Cotton Road - The Human Story behind Cotton Supply Chains

PHOTO COURTESY COTTON ROAD  |  LAURA KISSEL & LI ZHEN AT YANGSHAN DEEPWATER PORT

Many people pause to wonder why their clothing is so cheap and how it is made, but Laura Kissel, the director, producer, videographer and editor (phew) of Cotton Road went a few hundred steps further and decided to investigate a cotton supply chain.

Kissel was working on a different film in the early 2000s at a cotton farm when inspiration hit. She had recorded the life of the cotton plants from seed to harvest and then onto the ginning process but was left wondering where the cotton went to next. In 2008 Kissel began filming for Cotton Road at a farm in South Carolina and then in 2009 ventured to China to film workers further along the supply chain to find out the answers to this question.

While she was unable to follow a single bale of cotton through the entire supply chain, Kissel realised that it wasn’t really a story about that in the end. “It’s about these industrial things yes, but it’s also about labour and that’s human,” she says of the film’s message. Kissel really humanises the processes that take place along the supply chain by telling the stories of the workers themselves, respectfully and without judgement.

In the US she speaks with Carl Brown, a farmer from South Carolina, and follows the ups and downs of cotton farming. Then there’s the Mexican workers in the ginning factory that are living and working away from their families, counting down the days on the calendar until they can return home.

In China, Kissel interviews lively warehouse workers, workers at the weaving factory and finally cut-and-sew garment workers. One of the film’s more animated characters, garment factory owner Mrs Jiang, speaks candidly in the film of her exasperation with the demands of brands and retailers. She talks about how she is forced to take large orders at ever decreasing prices, that are to be completed within ever shrinking time frames. This leads to cutting costs wherever possible and unfortunately for the workers, this generally means working conditions aren’t great. Kissel confesses that one of the factories was so hot that the person she was interviewing sweat so profusely that she broke a microphone. Weather is not the only factor workers have to deal with. Low wages and long hours are a part of daily life. Factories are squeezed by brands for the lowest price possible and Kissel shares that these pressures led Mrs Jiang to close her factory after filming had finished.

When asked about how she thinks the workers within the cotton supply chain could be empowered, Kissel says that especially with regards to China, less hours and better pay would make all the difference. During the filming she wanted to be invited in to a worker’s dorm room to see how they lived, but she found it impossible as they were always working. Kissel says that paying a worker more so they don’t have to work so many hours would really free up time to help them learn new things. Paying them a decent living wage would also allow them to save and plan for the future.

Throughout the film, Cotton Road weaves the complexities of the fashion industry with the stories of those living its reality. It’s a story of struggle and endurance but also hope and humanity. We here at JUST highly recommend you make the effort to see it.

To learn more about the film and where it is screening head to the Cotton Road website. Watch the trailer below.

MeganO

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