Roadside sign in India, from the film’s trailer
Dirty White Gold is Leah Borromeo‘s film about cotton. It exposes a whole crop of problems with our clothes by unspooling high street supply chains right back to cotton seeds. Even what you think is a sweatshop-free t-shirt unravels to reveal a thread supplier using child labour, or a farmer in such heavy debt he’s killed himself. These cotton-to-coffin suicides are destroying Indian farming families.
Blood on the maps: film poster design by Peter Kennard @at_earth
Dirty White Gold “goes right the way back to seeds,” says Leah. “It’s a Saturday night date film.” Ha ha.
We’re here on a sunny Sunday afternoon as part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, and Leah‘s been invited by new magazine Stir to talk about her film. It’s not unusual now to promote and campaign around a film while you’re still making it, and after a successful round of crowdfunding, filming in India is complete and Dirty White Gold is now on its London leg.
Until a few years ago, Leah was deputy foreign editor at Sky News. That job ended when she made the news herself while protesting in her bra at the G20 summit. She was arrested for impersonating a police officer (there was also a truncheon and a tank involved).
Leah Borromeo filming Dirty White Gold
Leah comes across as both fun and formidable. On second hand clothing, she says. “No, it doesn’t smell of death. New clothes smell of death. You know that ‘new clothes’ smell you get when you walk into a shopping centre? That’s formaldehyde. On clothes marked 100% cotton, often they’re only 73% cotton. The rest is chemicals.”
I knew that ‘new clothes’ smell was too good to be true.
Dot questions where her cardigan was made: poster by Dr.D
It all comes back down to our old friend, capitalism. As the trailer says, “what you are witnessing is the death throes of smallholder agriculture, under the onslaught of corporations”. Farmers are tempted away from subsistence farming by cash crops, produced for their commercial value rather than for use by the farmer. So the farmer buys a box of cotton seeds, plus licenses, pesticides and insecticides (the Indian government has a 15% holding in one of the largest insecticide companies). He pays for labour to spray all those chemicals, and the money he gets back isn’t enough to make up what was spent. Plus, he’s competing on unlevel fields against US and EU farmers who get subsidies.
Trailer: watch the cotton industry unravel
So what can be done about rotten cotton?
“You can’t wander in with a colonial attitude,” says Leah. “It has to be organic. There are resistances in India, there needs to be education. There are collectives which support farmers switching to organic, and then make sure they get a fair price. But the market has to be there. At the moment farmers aren’t going for it because they’re scared.”
There are stats and facts, and then we’re onto actions we can take when we’re shopping.
“Ask yourself: do I need to buy it?” says Leah. “It’s not so much what you buy, as whether you should be buying in the first place.”
Secondly, “pick up a needle. There are lots of people who can repair clothes for you. The Denim Doctor is a guy in Salford who repairs jeans like new.”
Lastly, “think about where you buy.” Leah recommends shopping second hand or from Traid, and Claire from Traid who is in the audience explains that Traid supports the Pesticide Action Network and other projects to help improve the global textile supply chain. This makes me like their TRAIDremade label (available online) even more.
The clothing supply chain was an issue I thought I had all sewn up, especially with articles after the Savar building collapse about which high street stores are supposedly okay to shop from. But this film looks set to unpick the way we shop, and hopefully the way our clothes are made. Right back to the seed.
- Edun: the ethical fashion company founded by Ali Hewson & rock star Bono
- The Ace of TRAID
- Dem Collective: designed in Sweden by Annika Axelsson and Karin Stenmar
- TRAID ‘Sew Good’ workshops – free for all!
- Izzy Lane: an interview with ethical knitwear designer Isobel Davies