A novel with a conscience – The dark side of fashion
Corban Addison has written a novel with conscience. From a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh to Malaysia to Jordan, this is a novel which delves into the murky workings of international clothes manufacturing. An important subject and one which affects us all.
Do we really know where our clothes come from and who makes them? What does go on behind the scenes of the fashion industry? Foreign workers in distant lands who create the clothes on our back…
I needed to talk to the man who has brought such an important issue into fiction..
BOOKTRAIL IT HERE – A Harvest of Thorns
Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you want to bring awareness to the abuses within the fashion industry?
A couple of years ago, my wife suggested I write a novel about forced labor. I’d written about sex trafficking in my first novel, A Walk Across the Sun, but I’d barely scratched the surface of the labor side of trafficking. I decided to focus on the fashion industry because its products literally touch all of us 99% of our lives. When I was younger, I never thought about where my clothes come from. I never thought about the human hands that make them. I didn’t think about the factories where they’re made. I participated uncritically in the great illusion of the consumer economy—that the things we love to buy and wear just magically appear in stores and online.
The more I looked into it, however, the more I came to realize that fashion—especially fast fashion and discount fashion—are predicated upon an extractive business model wherein the brands constantly pressures their suppliers to make for less, and suppliers cut corners to make the numbers work and keep the orders coming. This vicious cycle results in the exploitation of workers in sweatshops, forced labor, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse. It also leads to vast environmental degradation. According to Eileen Fisher, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world behind oil and gas. As consumers, however, we never see this. All we see are the pretty things the brands want us to buy.
How did you research the working conditions in garment factories in Asia?
On the ground research is critical to my process. My novels only work if they’re saturated with the real world. I’m not interested in making things up unless I absolutely have to for the sake of the narrative. To research the fashion industry, I traveled around the world and into the heart of the global apparel supply chain. I interviewed workers who survived the Tazreen Fashions fire in Bangladesh by jumping out of the upper floors of the burning building while making a last-minute order for Walmart.
I interviewed workers in Malaysia making for the sporting brands Adidas, Reebok, Mizuno, and Polo. All of them were victims of forced labor. All had been duped by unscrupulous labor brokers into signing contracts with onerous fees that meant they worked for years without pay.
I went to Jordan—a country that makes for a bunch of American brands because of the free trade agreement between Jordan and the United States—and interviewed human rights activists and experts from the International Labor Organization. In addition to conditions of forced labor, Jordanian factories have been the site of some really awful instances of sexual abuse and rape.
In these places and others, I spent time with factory owners and managers, buying agents and social auditors, human rights lawyers, journalists, and academics to learn the truth about the way the fashion brands do business. My goal was to write a compelling novel that is fun to read and that at the same time asks fundamental questions about the soul of the consumer economy and explores the true cost of clothing.
How has your background as a travel writer and lawyer helped you write your stories?
My background in the law has been invaluable in researching topics in international human rights. My law degree has opened doors for me with experts, and my understanding of legal structures and policy has helped me to make sense of complex subjects. At the same time, the research I do is far more like investigative journalism than legal work. I’ve had to learn how to develop leads and contacts in foreign countries. I’ve had to hire fixers and security teams and learn who to trust. My travels have taught me that the world isn’t as scary as people often imagine. Human beings are basically the same everywhere. Most are decent. Only a few are dangerous. Just about any place is accessible if you know the right people. The key is being able to articulate the why. Why should people help me? My stories are a pretty good reason. People love to help when they realize I’m going to be writing a story about the world they live and work in every day.
Why bring awareness to these issues through fiction instead of non-fiction?
I couldn’t do what I do as a novelist without the work of great investigative journalists and non-fiction writers who inform my research. But story does something special when it comes into contact with the human heart. It unlocks us. Story gets past our presuppositions and prejudices, and offers us a perspective on the world that is quite rare, really. It gives us the chance to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. By the end of a great story, we find ourselves caring about the characters, their circumstances, and the challenges they face. Our capacity for empathy increases. This happens instinctively, without conscious thought. Great stories have the power to change us.
And on that positive note, I would like to thank Corban Addison for taking the time to provide fascinating insight and some poignant photos from his travels.
Booktrail Boarding Pass: Corban Addison A Harvest of Thorns