The True Cost

Shima and her daughter, from The True Cost. Image source.

Shima and her daughter, from The True Cost. Image source.

Next week is the fashion revolution week brought about as a response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 2013, where 1,134 garment workers were killed and 2,500 injured. With the fashion revolution week the aim is to raise awareness and push for transparency.

The documentary The True Cost serves as a reminder of why transparency and awareness is so important. It is a powerful, eye-opening and heart-wrenching insight into the dark depths of the fashion industry. It is meant to provoke. And it does! It evokes all the emotions. Yet, I wish it was also truly thought-provoking.

Is it worth watching? Yes. Does it provide any answers? No.

The awful truth

Shocked isn’t really the right word to describe how I felt watching this. Many of the facts presented were things I already sort of knew: like Bangladeshi women spending long hours sewing clothes for Western consumers in over-crowded, sometimes unsafe factories. Like, the near non-existence of unions. Like, factory owners cutting corners and governments ignoring workers’ rights, due to cut-throat competition and a desperate need for business. Like, cotton crops being heavily fertilised and rivers being polluted by chemicals and dyes. Like, clothing heaping up on landfills. Like, shops adding new stock every week and consumers buying more clothes than ever before.

I wasn’t shocked, exactly. But watching this brought it all so close.

I was right behind Shima, the Bangladeshi factory worker, as she walked through the dusty alleys of the Dhaka slum holding her daughter by the hand. I sat beside her in the factory as she sewed, and I listened to her story in the dark of the night in her tiny shack. My skin crawled when I heard how she was beaten by the factory management for organising a union. My heart broke as she said no-one could love a child like a parent, but still her daughter would have to live with her relatives in the countryside. She would see her once a year.

I was stunned with horror as environmental activist Vandana Shiva explained the vicious cycle of debt so many Indian cotton farmers were falling into with the large seed and fertiliser companies. The common tale was of farmers’ bodies being found in the fields after having drunk a bottle of pesticide to end their lives. A staggering 250,000 recorded farmer suicides in India in the last sixteen years – the largest recorded wave of suicides in history.

Heart pounding and thoughts racing, my first reaction to watching this documentary was to never ever buy a garment again without being sure – absolutely certain – that it had not contributed to this rotten-to-core, exploitative system.

The bigger picture

The documentary touches on the systemic nature of the problem: Fast-fashion brands secure their segment in an over-saturated market precisely because they offer fashion cheap and fast. Corporations’ primary incentive is to make this financial quarter better than the last. Adverts seduce us by promising what they cannot give: happiness, love, security, fulfilment. Charities cannot absorb the amount of clothing donated, leaving developing countries flooded with clothes no-one else will wear and their local textile industries undermined. The ecological and human costs of pollution are left unaccounted for. And structural poverty, affecting millions of textile- and garment workers, is perpetuated through desperate choices veiled as free will in a so-called free market.

This is the discussion we need to have. We need to look at the complicated layers of freedom and force that make up the global fashion industry. However, stilted shots shifting between scenes of American consumers in Black Friday shopping frenzy and exhausted Bangladeshi factory workers sitting by their sewing machines, offers no framework to think anew.

The big questions are as difficult as ever: capitalism, globalisation, materialism, ecology, poverty.

Cotton farmer, from The True Cost. Image source.

Cotton farmer, from The True Cost. Image source.

Towards change

According to this review, director Andrew Morgan deliberately offers no clear answers in the documentary and is proud the film trusts people to feel and think for themselves. I hope people will think for themselves. But I fear they will feel they are just a tiny cog in a huge economic machinery they can do nothing to change anyway.

As the consumers on the top of fashion’s food chain, we need to feel we can contribute to positive change, not merely be pacified by emotional overwhelm, horror and guilt. For, how has our materialist culture taught us to deal with emotional overwhelm? Swallow it up – distract yourself – by consuming: fashion, entertainment, food, whatever. Go shopping. Don’t think. Just do it.

Through The True Cost documentary we do get some clues as to how we can become better consumers. In-between the grimy and awful we follow Safia Minney, founder of the fairtrade clothing label People Tree, in her work to produce organic clothing and secure better living conditions for worker communities. Eco-designer Stella McCartney tells us that the consumer is in charge, and that if we don’t like it, we don’t have to buy into it. Vincent Stanley of Patagonia says they aim to educate customers to think twice and to question the cultural assumption that equates stuff with happiness.

Choose organic cotton. Shop less and more consciously. Right, got it.

But, I’m already pretty into that sort of thinking. What disappoints me with the documentary is that it gives no further direction forward. How can I be sure I am not contributing to an exploitative system, even if I do choose organic cotton and shop less?

I miss a framework for making sense of this huge problem, not just stilted shots of doom. I miss the grey-scale, not just the usual black and white character plot with evil multinational corporations, victimised workers and shopaholic consumers. I miss a discussion around shared responsibility and the possibility for change. Still, circling in on the whole, thorny issue of the globalised fashion industry in only one and a half hour of film is an achievement in itself.

If you’re already convinced that something is wrong with the fast fashion industry, watching this will confirm it. If you’re not yet convinced, you might be. So, if you haven’t seen it, do! And please chime in with your thoughts!