Your Clothes Are Making Indian Cotton Farmers Commit Suicide

By Tamlin Magee

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

A Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice report describes the root of the problem: At the turn of the millennium, Indian farmers – enabled access to a wider range of products after India's market liberalisation – 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 corporatisation 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 (just over one pound), these people are now contracted to spread toxic insecticides and fertilisers, 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. 


Leah Borromeo interviewing Hanuman, an indebted cotton farmer.

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, some days I feel like I'm only an eighth of the way done. It's going to be out in 2014, towards 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, 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 globalisation, 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, yeah. 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 through fashion. Food is quite a niche thing, because not everybody eats meat, but everybody – for the most part – seems to wear clothes.


Prathiba, a widow, with her daughters and a painting of her late husband.

I guess a problem is that people hear about how awful unethical practices are, but economic necessity can force people 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.

There's a myth about consumer consciousness and voting with your wallet, but when you've got no choice but to buy the cheapest, you're stuck.
Funnily enough, one of the brands that's most ethical is Levi's, because they very quietly had this scheme where, if any of their jeans broke, you could take them back and get another pair for free. But they don't put a label on and say "check us out", because it's commercially off-putting. Another thing is that you don't have to pay more for ethics and sustainability within fashion. 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.

Will that ever happen without strict regulation?
Some brands do it voluntarily, but I doubt it would happen unless you actually legislate for supply chain transparency across the system. These days, companies will find themselves with a factory that's caught fire and killed 161 people, and they'll say, "It was a contractor that hired them, not us." But if you have to be completely transparent, you won't be able to absolve yourself of any of those crimes and you'll have to be more strict about the people you decide to do business with.


Workers at the Sanskar cotton mill.

So it's something they can just hide away at the moment.
Yeah. Look at the horsemeat scandal: it took the attention that got from the public for Tesco to say, "OK, we're going to source all of our beef from Great Britain now." There's obviously a gap between what you put in your body and what you put on your body, but I don't think it's too much of a psychological gap to bridge. Transparency is very much on a lot of people's minds, it's only a matter of time before we start getting transparency for what you wear.

Parts of your film are going to be deeply unsettling. Do you think those stories will still be relatable for consumers, instead of just inducing that guilt complex typical of so many documentaries?
Guilt is something I don't necessarily like to play on, but it's something that's fairly inevitable. I feel guilty; that's one of the reasons why I decided to do it. I came to realise my own complicity as a consumer in the deaths and suffering of people lower down the value chain. And that's one of my primary motivators – not just to alleviate that, but to make sure other people realise. I know we're all suffering from the recession and everything else right now, but just because we're in the shit, doesn't mean we have to leave everyone else in it as well.


A selection of the pesticides used on Indian farms.

Ideally, what do you want to achieve with the film?
Official legislation for transparency, but that's not something that can be an instant quick-fix – we're looking at possible a ten-, 15-, 20-year scheme. We're looking at long-term goals rather than short-term gestures. Do we really want to carry on feeding our own debt and our own penury through our consumer habits? It's a state of self-destructive consumerist behaviour and it's something that we can address and change, but it has to be something that we're willing or made to change.

What are the non-legislative ways we could introduce that sooner?
Stuff like getting young designers, as they're coming to schools and universities, to start working in ethics and sustainability from the point of concept. So that when they're thinking about the designs, they'll have to think, "How is this going to be eco?" or "How is this going to be sustainable?"

From an environmental perspective, I guess it's not only desirable, but necessary.
Yeah. There's a fatalistic aspect of me that thinks we've already done as much damage as can possibly be done and we're just delaying the inevitable, to a certain degree. But there's also the optimist in me that thinks we're still at a point where grass still grows and trees are still green, and we can make sure it stays that way.

Thanks, Leah.

Follow Tamlin on Twitter: @wegotblankets

More from India:

The Burnt and Bloodied Sex Workers of South Mumbai

India's Street Doctors Will Bleed the Sickness Right Out of You

Wait, Are These Taxi Drivers Sleeping or Dead?

I Shat My Way to Love In Kashmir

Comments