July 29th, 2013

the wealth fair state

…made in collaboration with Dr D, “BOB: or the Wealth Fair State” might be one of our most bad-taste political projects…at least this side of Christmas and the diazepam….


© Jenny Matthews

© Jenny Matthews

July 23rd, 2013

behind-the-scenes film of the greenpeace shard #iceclimb

Phone call.

It’s Greenpeace. They’d like me to come in to make a film about something “big”. One of their major campaigns at the moment is to stop a multinational oil company, Shell, from drilling in the Arctic. Big in this context usually means enormous.

A series of “phones off, no notes, and from now on you only refer to this project as xxxx” meetings commence. I’m to turn up at Greenpeace’s North London warehouse in the beginning of June to begin filming what would become the most daring urban climb this side of King Kong.

I met Liesbeth, Ali, Victo, Wiola, Sabine and Sandra. Six women selected from around the world who “climbed a bit” and wanted to save the Arctic. So they decided to use the tallest building in Europe as a massive billboard directed at the public and – crucially – Shell. A picket outside an AGM is alright, but those are usually ignored. Scaling a mahoosive glacier-like structure in the middle of London over climate change and Arctic drilling would grab far more attention – and seal itself into the public consciousness.

Working with Greenpeace is a bit like signing an environmentalist official secrets act. And because nobody really knows what everyone else is doing until they’re about to do it, you become accustomed to talking in coded circles – which I’m told is part of life on planet Greenpeace. “Sigmund” was the project’s code name…a well-thought-out Freudian pun. And one of the climbers has a serious fear of heights. But there is very little else I’m sure I can tell people…and there’s very little that needs to be said.

Here’s the film.
And here’s how you can sign up to help save the Arctic: http://iceclimb.savethearctic.org

July 15th, 2013

will transparency in the fashion industry ever become a reality?

Transparency and traceability were top of the agenda at the SOURCE summit, but what will it take for the fashion industry to tackle the destruction it leaves in its wake?

Ethical fashion‘s movers and shakers met at the Ethical Fashion Forum’s SOURCE Summit last Friday. Calling itself “the most important event for fashion and sustainability“, this was a one-day industry convention held at The Crystal in London.

It was a day where people working in the ever-growing ethical fashion ghetto could network and discuss the issues that colour the sector. As with any growing field, the future was discussed and debated at length along with the sustainability of sustainability, how to hit the mass appeal zeitgeist and, crucial to all this progress, transparency.

Like most things fashion, buzzwords abounded. “Ethics”. “Sustainability”. “Rana Plaza” – the Bangladeshi factory used to make clothes to feed the international demand for fast fashion which collapsed killing 1,127 workers this April. The reverberations from the tragedy run deep in this part of the fashion sector. Virtually every speaker mentioned it and there was a genuine sense everyone wanted to do something about it. However, very few people had the individual power to wish away the constructs that made that building fall apart.

Another burning concern was how to change an industry with industrial and worker exploitation embedded in the heart of its profit-making model.

“If you buy unsustainable fashion, you are telling brands it is okay to be unsustainable,” says Belgium fashion designer and former art director for Hugo Boss, Bruno Pieters.

“Reputation is important. If you look at luxury brands, they gained their consumer trust when they were small and hand-crafted. Everything was done to a high quality. Sure, you paid for it but you knew what you were getting.

“The disconnect happened when their production became industrialised. You were no longer getting the bespoke service but the markups remained the same. So now the heritage of what people are buying into isn’t what is being delivered.”

Pieters used to run Hugo Boss’s Hugo line and is a fashion industry ‘name’. Now running his own label, Honest by, which claims to be the first 100% transparent fashion brand, Pieters is a stealth hippie. His clothes and poise disguise a Gandhi-quoting vegan firmly committed to ensuring customers know what they are getting.

You can find out exactly what goes into all his clothes – from the farmers who grew it, the factories that made it and, controversially, what kind of profit he makes when he’s selling it to you.

“I created the brand because transparency was what I was looking for as a consumer but couldn’t find. I’m using it as a tool for change. Change doesn’t start with institutions. The pyramid of power in fashion has the designer at the bottom, then the CEO, the shareholders and at the very top is the consumer.”

Transparency was brought up on a panel about the future of ethical businesses to Vivienne Westwood‘s head of couture, Brigitte Stepputtis, via a question from the floor.

“If Vivienne is so concerned about the ethics of fashion, why doesn’t she have a transparent supply chain?”

It was the first question of the day and immediately set the tone for subsequent queries. Brigitte, who works on the higher end of the Westwood line and is an artist in her own right, diffused the frisson and said she would relay all of these questions to the boss.

