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Screen Shot from Dirty White Gold

Unpicking Cotton's Dirty Secrets

“When you bag a bargain, who pays for it?” is the question that journalist and filmmaker, Leah Borromeo, asks in her documentary Dirty White Gold. This film the will unpick the entire cotton supply chain, from seed to store, and attempt to answer why as many as 26 Indian cotton farmers a day are committing suicide to get out of debt. Dirty White Gold hopes to redress the imbalance endemic within the fashion industry by calling for better practice incorporating ethics, sustainability and transparency.

The documentary involves the likes of The Yes Men, Reverend Billy, Barnbrook and the Space Hijackers so it won’t be your ordinary documentary and will require engaging in direct action. You can view the trailer below:

Simply ‘going organic’ might not be the immediate answer to the problem. It is widely unknown that for a farmer’s field to actually achieve organic certification they can’t use pesticides for three years and must take the financial hit of a significantly lower yield. As Leah Borromeo tells Urban Times,

Sometimes saying “go organic” makes you come across like a prat. Especially when the farmer you’re telling it to probably can’t afford to eat that week. There’s something afoot in India that I can’t really go into right now…the team have been sworn to a kind of secrecy. We’ve not even been allowed to film it or say anything more about it. But if it succeeds, it could change the game plan of agriculture forever.

Screen Shot from Dirty White Gold

“A movie like this can let far more of us know the political economy behind what we wear. And although knowledge is the first step to action, the brilliance of this film is that it also shows action!”- Mike Bonnano, The Yes Men

It is commonly perceived that sustainable fashion comes at a high price but Borromeo insists that neither the consumer, nor the farmer, need feel the hit in order to have ethics and sustainability in fashion. In fact she went so far as to say:

Everything can be done on the level – we just need some transparency. If that means ruffling some multinational feathers, cutting out the middleman and kicking up some governmental corruption dirt, so be it.

The onus is instead on luxury brands to incorporate sustainability into their modus operandi as their actions have a trickle down effect on the highstreet stores looking to copy their styles. The likes of Primark, H&M and Tesco will follow the example set by the high fashion sector, as Borromeo goes on to explain:

The luxury brands source their fabric from the very same suppliers as the cheapo places. Those are the aspirational brands and taste-makers that will and can change how people view sustainability and ethics. I view it a bit like the Roman Empire and Christianity. The day the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the faith of the Empire was the day he changed the world … irrevocably. If you have one of these major design houses openly declare that they will have supply chain transparency and will only buy 100% organic cotton sourced from suppliers that give farmers and factory workers living wages … I think the rest of the fashion world will follow suit. And the rag trade will change for the better.

Screen Shot from Dirty White Gold

“Good design is not just about the look, or even just the function; an object cannot be ‘well designed’ if its production causes misery and harm … that is why we became interested in this project, we felt that it was a very direct and clear attempt to make us all understand a little more about one of the basic materials we all take for granted in our everyday life.” – Barnbrook

The journey to making the documentary first started in 2009 when, following an article that she wrote on pesticides and fashion, Borromeo was invited on a press junket to India. It was here that she first learned about the 300,0000 farmer suicides that have occurred since 1995; some killing themselves by drinking the very pesticides with which they farm. Borromeo believes that films can be the perfect vehicle for raising awareness; through the power of storytelling and activism she can use her art to explore solutions to an otherwise devastating phenomenon:

I want to do for cotton what films have done for fish and coffee and bananas and fracking and golf courses in Scotland. Films can make a difference. And they can serve as focal points and talismans for all sorts of campaigns. If we can get something like Rapanui’s labeling system to be the norm in fashion – that would be amazing. If we can stop greenwashing and exploitation and death in fashion that would be the best. Because we really don’t need to screw anyone over for money – what’s the point of gaining the world and losing your soul?

It is Borromeo’s hope that Dirty White Gold can help towards enforcing said legislation within the fashion industry:

Real solutions and real change comes with change in legislation – that’s the stuff that can control corporations and wrangle in monopolies. That’s the stuff that can ensure fair pay and fair play for the little guy. That’s the stuff that can really make a difference. A film can help towards that – because the stories we tell and the campaigns we run can pull at those strings of power.

Whether this film is made is in your hands. Donate to have it made here and help create a better future for fashion’s real victims.