Gerry, the Voice (and many would say the conscience) of Pier 32 pointed me at an article last week that filled me with both anger and sadness. A wave of suicides amongst Indian famers has seen over a quarter of a million deaths in the last 16 years, mostly in the fast rising market for cotton.
The farmers take out huge loans for hybrid seeds, which are sold to them as fast-growing and high yield. Unfortunately, these seeds are unsuited to the harsh Indian climate, and give poor returns or even fail entirely. Faced with a debt they cannot pay, the farmers take the only way out they see left to them.
In the ethical market we can claim great gains and progress in fairly traded products, ensuring that our producers get a fair wage. But in the mass market this protection is still in it's early stages, and hundreds and thousands of people are falling through the gaps. This isn't a problem that's exclusive to the textile and clothing industry, of course--Chinese factories producing goods for the computing market have had spates of suicides that led to some buildings sprouting nets to catch depressed workers who were flinging themselves off the roof.
Our voracious hunger for cheap clothes has led to a globalised market that cares little for the people at the sharp end of the process. Big agricultural companies will happily sell seeds to farmers without asking the right questions about the land in which they're to be planted. Textile companies will always avoid unpleasant questions about the source of their cotton. Clothing manufacturers are slowly learning to look back through their supply chain and look out for blatant abuse. But short of a ban on hybrid crops in India and a significant increase in education on what crops can work in any given terrain, there will always be tragedies.
I'd love to say that there's something that we as consumers can do to help the situation, but I can't see what that might be. It's a symptom of unchecked and unregulated globalisation, a storm of unkept promises and lies that's leaving the farms of India without farmers. When the only thing these farms are producing are widows, it's certain that something has gone badly wrong.