“Change is happening, but it is a process,” Brigitte continued when we chatted later on. “Sourcing ethically will be difficult until governments legislate for that process. One of the most important issues for us is to be able to work sustainably but to scale. We have a global brand.

“It is easier for smaller lines to be more transparent because they don’t have the scale that we have. And we don’t have the scale the likes of H&M have. Many ethical producers and artisans can’t keep up with the thousands of metres of fabric that we need in the short timescales that we ask from them.”

Then surely the question shouldn’t be about what you consume but whether you should consume at all? “Part of sustainability is durability so we make our clothes to last for years, to be anti-fashion and always look good despite trends. Fashion will eventually be ethical and sustainable. For us, the next five years will see some big changes towards this because you will see big changes in the supply chain.”

Having only spotted two pairs of Birkenstocks amongst the hundreds of attendees who took great pride in their “look”, the notion that ethical fashion looks like an itchy Laura Ashley-print orgy is on its way out. Vogue.com‘s editor, Dolly Jones said “It’s all about design. If you show us pretty clothes, we’ll write about them.”

However, keynote speaker and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, Baroness Lola Young, said that “perfection can be a hindrance to progress”. She referred to a number of strictly puritanical activists who view corporate or mass media moves towards ethics with deep suspicion – the “go hard or go home” faction of ethical fashionistas who live the ideal and keep everybody in check. ASOS’s Ethical Trade Manager Alice Strevens echoes the industry line when she stressed the importance for the “sustainable agenda to sit with the commercial one”.

The shift towards a wider acceptance of transparency was thrown in to the spotlight after the deaths of over a thousand factory workers at Rana Plaza. But even before that tragedy, major brand agents like PPR – who generated over €9.7bn in revenue in 2012 – changed their name to Kering to reflect their changing values. Technology is getting a look in when Indigenous use QR codes to allow a consumers to trace their garment’s supply chain and MIT have a SourceMap that tracks global brands.

I can’t imagine swathes of fashionistas storming Topshop like its the Bastille and toppling Philip Green, but it will take a combination of radical thought, creative and directional design and a lot of consumer pressure to push governments towards legislation that makes transparency the business norm.

This article was first published in The Guardian, 15 July 2013.

July 6th, 2013

Peter Kennard’s G8 Protest Posters

Peter Kennard's G8 Protest Posters pasted up next to the Tesco off Mare Street, Hackney, London. © Leah Borromeo

Peter Kennard's G8 Protest Posters pasted up next to the Tesco off Mare Street, Hackney, London. © Leah Borromeo

Peter Kennard and I have been doing a thing around the G8 this year. He had some images. I suggested sticking them on the t’interwebs, open sourcing them and then pasting them up on the street.

They ended up in Enniskillen – the town nearest to where the G8 Summit was being held. Here, the person posting them was arrested for sticking them up on David Cameron’s Potemkin Village – the part of the town he pasted up photographs of full restaurants and prosperous shops over the boarded up doors and windows of actual closed ones.

He was taken to the police station and whilst the officer registering him was keen on locking him up, the Detective Inspector turned out to be a bit of an art fan. The DI saw Peter’s “Casino Boy” image, asked for a copy and our friend was sent on his merry way.

The posters were also picked up and posted around Glasgow, Manchester, Omagh, Loch CantRememberCantPronounce and some really really lovely kids in Brighton ran off some very nice stickers which were put to good use in London and Brighton. They got into the New Statesman, the Metro and a load of other publications.

Take one dude with some harrowing visual messages of truth, add a walking megaphone of a journalist with a trouble streak and here is the result. Suck on this, bitch.

May 8th, 2013

special offer for dirty white gold fans!


The new quarterly magazine – STIR – has just published The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold as their lead story this month! With beautiful artwork by Matthew Carey Simos for my article, it is really worth buying a print copy.

STIR is offering Dirty White Gold fans free postage for those who live in the UK (saving 30%) on their first issue, so it’s only £3.95. You can pay via GoCardless, a great small and British alternative to Paypal, here: https://gocardless.com/pay/4VSK8C21 or if you prefer Paypal you can send £3.95 to their account, which is stirtoaction@gmail.com with ‘Dirty White Gold’ in the notes.

April 17th, 2013

ding dong

Radical artist Peter Kennard was a chief satirist of Thatcher during her era. On the day of her funeral, Open Democracy revisited some of the images that captured the Iron Lady and her demons.

Maggie Regina, 1983. © Peter Kennard

Maggie Regina, 1983. © Peter Kennard

All images by Peter Kennard.

