Exposing the Underbelly of Global Supply Chains
an interview with Corban Addison
The Fletcher Forum spoke with Corban Addison earlier this month to discuss his new novel, A Harvest of Thorns, and the challenges faced by so many in the global fashion industry. Below is an excerpt from the longer version of this interview, which will be featured in the Summer 2017 Print Edition of The Fletcher Forum.
Fletcher Forum: A Harvest of Thorns exposes the dark underbelly of global supply chains in the clothing industry. Based on your research, would you say that the challenges faced in the clothing industry are unique or are there similar issues in other industries? Are there any industries that are doing it right?
Corban Addison: I love to give credit where credit is due: it was my wife who suggested I write a novel about the other side of human trafficking—forced labor. It’s a massive issue that touches the entire consumer economy. All you have to do is go on the Department of Labor’s website and look up their tainted goods list. It shows every industry in every country that is touched by forced and child labor, and it’s virtually every industry imaginable in virtually every place imaginable. So no, this is not unique at all to fashion.
Now fashion has—and this is true of any factory-based or manufacturing-based industry—more than just forced and child labor. It has the whole sweatshop side, which is part of what I tried to bring out in this particular story. I didn’t want A Harvest of Thorns to just be about forced labor and child labor. I wanted to really go to the heart of how the global consumer economy sources stuff to us in the west and why that sourcing process is very often abusive and exploitative. Now not every place, not every factory, and not every brand is the same—some are worse than others. Some industries are more cutthroat in their pricing models. And I would say that fashion is one in which, especially in fast fashion and the discount brands, they press prices, lead times, and delivery times in a way that profoundly squeezes their suppliers. The industry creates the context in which exploitation breeds.
FF: We get insight into this in A Harvest of Thorns but what do you see as the role of consumers and investors in this space?
Addison: I brought consumers and investors into A Harvest of Thorns in tangential ways, but because of the limits of the narrative, the book is mostly about brand responsibility and the limitations of the law. Having said that, we consumers, if we could organize ourselves, have an immense amount of power. All of the consumer-facing brands are intensely conscious of their reputations—they guard it jealously. And that’s why Nike turned itself around—after the 1990s when the media ran story after story about the sweatshops making their clothes, they worked hard to change and have now become a model of sustainability in the industry. They’re not perfect, but they turned around largely because of the press and consumers.
That brings me to the investor question. The challenge that the brands have, especially the public ones, is that they have to answer to Wall Street; they have to answer to their investors. At the end of the day—and very often at the beginning—the investor community is only interested in one thing: making money. They are interested in quarterly statements and many of them, especially the hedge funds, are pushing for short-term gains and have no commitment whatsoever to the stocks they hold. The brands then have more pressure to make short-term decisions instead of long-term decisions and fewer incentives to consider the longer-term benefits of greater transparency and social responsibility.
As a result, investors have a huge role to play. There is a growing movement among the investor class. In fact, just last month, Pope Francis brought business leaders together at the Vatican to talk about how companies can be a force for good, not just for profit. Investors and consumers have different roles to play, but both can be powerful if done in a collective way.
FF: In recent years, the clothing industry has seen a rise in the number of social impact brands. How successful have these been in changing the clothing industry for the good? What needs to be improved to make them better?
Addison: As far as fashion brands are concerned, it’s easier to be ethical when you’re a company like Patagonia that started that way. Sustainability is built into Patagonia’s DNA. Patagonia is also a small, privately held company and therefore responsive to very different pressures than the big, publicly-held brands whose customers are looking for savings, not just quality. Patagonia has the benefit of a cult following of fairly affluent customers. If that’s your slice of the market, it’s going to be easier to pay your suppliers more and invest more in socially responsible initiatives. Brands like Everlane, Eileen Fisher, and Adidas are also great examples. Adidas, a public German brand—but public in the way that German companies are, which is different from the United States—is a standard-bearer for social responsibility, but their prices are higher. If your brand promise is low prices every day, period, like Walmart’s, you are going to have a hard time. I know good people at Walmart, and they’re trying to make this work, but it’s not easy to do.
At the end of the day, one of the things we’re going to have to admit as a society is that the true cost of fashion is being borne by the poorest of the poor; the invisible people working in the factories in the mills and the fields around the world; the people we never see. Their pain, their sweat, their tears, their blood is the cost of our addiction to cheap. We’re going to have to deal with the fact that, as a society, we are exploiting people endemically and systematically in our constant quest for cheaper and cheaper goods. And everybody is indicted. It’s consumers, brands, investors—everybody. We need the cultural shift—you might even call it a revolution—in our relationship to clothing. For fashion to be just, we’re going to have to pay a little more, and the brands are going to have to earn a little less.
About the Interviewee
Corban Addison is the internationally bestselling author of four novels: A Walk Across the Sun, The Garden of Burning Sand, The Tears of Dark Water, which won the inaugural Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award, and A Harvest of Thorns, just released on January 24. His novels address some of today's most pressing human rights issues. An attorney, activist, and world traveler, he is a supporter of numerous humanitarian causes, including the abolition of modern slavery and labor rights and supply chain transparency in the global economy.