For our January reading list, we're focusing on one book—out in the world as of January 24th. Corban Addison’s latest novel manages to weave a stay-up-way-past-your-bedtime-to-finish thriller around the realities and tragedies of the billion dollar fast fashion industry.
We talked with Corban, a lawyer by training, about the genesis for his new novel and how he feels about where we’re heading in terms of our relationship to what we wear and buy.
Tell us how the idea took root for you.
My wife, Marcy, gave me the original concept: Write a novel about forced labor (the other side of human trafficking). There are so many levels that are impacted by that, so many different people and places. It’s one thing to take on sex trafficking. [A previous novel, A Walk Across the Sun, involves that.] The transaction has a similar shape if every place. But forced labor can look different.
One of the challenges with human rights is that they feel distant and disconnected from our common experience. It’s easy to just turn away. But if I can make it relevant, if I can connect the exploitation to the behavior of ordinary people like you and me, and if I can show someone the human face, the real person, behind the abuse, suddenly it matters. The impact goes up.
I considered writing about the sugar industry or chocolate or coffee or toys. The Department of Labor has a tainted goods list. It’s a long, multi-page document showing all the products affected by forced and child labor. I settled on clothing because I realized there was a lot of research out there on it. I wouldn’t have to break a lot of new ground to get information. It’s also incredibly relevant. We spend 99% of our lives being touched by the fashion industry. This matters to every single one of us whether we like it or not.
The clothes I’m wearing right now, I don’t know where they came from. I can look on the label and see the country, but that doesn’t tell me anything. Factories are all different. Some are good; some are not so good; some are horrible. We as consumers don’t see what’s happening, and brands don’t want to tell us in part because they don’t want to look either.
I wrestled with how to tell a story that’s relevant, humane, and fun to read, that has the intrigue of a page-turner but also takes readers on a journey so they start asking questions. I wanted to turn this into a story that’s not just about the victims, but that’s about the corporate responsibility side. I wanted this to be about the soul of the consumer economy, the soul of business, as much as it is about consumer choice. I wanted it to be relevant to a lot of the conversations we’re having right now in society.
You did some hands-on research by traveling to many of the environments you write about. How did that work out?
At the beginning of every story I write, I really don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel. But I have a general notion of what I need. I’ve learned to be very adaptable, to go where the doors open. I had a friend in Malaysia who happened to have connections at an NGO in Kuala Lumpur. Some journalist friends connected me with friends in Bangladesh, one of whom served as a fixer for me. They told me to come and we’d work out the details when I got there.
My work is a bit like that of an investigative journalist. Curiosity is what drives good journalism, as does the willingness to risk and the desire to ask questions until answers appear. The “product” I create as a novelist isn't as risky as a piece of investigative journalism. I write stories that don't need to be fact-checked. But I want them to be authentic. I want to give my readers the sense that they’re there with me and my characters, on the ground, smelling the air, seeing the surroundings, feeling the atmosphere. I want to show people new dimensions of the real world through my stories.
Now that the novel is done and almost out in the world, where have you landed in terms of how you see the world you spent so much time researching and writing about?
Our addiction to cheap stuff in this country is like our addiction to junk food. To break the habit, it’s going to take a slow, generational process of education. We need to rethink our relationship to fashion, to exchange fast for slow in the same way we’re doing with food. When I was growing up twenty years ago, fast food was the norm. Now, McDonalds is serving kale salad. It can happen.
On corporate responsibility, it’s easy to focus on the negatives, but there's a bright side to that, too. Companies are slowly reconceiving the way they do business. There is a groundswell of interest in corporate responsibility right now, largely because of civil society, but also because of cultural shifts and consumer concerns about ethical sourcing.
We need to develop institutional incentives and business incentives for greater transparency and social responsibility. We’re all human beings, inside and outside the corporate world. We all want to go to bed at night believing our work has been useful and beneficial, and that it hasn't hurt anyone in the process. But sometimes that’s not true. Sometimes business does hurt people and the environment. People is business are waking up to this fact. Their consciences are kicking in. There are a lot of structural barriers to the change, but in ten to twenty years the world of product sourcing in fashion and otherwise is going to look a lot different than it does right now.