corban addison

Book Review: A Harvest of Thorns

A Harvest of Thorns ethical fashion book review

You may recall that I had the pleasure of interviewing/chatting with local author, Corban Addison, about his book on the fashion supply chain a few months ago. He gave me a copy of that book, A Harvest of Thorns, to read and I finally finished it!

I had a bit of a rough first quarter of the year - a late 20s crisis, you might say - and it was difficult for me to allow myself the mental quiet to just sit and read. Pair that with the fact that this wasn't exactly light reading - and it's 348 pages long - and I dragged my feet.

What is it about?

A Harvest of Thorns is based around the narratives of two lawyers who, at first, appear to be polar opposites. Washington DC based Cameron Alexander is a by-the-book corporate lawyer who works for Presto, one of the largest retail corporations in the world. Joshua Griswold is an out-of-work law-trained journalist who rose to fame by profiling human rights issues around the world.

Their paths cross when a photographer covering a fire at a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh uncovers a dark secret: despite Presto's Corporate Social Responsibility Standards, they were subcontracting with them. A young teenage girl is photographed, dead in the rubble, with a pair of Presto pants tied around her face to protect her from the smoke.

Note that Dhaka is the same city that, in real life, came to international attention first in 2012 when a fire broke out, killing over 110 and again in 2013 when Rana Plaza collapsed, killing over 1,100. Addison loosely based A Harvest of Thorns on the former event. He could not have anticipated that, just a year later, the worst garment factory disaster in history would strike Dhaka.

So what did I think?

I found A Harvest of Thorns to be incredibly well researched and informative. Addison cut no corners. He exhaustively tracked down garment workers, NGO employees, factory managers, and corporate representatives to ensure that his story was accurate. The fictionalized, narrative form makes it much easier to swallow the data.

However, this is the same quality that burdens the book overall: it's so detailed that sometimes character development is compromised for the sake of getting the facts right. I struggled to connect to the main characters, though I sympathized with their moral dilemmas. They felt like people I was reading about, not people I knew. And that is a regrettable weakness.

That being said, I don't regret reading the book at all. This was hands down the most comprehensive resource on the complexity of the garment industry I've ever had access to, and that makes it a must read. You may not become fully engrossed in the individual human stories, but you'll come out of it with solid, memorable information about the garment industry and a greater appreciation for the collective human story we tell when we participate in consumer culture. And that is invaluable.

I'll leave you with an excerpt that I found particularly compelling:

Workers like you are invisible to people in the United States, and Presto and its competitors are happy to keep it that way. They don't want their customers to see you because their customers aren't all that different from you. They're just people, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers. They would never allow their kids to work in places like [you work]. The reason they buy the clothes made in those factories is because they don't see the truth. Your pain and toil and tears have been erased from the picture. All that's left is the transaction, which makes Presto money, and keep the engine of the economy humming, and gives politicians their power, and allows Presto's CEO to take home twelve million dollars a year...Imagine if Presto actually had to account to the world for its sourcing practices.

You can buy A Harvest of Thorns here or here

You can learn more about Corban Addison and his books here.  

Writing As Moral Work: A Conversation with Author, Corban Addison

Corban Addison A Harvest of Thorns

Last Monday, I sat down with Corban Addison, bestselling author and fellow Charlottesvillian, for a chat about the research he conducted for his most recent book, A Harvest of Thorns, a fictionalized account of a garment factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh and the fallout for a global brand whose clothes were in it at the time.

The day was unseasonably warm, so we grabbed a table on the patio of a favorite local coffee shop and spent a couple hours weaving in and out of related topics. I'd originally anticipated recording a formal interview to turn into a transcript for StyleWise, but it felt right to let the conversation move with the breeze, to allow for the type of organic storytelling that Corban tries to capture in his fictional narratives.

On the State of the Fast Fashion Industry

In his research, Corban discovered that for the majority of garment workers, per-item costs would only have to take a hit of 2-4% to provide adequate wages. This is an amount that could easily be absorbed by corporations, most of which have a profit margin of around 70%, but even passing it onto the consumer would have a negligible effect in the long run.

