It’s hard not to cry, watching the documentary The True Cost. And then, get angry.
Angry at the fact that the year after three out of the four worst garment disasters in history happened was the most profitable year for the fashion industry. Ever. Angry when you listen to factory owners describe the way companies strong arm them into cutting corners in order to make clothing faster and cheaper. Angry listening to a Bangladeshi woman describe how when she formed a union, she and her colleagues were beaten with chairs and sticks and scissors. Angry watching economists, Fox commentators, and sourcing managers justify all of it, saying, well, at least they have a job. (OK, but not if they’re dead, right?)
Director Andrew Morgan covers a huge range of topics, which makes sense, given the complexity of the fashion industry. There’s a section on GMO cotton and its effects on farmers in India – a rise in birth defects and cancers, which are demonstrated with devastating scenes of children with shocking physical and mental disabilities, and farmer suicides. There’s a section on the caustic effects of materialism on our own psychological health here in America, and how we think we can solve our problems and be loved by buying stuff.
There’s a discussion of textile waste, and how our donated clothing shows up in Haiti and other developing countries, and killed the local clothing manufacturing industry there. It shows the toxicity of the leather industry in India, chromium flowing into the drinking water, brown skin bleached white on the hands and face of workers. The movie moves from Bangladesh to Cambodia, where factory workers are beaten to death for asking for a living wage.
The movie follows a mother who works in Bangladesh garment industry, the one who was beaten for unionizing and making demands; and the wife of a cotton farmer who got a tumor that is all too common among male farmers in Texas. There is a lot of crying in the movie, because this stuff is deadly serious.
Oh, and haul videos, where teenagers show off all the cheap shit they bought that day, just because they can. Gross. “I don’t even know if I’m going to wear this sweater, now that I got it, because I don’t even know if I like it that much,” one vlogger says. That one statement undermines the argument that people make, when they say that fast fashion is driven by poor people who can’t afford anything else. No, it’s driven by impressionable young American girls and women.
The strength of the documentary lies in its collection of compelling interviews with experts, industry leaders, and the oppressed, who have probably been waiting for this moment for years, for someone to really listen to what they have to say. So they were ready. “Fashion is something that has dramatically changed,” the handsome Guido Brera, investment manager, says. “If you have noticed the price has decreased in the past years, and it has followed the middle class disappearing. So all the things that people really need are very costly like a home, study, life insurance. On the other side there is a consolation part of their life. They can buy two t-shirts a party, or eventually a day, even though I am very poor and I have lost all the things I really needed.”
I’ve been immersed in this world for a few years now, but a nugget like that still has the ability to explode my mind. Is Fast Fashion really the new opiate? Forget weed or heroin, just give them $15 dresses and they won’t complain about the pitiful minimum wage.
And there is the fact, which I have been espousing for some time, that voluntary codes of conduct do not work. It’s part of a larger problem of corporations caring only about the next quarter’s profit, instead of the long-term health of the company, its workers, the environment, even society. The documentary expands outward to take aim at the entire system of capitalism, which is at the root of this model overconsumption.
The Trust Cost has been criticized for not offering a solution to the problem, beyond the arguably impossible idea of overhauling the capitalist system, and the more realistic path of encouraging consumers to be more thoughtful about their purchases. But I think that criticism comes from a place that assumes that we all already knew what was in this movie. I knew a lot of it, but many consumers just have no idea. They know nothing but the shininess of street style and advertising. This movie could change that.
I do wish he had interviewed a wider range of ethical fashion designers and brands, besides Stella McCartney and People Tree. The latter is a larger ethical company that has been in business for twenty years, so he included them because they legitimize the ethical model. But there are so many ethical and sustainable brands out there, and they could have contributed a variety of view points instead of lingering so long on People Tree’s founder.
I also think it’s disingenuous to show runway fashion so prominently in the film, when they are not as directly linked to these atrocities as fast fashion brands.
But overall, I hope this movie becomes the next Food Inc., that it wakes up America to what is really going on when you buy a Forever 21 t-shirt. Sometimes I fantasize about graffitiing the storefront of Gap, Forever21, Joe Fresh with the words, “People died for your clothes.”
Because it’s true.