Text by Leah Borromeo.

Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 heralded a fresh and angry approach to the arts. An emergent alternative comedy of the 80s fed hungrily at increasingly more political targets while a vanguard of radical artists like Peter Kennard found ready lampoon fodder in Thatcherism’s demons.

Originally a painter who started his art career as a teenager painting out of his parents’ coal shed in Maida Vale, Peter Kennard turned to photomontage to better express his political fury and activism. An artist more concerned with the dissemination of ideas than the commodification of culture, Peter says his art in the 80s “shows there was a cultural resistance running in parallel with political resistance. It’s all the same. The images communicate to a wider group of people than words can – they were designed so everyone could visually understand real issues through the image.

My pictures gave people who felt appalled by Thatcher’s actions a boost. They had images that encapsulated what they were feeling. The fact they stem from photography lends them a reality and an urgency. As with back then, I want my images to open up thought processes about what people believe.

Tyranny lives through one vessel into another. Then it was Thatcher. Then Blair. Now Cameron. Same shit, different arsehole.”

Margaret Thatcher’s death has dug up her legacy – wounds that never truly healed because succeeding politicians have been all too keen to continue in her shadow. The privatisation of public services, the dismantling of the welfare state, a free market economy nurtured on individual greed instead of collective need – the effects of her actions still resound today. While the left, old and new, publicly celebrated the passing of conservativism’s most distinctive scion, Thatcher’s funeral arrangements silenced Big Ben and cost the taxpayer £10m. She even took away Big Ben’s right to strike. It’s what she would have wanted.

This article originally posted on Open Democracy, 17 April 2013.

March 15th, 2013

syria: two years of bloodshed [amnesty film]

The latest in my series of films for Amnesty International on torture and violent oppression from all sides of the Syrian conflict…and the need for a human rights revolution.

This film coincides with the release of two new briefings from Amnesty International. The first focuses on summary killings and other abuses by armed opposition groups. The second focuses on indiscriminate attacks by government forces on civilian targets including the use of cluster bombs.

More info: http://www2.amnesty.org.uk/blogs/campaigns/syria-two-years-new-amnesty-film-reports


Director: Leah Borromeo | @monstris

Producer: Kristyan Benedict (Amnesty UK) | @KreaseChan

Editor/Animator: James Paulley | @jamespaulley

Music: Ascher Nathan | @aschernathan

Artwork: Leah Borromeo | @monstris

Additional Artwork: Peter Kennard | @at_earth

Images: Amnesty International | James Lawler Duggan | Alessio Romenzi

February 28th, 2013

pop, politics and pubs: leah borromeo talks to eddie johnson

….about his book “Tales From the Two Puddings” on Resonance FM’s Clear Spot.

December 3rd, 2012

Waitrose urged by Greenpeace to #DumpShell

We’re part of a shadowy collective of filmmakers called the Agents of Intervention.

Greenpeace told us that Waitrose have an unholy partnership with arctic drillers Shell Oil.

So we agreed to make a film for them. You can find out more at http://greenpeace.org.uk/waitrose and spread the word using #DumpShell.

November 27th, 2012

why are Indian farmers committing suicides over their debts?

Every day, I Google “farmer suicides” and every day I see a new entry. I have a mantra which riffs on this: “Nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide to get out of debt since 1995. In the state of Maharashtra in 2006, 4,453 people committed suicide. That’s one every eight hours.”

If you close your eyes and wiggle your finger over a map of India near the middle you’ll land on Maharashtra. You’ll probably not be far from a town called Wardha in Vidarbha. Nestled between the cities of Amravati and Nagpur it’s got a population of just over a million people – most of them farmers. Specifically, cotton farmers. This is known as the “cotton suicide state”.

Farmers being in debt isn’t new and neither is suicide. What shocked me wasn’t that people did it but how many people did it and why. It was like a swathe of indebted farmers were trying to push the reset button because they felt they couldn’t make something work properly.

There’s a tendency to appear dismissive of the real life struggles of the Indian agrarian class with two words – “go organic”. As an ideal, it’s perfect. No chemical use so no nasty cancers, working with a seed that isn’t sterile and 95 per cent controlled by Monsanto and cheaper for the farmer. Yet it’s not that simple. A farm that’s been hammered with years of chemical abuse needs some detox time in order to qualify for an organic standard certificate. That means three years of farming organically without the perks of selling at organic prices. The fear of lower yield for farmers who are oftentimes below the poverty line is enough to keep them on the smack.

