Gallery: “Dirty White Gold’...

Dirty White Gold, Leah Borromeo, genetic engineering, genetic modification, conventional cotton, organic cotton, India, pesticides, toxic chemicals, farmer suicides, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, workers rights, human rights, forced labor, sweatshop labor, sweatshops, sweatshop workers

As Emmy Rossum and Zooey Deschanel like to remind us, cotton is the fabric of our lives. Yet its snow-white facade masks a less-than-rosy reality. Leah Borromeo, a journalist and filmmaker based in London, wants to unravel the complex web of “debts, pesticides, and suicides” that surrounds the fibers of our clothing. Nearly 300,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves over the years to escape the poverty trap of industrialized agriculture, some by drinking the very pesticides with which they farm, according to Borromeo. We caught up with the self-proclaimed troublemaker to learn more about her crowd-funded documentary, The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold, the human cost of cheap fashion, and why we need greater traceability and accountability in the fashion industry.

Dirty White Gold, Leah Borromeo, genetic engineering, genetic modification, conventional cotton, organic cotton, India, pesticides, toxic chemicals, farmer suicides, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, workers rights, human rights, forced labor, sweatshop labor, sweatshops, sweatshop workers

CHAIN CHAIN CHAIN

When we think of sustainable fashion, we tend to overlook the soil and the farmers. Do you agree?

Totally. You know what it’s like when you walk on soil that’s been hammered by chemicals and pesticides? It looks great, like if you colored in soil in a coloring book. No weeds, big plants. But it’s dry. Organic soil is so much softer. You know the plants have been allowed to grow naturally.

Farmers are the last in the chain. They work the most and they get the least.

I asked a widow farming with her son how the chemical fertilizer she was using felt on her hands. She said it stung, that her skin cracked. Those are the visible effects. Chemicals cause stuff like brain cancer, malformed births, renal failure—stuff that kills you slowly. The nitrates used to grow food is carcinogenic. You also get aluminum, lead, mercury…yum.

As for the farmers, they’re the last in the chain. They work the most and they get the least. Something has to be done about this so that they can get a fair, living wage.

Can we trust the idea of “organic” if farmers are possibly using genetically modified seeds or being pressured from outside sources to work the land even harder?

That’s the sort of thing we’re digging up everywhere. Cases where people “buy” certification. Cases where farmers sell organic and conventional cotton at market for the same price and where the dude who buys it off them sticks an “organic” badge on it and sells it on for loads more money. Cases where organic and conventional are cut together. It’s bloody corrupt and greed is what drives it. What sustains it is the knowledge that no one will do anything.

If high-end brands and consumers can make it desirable to be ethical, the cheapo knockoff ones will follow suit.

But we can change this. If we can get supply-chain transparency pushed into our legislation and have something akin to a health counter put on every article of clothing, for instance. That will have an effect all the way down to the farmer. We’re the ones with the pester power. If high-end brands and consumers can make it desirable to be ethical, the cheapo knockoff ones will follow suit. That will then resound to suppliers, manufacturers, mills, farmers. Our trade legislation has a voice. Let’s make it sing something nice.

We also have to be careful what we say about GM technology. It’s very easy to dismiss it because it is currently tied in to corporations that screw everyone over over intellectual property law. These corporations and governments also make people buy chemicals and fertilizers so as to bolster their related industries. They bind the farmer into commercial slavery and debt. But I will never demonize science—what’s evil is when knowledge and technology are tied in to the interests of a multinational. If someone could devise and open-source a straight-line, non-sterile cotton seed that can be farmed in drought, well…

Dirty White Gold, Leah Borromeo, genetic engineering, genetic modification, conventional cotton, organic cotton, India, pesticides, toxic chemicals, farmer suicides, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, workers rights, human rights, forced labor, sweatshop labor, sweatshops, sweatshop workers

OUR PLANET, OURSELVES

How much harder has it become for farmers to compete in a fast-fashion-paced model?

The farmer isn’t really out there to compete. They just need to grow enough so that, maybe, they can move from a mud house to a pukka house and on to a compound, etc. We have a real case of little guy versus the big guy here. We’re looking at a battle between Indian farmers and first-world corporate subsidies given to their own farmers. The Indian government sure as hell won’t extend a helping hand that far down the food chain. They’re in it for foreign investment in this relentless drive for wealth and industrialization. It’s the death of small-scale farming in favor of corporate agriculture.

The idea that shopping ethically means you have to pay a premium is rubbish.

I see the consumer and brands as the cavalry. If we, at the richest end, can push for supply-chain transparency then we can knock that effect throughout the chain. The idea that shopping ethically means you have to pay a premium is rubbish. You have to redistribute the wealth along the value chain and work towards shaking off a dependence on chemicals. Sure there will be some pissed-off unemployed brokers and middle men if we actually have full transparency, but everyone from the farmer to the mill to the manufacturer will be better off.

Farmers have a number of factors to consider—not forgetting weather!—but when it comes to fashion manufacturing, how far have we come in terms of human rights?

If you can comfortably buy a shirt at £100 knowing that a farmer has just spent a whole day in the baking heat carrying a 15-liter rucksack filled with insecticide for a quid’s wages, then you’re seriously deranged. Someone somewhere is making a killing through killing.

The people you should attack are the ones that drive families to make the choice between education and work for their children.

Saying that, I didn’t make too much of a noise at farmers who had their children working in the fields with them. Especially when it was a widow who had to send her children into the fields to help her after her husband killed himself. Chiding people at the coal-face about child labor isn’t really on. The people and systems you should attack are the ones that drive families to make the choice between education and work for their children—they’re the ones I’ve got the knife out for.

What will it take to get mainstream shoppers to think beyond the sparkle and shine of the stores they’ve come to love?

Transparency. It’s a loaded word. And the solutions I’m exploring in the film all have transparency at their heart. I’m not here to guilt-trip consumers—we’ve already proven that kind of thing only works for a certain demographic. We have to change the system to make ethics and sustainability the norm…not some premium yummy-mummy middle-class ideal.

I want to go into a store, buy a coat, and not have to think about whether anyone’s killed themselves in the making of it because a human morality is in every stitch.

+ The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold on Sponsume

+ The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold

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