Colourful sari scarves from my photoshoot last week

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Dirty White Gold : The film set to make waves

Image from Dirty White Gold film

Ethical fashion advocates have been pushing organic cotton into the spotlight for some years now, even a few mainstream retailers have committed to switching some production to organic. H&M has been the biggest user of organic cotton since 2010. But how many consumers actually know why conventional cotton is bad, and organic good? A new film in the pipeline is setting out to raise awareness of just such issues, and make some waves across the whole supply chain along the way.

The producers of the film Dirty White Gold are giving the public the chance to be a part of the change by asking them to directly support the making of this ground-breaking film.

What are the issues?

The people affected most by conventional farming practices are farmers and farming communities who work and live with these chemical pesticides on a daily basis. Serious health issues caused by inhalation of pesticides are common There are also major adverse affects on the natural environment and complete destruction of delicate eco-systems. These issues and many more face thousands of small scale Indian farmers caught up in the cycle of conventional cotton farming.

All farming started as organic, reliant on well balanced eco-systems. Then came some clever representatives who persuaded farmers that using chemical pesticides and GM seeds would bring them greater crops. Excited by this huge potential many farmers converted.

The sad truth is that although they may experience increased yield initially, the pests build up resistance and the farmers are forced to use more and more chemicals to sustain their crops. After a few harvests the natural ecosystem becomes so damaged that any benefits provided by the once rich soil has completely disappeared, creating a total reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and GM seeds.

Just a small number of multinational agro chemical companies control all sale and distribution of pesticides, seeds and chemical fertilisers in India and across the world. They have the power to control the market and create demand for their products, increasing prices as they wish. The farmers have no choice but to pay, they must purchase their seeds.

While the majority of organic farmers use local seeds stored from their previous harvest, the pesticide reliant farmers must purchase seeds from the same companies selling them their pesticides. And there is no guarantee of a good harvest; if the crop fails the farmer has no come back on the companies who supplied the seeds. They must start over again by purchase and re-sowing more seeds.

The ever increasing price of seeds and pesticides, along with failing crops, are causing farmers to get into spiralling debt. They are leading simple, rural lives and do not have the knowledge or power to challenge the system they find themselves in. They take loans to pre-pay for their seeds and chemicals, and when their crops fail, many have taken their own lives with the same chemicals that had promised them a better future. The irony is sickening.

Organic Cotton – a way out?

Organic cotton farming is one way to stop the heavy reliance on chemicals, but converting to organic is a transitional process which takes up to five years. Only then can ‘organic’ status be applied for. Many consumers are aware of organic cotton, but at the moment there is little awareness of ‘transitional’ cotton; cotton on the journey to become organic. One other lesser known classification is ‘better cotton’, identifying that not all farmers will have all the right conditions to produce organic cotton, but still want to work within improved ecological systems.

For farmers to consider converting to organic they need to see the financial benefit. This can often be gained through the higher premium offered for organic cotton, but at the moment there are few companies who pay high premium for ‘in transition’ or ‘better’ cotton. Education is needed to show farmers the wider benefits of pursuing more sustainable farming practices which include increased health, more fertile land, possible crop diversity, no reliance on third party, possible self sufficiency and less financial risk. But going organic or making said improvements is not an easy process and requires an initial capital investment which for many is enough to scare them off. It also involves re-learning farming and eco-systems which will differ from farm to farm, depending on their location, availability of water and many other factors.

The solution?

If governments and multinationals put as much effort into supporting the organic movement as they do into promoting, supporting and selling chemicals and GM seeds to farmers we would no longer have a problem. But that may well be the problem; multinational agro chem companies are happy travelling to all these remote farms promoting and selling their own brands as they get a nice financial return.

But who will pay for the organic farming training programs? The Indian government? it is the government who for many years have been offering subsidies on chemical fertilisers. Earlier this year they announced that they would reduce the subsidies on chemical fertilisers to encourage the use of more ecological fertilisers. But this kind of action needs to go hand in hand with educating the farmers about the alternative options, otherwise it is just taking more from those already reliant on chemical fertilisers.

The team behind the film ‘Dirty White Gold’ have decided enough is enough, they are out to make some waves by exposing the truth about conventional cotton production and its link to the many thousands of farmers committing suicide in India.

I hope this film can not only raise consumer awareness on the cost of cotton, but also ask serious questions about why only a handful of companies are allowed to control the livelihoods of vulnerable farmers. It is too late for so many, but this film has the potential to instigate lasting change. The more people involved and backing it, the harder it will be for those in power to wriggle out of their responsibilities.

Dirty White Gold : The Cotton Film:

This film will illustrate the horrific fiscal and physical effects of pesticides on cotton production, explore the viability of fairtrade and organic alternatives and try to prove that you don’t have to look like a patchouli-scented 60s throwback to have an ethical fashion industry.

