The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold – When you bag a bargain, who pays for it?

30th September 2012 by

One of our Cycle Tours alumni Cressida Kinnear, is involved in an amazing and important film about cotton.  She so kindly offered to tell us her tales and background about Dirty White Gold.

One of my favourite Otesha workshops to facilitate is the fashion workshop – I love the part  when everyone in the group takes a look at the labels in their clothes and marks the ‘made in’ origin on a big world map. It’s a great way of visualising how globalised our wardrobes are and starkly displaying the imbalances within the supply chains that deliver our socks, skirts and shirts to our toes, bums and backs. The workshop goes on to raise discussions around the exploitation (see War on Want campaign against Olympic providers adidas) and the waste (500,000 tonnes of clothes end up in UK land fills every year) that are intrinsic to the supply chains behind fashion fads and luxurious labels.

Imagine one of those items of clothing festering in a landfill – a crumpled, dirty, white t-shirt. Zoom right in on it, further than the eye can see – to the individual matrix of threads that make up the material, and then imagine back along the production line to the seed that was sown to grow the cotton plant which produced the fibres of that thread. That seed is the start of the commodity chain and invisible on the map plotting where our clothes were made. There is a strong possibility that that seed was planted in India, where cotton is predominantly a small holder crop grown by the rural poor. In India, almost 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since the mid 1990s – a large proportion of those deaths are among cotton farmers.

These farmers are mostly killing themselves to escape debt – debts which are largely due to the ‘liberalisation’ of Indian trade policies from the early 1990s onwards and the corporate take over of small scale agriculture. This neo-liberal phase of policy has neglected agriculture (on which 60% of the population rely) by removing subsidies and exposing farmers to the volatility of the global market. Multinational corporations have been ushered into the Indian economy and now totally dominate the input market for growing cotton and seem negligent of the lives on which their commercial activities and continuing expansion impact. Increasingly severe droughts and soil degradation via pesticides (54% of the total pesticides in use in India are used on cotton, including many classified by the WTO as highly toxic) are making the situation worse.

These suicides are so far removed from the finished product which is strutted up and down a catwalk, or donned to keep cosy on a wintery walk that they almost seem removed from the supply chain of our clothes – which of course they are not – consumers are complicit in these deaths.

 The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold is a documentary feature film by trouble maker and journalist Leah Borromeo which will tell the story of how we get out cotton and find out what we can do to, not just look good, but to do good. Filmed in the fields and factories of India and on the high streets and catwalks of London, it will trace the entire supply chain of cotton products, from seed to shop, exploring the roles played by all parties – from multinational seed companies and fashion empires to farmers who cultivate just a few acres of land. Issues including the intense use of pesticides, the debate around GM Bt cotton, fairly traded cotton and the viability of organic cotton production will be explored in a bid to answer the question – ‘When you bag a bargain, who’s paid for it?’.

Because the film is being made by Borromeo – friend of The Yes Men and The Space Hijackers – it’s not all cotton loom and doom. It may not be your average Saturday night date movie, but it will be quirky, funny and have a subversive twist – think Newsnight with some brandalism in the background.

The film has recently launched a crowdfund appeal, each £1 donated will unlock £3 in funding and there are loads of great rewards up for grabs including limited edition art works, t-shirts and tickets to future screenings.  Check out their trailer.

And click the link to find out more:

Spread the word and help a project aiming to make ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry the norm, rather than the exception.


2 Responses to “The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold – When you bag a bargain, who pays for it?”

  1. Vivienne Austin says:


    I understand the film has not been released yet? I am teaching a group of fashion students, and wondered if you had access to a segment of the documentary that I could show to raise awareness? I’ve emailed Leah, but haven’t heard back yet. Thanks in advance. V

  2. Tamsin says:

    Hi Vivienne, I’m about to email you with a contact. I’m sure we’ll be able to sort something out- great idea to show it to your students- let us know what they think about it!

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