Garment Work is Skilled Labor

Corban had the opportunity to visit several garment factories during his research. He was astounded by how quickly and skillfully the seamstresses worked. Garment work takes extreme attention to detail, excellent hand-eye coordination, and knowledge of machinery and yet, we call this type of work unskilled. It's time we change the language to value the artisans of mass production.

A Bangladeshi Garment Worker and Labor Rights Activist Speaks Out

Corban was able to attend an event in Sri Lanka last fall that brought together activists and major brands to discuss corporate social responsibility. A Bangladeshi garment worker and labor activist spoke up during the Question & Answer portion of the event requesting to send this message to Westerners:

Tell people in America not to stop buying Bangladeshi clothing. Speak up for workers' rights and demand that your corporations use safe factories, but know that we need the jobs - we need the production orders. 

Corban says that there are examples of factories in Bangladesh that are up to code (Nike uses state-of-the-art factory, Young One), but that many companies aren't using them because they're more expensive.

We must understand that it costs something to not abuse people, but that it doesn't cost as much as we may think.

Target May Be Leading the Way to a More Ethical Industry

Corban knows a few people at Target and he's excited about their plans. Target has already partnered with fair trade companies like PACT to release limited edition fair trade lines. A growing number of household and cosmetic products come from small, ethical brands and brand collaborations. And now, they're looking to find ways to release ethically sourced items on a larger scale.

He and I agreed that it will take a big box store like Target to prove the market for ethically branded goods, but if they commit to making that change, the whole industry could shift overnight. And what's great about this is that they wouldn't have to dramatically increase prices to deliver as long as they're savvy about scaling.

Target, and companies like it, must think in terms of a future customer who cares about ethics and sustainability if they wish to maintain or better their market share. It's simply good business.

Mutual Trust Doesn't Require Friendship

Through the course of writing 5 books (his next novel is about Syrian refugees), Corban has had the opportunity to sit down with dozens of people and hear their stories. He says that once you have access to a person, it doesn't take much to build trust. All you have to do is remain open and listen.

As a result of this posture, Corban has been able to create complex, realistic characters for his novels. He's spoken to female Somali refugees in Minneapolis about Female Genital Mutilation over dinner and a refugee turned aid worker in Greece who abandoned his chance of reuniting with family to care for strangers. The refugee thanked him for asking him to share his story - he found it cathartic to be able to give voice to his experience.

Corban has talked with people across racial, cultural, and religious divides with mutual vulnerability and kindness, and he insists it's because, at their core, people want to be heard and respected. Building a bridge is as easy and holding out your hand.

When You Know People, You Aren't Afraid of Them Anymore

When I attended Barbara Kingsolver's Earth Day talk last year, she expressed that she writes fiction because it's the best way to change someone's mind. Corban agrees.

He told me that writing fiction allows him to create an artificial universe where people can interact with each other in humane, deeply personal ways, establishing mutual respect. This allows his readers - who may have virtually no experience of the cultural and religious context of his characters - to catch a glimpse of their humanity and be changed by it.

Corban writes Muslim characters frequently because he hopes that through his work readers, many of whom have never interacted with a Muslims, will come to understand that Muslims are people just like they are.

Writing as a Catalyst for Change

Corban says the most gratifying thing about being a writer is when people wake up to the realities of injustice and ask what they can do to change it. He writes to connect at every level, from research to book signings. I admire that willingness to stay engaged.

Star Struck

Livia Firth gave Corban an enthusiastic blurb for A Harvest of Thorns, calling it a “must read” and promising that “you’ll never be able to look at your clothes the same way again.”

Also, through friends, Corban passed a copy of the book along to Emma Watson! Emma, we’re waiting on your book review.


My conversation with Corban proved to me, once again, that all justice issues are connected. If you talk about garment manufacturing, you have to talk about politics. If you talk about refugees, you have to talk about trafficking, and then you find yourself back at manufacturing. When you talk about bias and fear and religion, you boil it down to human stories and then it all just melds into a quilt of simultaneously individual and universal narratives.

You open your eyes, you unclench your fists, and you listen. That's where the seeds of transformation are planted and watered.

Corban Addison A Harvest of Thorns, a book about Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing

I'll be reviewing the book as soon as I get my hands on it. You can order it here and we can do a book club!