Filmed in the fields and factories of India and the high streets and catwalks of London, this film and campaign incorporates reportage, video montage, direct action, artistic intervention and a multi-platform transmedia distribution plan. It will call for supply chain transparency across cotton industries….

Here is a great article from Urban Times which gives an overview of the film, including interview with the director Leah Borromeo. CLICK HERE

You can show your support by sponsoring the film : CLICK HERE

And follow Dirty White Gold on FACEBOOK

Here are a few links to further information on the subject:

PAN North America : Chemical Cartel – This is a real eye opener, we should be worried.

Times of India – Farmer Suicides You just need to search on Times of India for farmer suicide to see the scale of the issue.

PAN Europe – Pesticide Campaign Lots of info about pesticides including health and environmental risks.

EJF Foundation – Have you picked yours carfully EJF campaign for organic cotton and have evidenced the negative impacts of pesticide use.

Article: Greenpeace and farmers welcome government plan to shift subsidy from chemical fertilisers to ecological fertilisation

People Tree – Organic Cotton Fibre – Comparison between conventional and organic cotton.

A day of reflection on Day of the Girlchild

Today is the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, so I wanted to share with you why this day is so important in the little part of the world I am currently living. Based on my experience through volunteering with NGO RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), in Kanchipuram, South India.

In rural Kanchipuram there are still many landless tribal communities living pretty remote lives and affected by the caste system. Due to lack of education they are extremely poor, without any particular skills many end up working in stone quarries or as day labourers when the work is available.

It is still common in some of these communities for men to marry more than one woman, or girl; I’ve met a girl as young as 13 with a baby on her hip, accompanied by her husbands first wife. The role of the women is an isolated existence shared only with the other wives of the group. They don’t have the understanding of education to realise that it could help them out of poverty and provide their children with a better future.

RIDE tirelessly encourages and aids enrolment in school through all levels of society. They have had some success with the tribal communities through offering support, assisting with enrolment, paying for books and providing help with school fees.  However, even when the children do attend school, the girl is still vulnerable. She will be the one pulled out of school if help is needed at home, if someone is ill, if there is a younger sibling to look after, or if there is only enough money to send one child (the boy) to school. Without education, these girls are very much at risk, without sex education they are open to abuse.

RIDE has set up a system of support that reaches out to these children whether they are at school or not. Understanding that they will not necessarily get the encouragement from home to attend school, RIDE creates a safe and positive environment for the children at their centre in Arpakkam. They invite children from different communities to attend regular programs, to promote a positive attitude towards learning and play, and to create a safe and trusting environment where the children feel happy and able to express themselves. The children are taught though fun workshops, and encouraged to think positively about education and develop their own love for life and learning.

Being a grass roots organisation, RIDE is able to monitor and keep tabs on the children they feel are at risk, knowing them by name and understanding their individual circumstances. At the moment RIDE is focussed on the girls, as there are a few who are reaching womanhood without any real parental guidance. They are in need of support and counselling to help keep them out of danger and protected.

This is a slow, day to day challenge, but without RIDE, and many other grass roots charities and NGO’s around the world, these children and many like them would have no-one looking out for them. They are a great credit to OUR society as a whole and we should do all we can to support them in their tireless work.

To find out more about RIDE visit their website WWW.RIDEINDIA.ORG or their FACEBOOK PAGE

Sari scarf initiative with RIDE finally takes off!

The sari scarf initiative has finally taken off! After receiving interest from one of RIDE’s supporters to sell our products in their home countries a few months ago, we have since pushed forward with the project and began production.

Since the beginning of the year the Scarf Project team have been trying out different styles, techniques and fabrics looking for the best saris to make into scarves. The idea is to provide employment to some women from the local villages and pay a fair wage for their work (we pay twice the going rate for their sewing skills). Vasantha has been involved with RIDE for over 20 years on various projects. She has had a difficult life with her husband leaving her very soon after marriage. The nature of her culture meant that she did not remarry and therefore has no children. Having lost her own parents she now spends time looking after her nieces and nephews and helping others. In her spare time Vasantha has been teaching ladies in her village how to sew to earn a bit of extra income. She now acts as co-ordinator for the project, distributing work among the ladies and managing the production of the scarves. Britto, director of RIDE, manages the financial side and oversee the project.

At the weekend the team completed their first big batch of 250 scarves. These went off to the US with Olivia (the above mentioned RIDE supporter), who has been staying at RIDE for the past week to collaborate on the project and oversee the production of her order. We appreciated getting feedback on the scarves and are very happy to have Olivia on board. Olivia will now take on the US sales and distribution of the scarves.

I will be taking on the UK sales and distribution of the sari scarves, therefore if you have any enquiries please feel free to contact me.

We have also set up a small shop at RIDE so that we can offer tourists passing through the opportunity to view and buy the products, which includes scarves from this project as well as other items sourced from local producers. Visit RIDE’s website for more information on women’s empowerment and this project.

