Organic Consumers Association

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Care What You Wear

Your Clothes Are Making Indian Cotton Farmers Commit Suicide

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Clothes For a Change Campaign page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

 In the same month that 125 Bangladeshi fabric workers died in a factory fire, a film aiming to expose the tragedy of unrestricted globalized fashion called Dirty White Gold reached its Sponsume target of 18,000 (about $27,000). The film begins by examining the hundreds of thousands of Indian cotton farmers who, saddled with economic hopelessness, have taken their own lives. It's a jolly little piece.

A Center for Human Rights and Global Justice report describes the root of the problem: At the turn of the millennium, Indian farmers who had been given access to a wider range of products after India's market liberalization started buying genetically modified Bollgard Bt cotton seeds from the Gates Foundation-backed Monsanto corporation. The seeds were able to resist and kill the common American Bollworm cotton pest, making them an instant hit, with 85 percent of cotton grown in India being Monsanto-controlled Bt cotton by 2009.

However, the seeds were expensive, and spiralling prices (coupled with planting restrictions from the multinationals selling the seeds) led to farmers approaching money lenders for hefty loans that eventually turned into unmanageable debt. Almost 300,000 cotton workers have committed suicide to date, some of them by drinking the same insecticides they were sold by multinationals. And those suicides also bring up wider questions about the ethics of the fashion industry as a whole, in that this cotton is used in the clothes that end up absolutely everywhere.

India's embrace of the free market opened the floodgates for international money and, perhaps predictably, the corporatization of agriculture vanquished the need for the small-to-medium scale farmers who used to own and control the productive process. For roughly 100 rupees per day (about $1.80), these people are now contracted to spread toxic insecticides and fertilizers, often with little or no protective clothing. I called up the director of Dirty White Gold, London-based journalist Leah Borromeo, to see if the situation could possibly get any more depressing. 

VICE: Hi, Leah. How far along into the film are you at the moment?
Leah Borromeo:
Some days I feel like I'm a quarter of the way done, and other days I feel like I'm only an eighth of the way done. It's going to be out in 2014, toward the end of summer. I've got a deadline, so I'm trying to get everything done by then, but I can't rush nature-quite literally, in this case.

What made you want to work on this topic in particular?
I was doing it as a straightforward magazine article, but I ended up bringing a camera with me and found so many stories within that surface story. Then I found there was a real, genuine chance to express globalization, capitalism, consumerism, and all the wider political and social arguments through the medium of this story.

Yeah, you could look at it as a single issue, but obviously the problem is vast, and arguably a consequence of global capitalism. It embodies absolutely everything. Fashion is the one piece of art that people tend to consume either consciously or unconsciously. The two best foils for relating to consumerism are through food or fashion. Food is quite a niche thing, because not everybody eats meat, but everybody-for the most part-seems to wear clothes.

I guess one problem is that people hear about how awful unethical the practices are, but economic necessity can force them to shop cheap anyway.
It's using the poor to target the poor, in that sense. It's an obtuse battlefield if you want to look at it that way. You can fall foul of targeting those who can't afford to buy into what is now a more ethical lifestyle. At present, having ethical sustainability or buying into the idea is very much a preserve of those who can afford it, and that's not what we're trying to achieve. We want to make it the norm, so that everyone has no other option but to buy ethically and sustainably. As a business owner, if you sacrifice a little of your profit, you'll still be making money, but you'll also be able to ensure that everyone else down the line gets paid and treated fairly.
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