International bestselling author Corban Addison sat down with Grace Farms Foundation's Library & Resources Manager, Kayla Beth Moore, to discuss his new novel, A Harvest of Thorns. Corban will be joining us at Grace Farms from 2 to 4 pm on January 28th as for the launch of A Harvest of Thorns. Visit our Calendar page to register for the book launch, or follow the event live on our Facebook page (@GraceFarmsCT).
Kayla Beth Moore: What can you do in fiction that you can't do in, say, an investigative report?
Corban Addison: I couldn’t do what I do as a novelist without great investigative journalism and non-fiction reporting. But story does something special when it comes into contact with the human heart. It unlocks us. Story gets past our presuppositions and prejudices, the “burdens of judgment,” as the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls liked to put it, and offers us a perspective on the world that is quite rare, really. It gives us the chance to walk a mile—or a lifetime—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. That’s why I write what I write.
KBM: Although your book is fiction, it’s clear that many of the business dynamics and methods of production are very, very real. In fact, you’ve become known for doing intense and immersive research for your books. What kinds of research and experiences for this book brought the troubles within the fashion industry alive for you?
CA: The memories that stick with me the most are often the people I meet on the road. In this case, the workers I met in Bangladesh who survived the Tazreen Fashions fire and the workers I met in Malaysia who were victims of forced labor. In their faces, I saw the human cost of fast fashion. But it wasn’t just the worker interviews I found fascinating. I met factory owners and entrepreneurs, buying agents and factory inspectors, activists, development experts, lawyers, and academics from numerous countries around the world. All of them made an impression on me. All of them helped me shape my story in a way that maximized its authenticity and power.
KBM: What are the prevailing themes in the book and were you conscious of them as you set out to create this fictional account?
CA: I wanted to write a story that would encourage my readers to ask deep questions about the soul of the modern consumer economy and that would reveal the true, human cost of fast fashion. I could have written a worker-centered story, as I’ve done with other novels. But I decided, after some thought, to write a story about a great American corporation with profound (though common) problems in its supply chain. I did this because my research showed that of all the stakeholders—consumers, investors, brands, and government—the multinational brands have the most power to effect meaningful change. At the same time, I gave workers a key voice in the narrative, and brought consumers, investors, and the government into it in different ways.
KBM: How do these themes tie in with what is happening in the world today?
CA: The political turmoil in 2016 was caused by a lot of things, but one of the key themes of the election cycle was the human cost of globalization. The media and the candidates tended to focus on the US-centric lost jobs narrative, but the flip side is also true. The benefits all of us have reaped from globalization as consumers have not only hollowed out US manufacturing in a lot of sectors, including garments, but they have been energized to a disturbing extent by the systematic exploitation of the poorest of the global poor in countries all around the world. It’s crazy. As inflation has risen over the past 20 years, the cost of clothing has gone down. I just bought a pair of training shoes that would have cost at least $20 more when I was a teenager. At the same time, profits in the fashion industry have soared. This has been possible because the people at the bottom—the factory workers, the mill workers, and the field workers—have been squeezed, and the environmental cost of the industry—the vast waste and climate impact of disposable fashion—has been ignored and left for the next generation to clean up.
KBM: What is your personal hope for what people will come away with after reading this book?
CA: As a storyteller, I hope readers will love the story as a story. I hope it’s as fun to read as it was to write. But I also hope the journey will lead to greater enlightenment. I hope the story will make people think differently about the things they love to buy and wear. And I hope it will encourage people to join me in demanding that the fashion industry change the way that it does business.
KBM: Is it fair to assume that all large clothing companies that do their manufacturing overseas are, unbeknownst to corporate higher-ups, sometimes contracting with factories that enslave or abuse people? You paint a picture where, even with ethical regulations in place, abuses occur. How do we really know which ones are avoiding these abuses and treating people fairly?
CA: Unfortunately, there is very little transparency in the global apparel supply chain at present, except among socially conscious brands like Patagonia and Adidas, and even they have had problems with forced labor among their suppliers. The bigger brands often don’t know where their clothes are being made. They may know the first tier supplier that received the order, but they may not know the subcontractors who are fulfilling it (or much of it). And we consumers are clueless. As much as I’ve learned about this industry over the past couple of years, I still don’t know how to make ethical buying decisions on a daily basis. I can say that Patagonia and Adidas and Nike and Everlane and Eileen Fisher are industry leaders on sustainability. I can say that Target is launching a Fair Trade clothing label and that Gap is doing some creative and inspiring things to make its clothing more ethical. But I can’t say with confidence that any piece I’m considering on the rack is free of the taint of human rights abuse. Right now, there is simply no way to tell the difference between clean and tainted clothes, unless you make them yourself.
KBM: In A Harvest of Thorns, two of the main characters, Josh and Cameron, become personally entwined in the ethical dilemmas at stake in the book. These characters’ lives are fully absorbed into the drama of bringing these companies to justice. Do you feel that there are ways for people who are not Josh and Cameron, whose lives seemingly exist separate to these kinds of troubles, to help hold clothing companies accountable or to fight exploitative labor practices?
CA: The power we have as consumers is in our pocketbooks. We can choose to educate ourselves and to make the best buying decisions we can based on what we learn. We can also choose—and this is key, I believe—to change the way we look at our wardrobes. In past generations, people bought fewer items of higher quality. Clothes were designed to last for decades. The closets of the past were built to be smaller, literally, because people saw no need to own fifty pairs of shoes, dozens of handbags, or a hundred different ties. Fashion was still glamorous and fun, but it wasn’t disposable. Waste was minimal. In our fast fashion culture of today, we buy a lot of cheap, poorly made clothes that we don’t wear very often and then give (or throw) away. We think we’re saving money, but we’re actually spending more over the long run. And we’re contributing to the exploitation of workers and the environment around the globe. We need to rebuild the culture of slow fashion that emphasized quality over quantity. We’ve done this with food, so I know it’s possible. This is something all of us can do today.
KBM: How do you see A Harvest of Thorns in relation to the work that the Justice Initiative is doing at Grace Farms? Why launch the book here?
CA: As an organization, Grace Farms Foundation is deeply committed to the cause of building a more just and sustainable world. I spoke at the launch of the justice initiative back in 2015, and I can’t speak highly enough of what Krishna Patel and Grace Farms Foundation have been doing to combat human trafficking in Connecticut and beyond. Krishna is a dear friend and one of the luminaries of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States. She has also been an incredible champion of my work. I can’t think of a better place to launch A Harvest of Thorns than at Grace Farms.