Power of the Senses

Yesterday RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education), the NGO I am volunteering with, hosted a program for a group of which included both visually impaired and blind participants from Austria. The day was enriching for all those involved and began with children from RIDE’s school presenting some of their recent work to the group, sing songs, rhymes and recite text in English. I was then given the opportunity to explain the work RIDE does and answer questions from the group, imparting some of the things I had learnt about the weaving communities, child labour, customs and village life.

In the afternoon they were taken to a local village where they were given the opportunity to wander freely, meet locals and get a taste of village life. They also participated in a variety of activities including a visit to the silk worm farm, visit to a silk weavers house, and a visit to some of the more remote temples around Kanchipuram.

The groups own tour guide did a fantastic job relaying the unique visual experience of travelling around India to those who were partially sighted or blind. Describing the landscape around, the dramatic colours, the ever present ‘cow in the road’. The experience gave me a renewed sense of wonder. When we have had visitors stay with us for the first time it is always amazing to see India through their eyes. Spending time with this group made me ‘see’ it differently again, with the senses rather than the eyes. India is a full on attack of the senses; the noise, the smells, the piles of rubbish, the heat, if you can get through this initial onslaught I guarantee you can learn to love it!

A humbling day at work

This week RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education) carried out a program for a group of 15 women who are all day labourers from the village of Arpakkam in Kanchipuram, in order to make contact with these women while also giving me the opportunity to learn first hand about their lives. The women work mainly in agriculture and sometimes stone quarries and struggle to get work on a daily basis. The process for labourers to get work on a daily basis is to stand at a collection point first thing in the morning and wait for a land owner to come and offer work. The landowner will chose their workers based on their looks and build alone and if you are not picked you go home.

RIDE provided the women with half a days paid work (paying more than their usual rate) to clear the ground of weeds at the RIDE training centre. I attended to be a part of the later discussions, however could not stand back and watch these women work. So I got the chance to be a day labourer, for all of about 1-2 hours (2 being a very generous estimate) in the searing Indian heat. It was an extremely humbling experience, especially as these women get paid so little for their work. The will usually get paid between 100-150 rupees for a days work (160 rupees = £2) and will only have very short lunch breaks eating basic rice with a watery broth. I suppose you get used to this situation but I don’t see how you can be upbeat, however we were laughing and joking and bonding with one another, the support of the group felt very strong.

At the end of the day RIDE held a discussion with the women to find out about about the problems affecting them and their families. Their main issues were not having a sustainable income, with many only getting work for 1-2 days a week, much less during monsoon rains and flooding. Also, many of the women have husbands who work in the stone quarries and are dependent on alcohol, which is where a lot of their wages end up being spent. Some are also beaten by drunk husbands. One woman told the group that she finds it best not to ask her husband for money or challenge him and instead she makes do with whatever little money he gives her plus whatever she can earn. This highlights how important it is for these women to have their own income in order to support themselves and their children, the majority of whom are now in full time education and changing their future paths. I also heard some enlightening stories from the women, many of whom have continued to send their children to school against all odds, two women have children in higher education and are so enthusiastic about their future prospects.

What is important for RIDE is to have a presence in these women’s lives and for them to know that they have people on their side who they can turn to. Jeyaraj the director of RIDE, gave a talk about human rights so that they may understand a bit more about their rights both at home and within society. They were also given a talk about multi-crop farming and the possibility, even with little land, to grow some vegetables in order to feed their families during hard times.

After the discussion the women were given a free lunch, provided by RIDE and served by RIDE staff, plus a gift of a sari each, donated by members of a local doctors surgery. Most of the women only have one sari which they wear every day so this gift was especially poignant.

India Calls

In just over two weeks my boyfriend (Berg) and I will be moving to India from the UK to spend a year living in Chennai. Berg is working on a migration project based in the city. My time will be split between working for an NGO and researching and writing about ethical fashion.

I have been working for Ethical Fashion Forum for the past few months and will be continuing my work with them while in India writing for the SOURCE Magazine.

I will be visiting sustainable fashion & textiles organisations and meeting contacts I have made through working in ethical fashion and via the Ethical Fashion Network.

I have also connected with an NGO called Rural Institute for Development and Education (RIDE) who I’ll be working with on a long-term basis.

Image: http://www.rideindia.org/activities.htm

RIDE work to support those people living and working in the rural villages of Tamil Nadu in the areas surrounding Chennai.

They carry out fantastic work by supporting children in the villages out of child labour and into education. They provide them with catch up lessons until the children are ready to enter regular schools. They also help the adults to start businesses which have the means to create sustainable income for their families. This is supported by their Entrepreneurial Development Programme which offers practical training in various different fields.

Many of the villages that RIDE work with are known for their exquisite hand-loom woven silk used for the most luxurious saris. This is an area I am very keen to learn more about and develop my understanding of this traditional craft. I’m also interested in the possibility of creating a knowledge transfer programme for those who would like to develop their skills in the fashion & textiles industry.