I met a farmer called Hanuman who borrowed 80,000 rupees from the bank so he could farm his five to six acres of land with cotton. A father of two, he spent 70,000 rupees on boxes of bt (bacillius thuringienis) cotton seed and pesticides. The technology for bt is owned by Monsanto and it is licensed to seed companies for use and sale across a range of crops. The seed Hanuman uses costs 950 rupees per kg – Monsanto gets around 180 rupees per box. What’s more, he has to buy fertilisers to help it grow and chemicals to keep the bugs away. He hires labourers at 100 rupees a day to spray those chemicals. In an average season, he’d spray 8-10 times.

This year, the monsoons came late and the wells were running dry. Hanuman doesn’t know how much yield he’ll get from his crop. He won’t know what money it will fetch until he takes it to market. Buyers there pay the same price for bt cotton (which starts off producing higher yield but slowly declines and is grown with pesticide) as they would for organic (lower yield, no pesticides, more manual work on the farm). Hanuman says the only reason he’d resort to a bit of organic farming is to cut back on the costs of chemicals. He’s scared he’d lose too much money.

Bt seeds are sterile – so that means he has to buy a fresh batch of seeds the next time around. When we last spoke, he said he’d have to borrow more money to buy more pesticides and pay for his sons’ schooling. Somewhere in that narrow margin of debt he has to find cash to keep his family together.

I befriended Prathiba, a widow whose daughter found her husband hanging inside their one-room house in 2007. Now sweeping floors for a living, she lives with one other daughter. She sent her son away because she couldn’t afford to keep him. She didn’t know her husband was in debt until she found a note in his pocket.

We also found Kantibai. Her husband drank the poison he used to farm on 09 August 2012. Like Prathiba, she didn’t know her family was in debt until someone brought her husband – dying from poisoning himself – to the house. He told her to look after their two sons and daughter and was whisked off in a rikshaw towards hospital. He never made it. We met her a month later in a state of blank desperation that will always stick with me. She really had no idea where her life would go from there.

Ignoring journalistic pretentions at impartiality, the team and I chased down Kishore Jagtap – a man who runs a local NGO with a widows and women’s empowerment programme. Kantibai’s village was an hour away from his usual patch but we drove him to meet her anyway. He taught her what she needed to do in order to apply for compensation, what sort of help was available to her and taught her sons how to sign on to a welfare work scheme. He also gave her his direct contact details and said to call him anytime. Kishore didn’t have to come with us. But he did. And for the first time, as we were leaving, Kantibai smiled.

India is around 60 per cent agrarian so we started at the bottom – with the farmers on whom the whole economy relies. We found that they were the first to give of themselves and yet the first to be abandoned as India runs headlong into the dizzying ether of free market economics (or as free as you can get when you’re bound to the World Trade Organisation and dole out corporate subsidies).

We found stories that challenge preconceived notions of poverty and need. We spent a day looking for the poorest farmer in a village only to be welcomed into his house and greeted with a brand new television with a dodgy colour tube. He’d spent a week’s wages on it. We saw farmers who grew chickpeas and sold them at the market for 30 rupees a kilo…and then went down the road to buy chickpeas for dinner at 50 rupees a kilo.

We saw gaps in basic education and farmers who had no one to teach them how to farm apart from the men who sold them the seeds and the chemicals.

We met economists, intellectuals, activists and scientists who lived lives dancing on dualities. Like the man who runs an organic seed bank but farms bt cotton to fund it. Or the etymologist developing a GM cottonseed that thrives in drought, can be farmed using organic methods and will undercut major seed companies if he’s allowed to open-source the technology.

We were met with enthusiasm, apathy and hostility. Sometimes within the same sentence. And we’ve only just started. We need to work our way up the cotton supply chain and get to know the workers, the brokers, the manufacturers, the buyers, the dealers, the designers, the retailers and the consumers.

I struggled with my privileged Western “let’s buy organic” idealism. It’s great if everybody plays ball but in a country that’s mired in corruption and kickbacks at the top and desperate penury at the bottom you feel a bit of a dick even suggesting it. Being treated to a show of women making organic insecticide out of cow piss and leaves in the dark of the night while their neighbours whispered “I don’t know why we always do this for visitors, it doesn’t work and no one actually uses it” didn’t help either.

It’s a journey. I’m aware what I come back with at the end may be different from what I expect to find. I’m exploring science and the idea of open-sourcing technology to take power away from corporations and anyone who makes a killing out of suicides. I want to see if we can make ethics and sustainability the norm in the fashion industry because people don’t have to die for the stuff we wear. It seems we may have to ruffle some very important feathers while we do that. Bring it on.

This article was first published in the New Statesman on 27 November 2012. Re-printed by permission of the author.