandblasting in March of 2009. Many fear that the numbers are even higher in countries like China and Pakistan where it is harder for international observers to gain access to health records.

Although sandblasting can be done by machines in a controlled environment it is too costly to realistically be used in garment production, and as a result many third world garment workers find themselves manually sandblasting in poorly ventilated workshops with little or no protective gear. Laura Carter of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker’s Federation expressed her joy over Versace joining the voluntary ban and hoped that this move would spur other Italian designers to follow suite, saying “It would really send a big message out if the influential fashion names in Italy… said they too would stop selling these products.”

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