Follow the ‘Cotton Road’: The Fashion Industry’s Unflattering Supply Chain

Follow the 'Cotton Road': The Fashion Industry's Unflattering Supply Chain

Following the path of cotton from field to suit, Laura Kissel’s documentary “Cotton Road” sets out to explore the fashion industry’s previously elusive supply chain.

“Americans consume nearly 20 billion new items of clothing each year,” reads the opening on-screen caption, followed by the statistic: “98% of it is manufactured overseas.”

A domino effect is soon discovered: one that is largely influenced by U.S. economic conditions, expanding far beyond the fashion industry. That prevalence is first made evident by the dialogue of Carl Brown, a South Carolina cotton farmer, lamenting the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on agriculture. He explains that crops are treated with a chemical weed-killing combination of Roundup and Staple, highlighting the environmental impact of the apparel industry that can begin before factories even become involved. Then, he utters what is perhaps the most blood-boiling sentiment found in the film’s total running time:

“We cannot afford to pay the same price for fertilizer next year that we did this year,” Brown says. “Coupled with that, we’ve had these genetically modified seeds going up [in price]. Monsanto, who’s the primary player in the market, [is] adding to their technology fees.” The biotech giant, it turns out, threatens to appear in more household rooms than the kitchen.”*

Eventually, the cultivated cotton lands by ship in the pollution-fogged Shanghai, where Cathie Xu, a port logistics specialist, states what some might identify as the essence of the supply chain’s every wrongdoing. At first, she says with a laugh, she despised the smell of cotton, until her supervisor told her, “It’s the smell of money.”

“I like the smell now,” she says.

It’s a conviction echoed throughout the film, particularly in the narratives of Chinese textile factory employees: predominantly young women who come to the warehouse-laden, industrial Shanghai suburb of Changzhou out of financial necessity. One of them, Liu Chengfeng, was sent there by her mother at age 18. The money she would earn was necessary to fix the leaking roof of her family’s home, or else the house would flood. Her recollection of the dye factories she observed in Changzhou raise further environmental issues, as she describes “lots of terrible smells coming out, and some polluted water.”

Back in Shanghai, there are more factories. One of them, the Shanghai Sky-High Fashion Company, is managed by Jiang Guifang, a noticeably better-dressed, direct woman who keeps no secrets regarding the supply chain’s corrupt nature. Pay attention to Guifang; she’s the voice behind the documentary’s pivotal final 12 minutes, in which she definitively illustrates where the harmful nature of the cotton and clothing trade comes to fruition.

The first problem is the fee offered by American companies, which she says “has always been low,” but today, “the quantities have fallen. And the price offered now is even lower than before.”

Complicating matters are the factory inspections required by many of these American companies, the funds and time for which relatively small operations, like Guifang’s, do not have. Those who do pass the inspections, she implies, have done so through “underhanded” means.

“If you do business following all the standards, you can not survive,” Guifang explains. “For example, no working overtime. If they work overtime, you need to pay them several times their salary. How can we afford those salaries on the prices offered by American companies?”

In a sense, “Cotton Road” sheds more light on the implications of U.S. economic conditions than it does about its foreign counterparts; after all, it is on American farms where the path appears to begin. Domestically, there already exists the widespread dilemma of paying minimum-wage earners a sustainable living, leaving concerned citizens wondering how to resolve conflicts on both the national and international level. Can they be remedied with federal regulation and, if so, how? Or, is responsibility ultimately assigned to the private sector?

Guifang’s account, however, raises skepticism regarding the plausibility of efforts made by corporations to improve labor conditions overseas, challenging the idea that a significant number of international manufacturers even have the means to follow such standards. At the very least, “Cotton Road” prompts many personal considerations, leaving several members of its audience dejectedly motivated to check the labels of what they have elected to wear that day. The results mirror the montage of images displayed at the movie’s conclusion: A shuffling slideshow of labels originating in China, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The film leaves behind no uncertainty of a troubling reality. Rather, it begs the question of what can be done. To learn more about “Cotton Road” or to attend a screening, visit 

*A timeline of Monsanto’s penetration of the cotton seed market was compiled in Food & Water Watch’sMonsanto: A Corporate Profile.”

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Image: Mike Beauregard