The True Cost (2015) by Andrew Morgan
William Shakespeare and Mark Twain are both credited with the expression “Clothes make the man”. Although in both instances, these words were spoken tongue-in-cheek. Maybe we missed their point because for us, much of our status and identity is wrapped up in what we wear. In many ways clothes define who we are. At the outset of the 2015 documentary The True Cost, Fashion director Orsola De Castro confirms this, saying
“(Clothes) are our chosen skin…We communicate who we are to a certain extent through our clothing…It’s our personal communication in many ways”.
And over the 90 minutes run time of Andrew Morgan’s film the viewer must answer the question he asks them and himself. Where do our clothes come from? Who makes them? What is their impact on our world?
The search for these answers takes him to the garment districts in Cambodia, India and Bangladesh. Along the way, he reveals shocking, sad stories and statistics that may change the way we look at the deals we get on clothes as the true cost of these deals is revealed.
In Bangladesh, workers receive low wages – as low as $3 a day to work in bad, even dangerous conditions. We see news coverage of the collapse of the 8 story Savar building in Dhaka Bangladesh – a catastrophe that killed more than 1,100 people and injured 2,500 more. The building collapsed because warning signs and verbal pleas of the workers about cracks in the building were ignored, we can assume, because shutting down for repairs would have been too costly for the factory, who is in cutthroat competition with similar factories trying to win large contracts to make the shirts as cheaply as possible.
In India, we learn about the suicide rates of farmers that can no longer afford the seeds and pesticides required to grow the cotton to make these garments. The reason is because there is a monopoly on seeds that allows manufacturers use to put farmers in debt so they can buy (steal) their land when they cannot pay off their debts.
In Cambodia, we learn of garment workers who protested their low working wages and poor conditions. They were hoping to raise their salaries to $160/month. The protests turn violent as police fire live ammunition on the protesting crowds.
And closer to home, we hear the story of an organic cotton farmer in Texas trying to carve a niche in the midst of other farms offering cheaper cotton. From her, we also learn about the harm that a life of harvesting with pesticides and chemicals has brought on her husband and her father-in-law, both of whom died of brain tumors that are sadly not uncommon among agriculture and oil workers in Texas.
These are the stories that are so commonplace in the competitive garment industry. So why is it so competitive? Where does the high demand and the willingness to ignore labor laws and common humanity originate? Large corporations are able to hire cheap labor and make demands of the factories to produce faster and cheaper than ever before. If the factories are unwilling or unable to accomplish this, business is taken elsewhere.
The clothing companies offer reasons for perpetuating this damaged system when asked about the work wages and conditions. They mention the economic boost that they give the developing nation where their factory is located. They talk about it being “better than most other options (the workers) have to choose from” and that ultimately it is their choice to work there, so there really shouldn’t be an issue. They are “learning valuable skills that will increase their earning potential going forward”. But then these same companies refuse to codify the protocols and rules of conduct that the factories that produce their products use. Instead, they pick the factories that can produce the desired products at the lowest possible cost and turn a blind eye to how they achieve such a low cost. With no written guidelines, there is no accountability to protect the workers against exploitation.
There is a jarring montage near the end of the movie. We see images of pollution caused by the fashion industry, and poor working conditions the workers face, juxtaposed with videos of Black Friday shopping frenzies set to the song I Want It All by Natalie Taylor. In that brief portion of the movie, the answer to the true cost question is laid out in front of us.
The fashion industry itself has evolved into what is known as “fast fashion” which has shortened the shelf life of products in our stores, and in our closets. And we support this evolution by looking for the lowest price we can get. The conclusion we can come to from watching this movie is that we as a society share the blame. We are mired in this consumerism-driven society that tells us that we can find elusive happiness by buying more stuff. That empty search for what will satisfy us gets positively reinforced because if we get to the point where our closets and drawers are bursting, we are able to easily justify throwing things away that we are no longer interested in and start the search all over.
The True Cost shows that the price tags on the cheap clothes we buy do not begin to reflect the true cost to manufacture it. Taking into account the human costs, the environmental costs and the economic costs, it is much steeper than the low numbers reflected on the tag. There is so much information in this movie about issues that the garment industry creates that even having now seen it a couple of times, I am still wrapping my head around. As you watch the movie for yourself, you may feel the same. If so, your voice is your wallet. Look into fair trade, ethically sourced options. The price tag may be a little higher, but it seems like the cost, ultimately, is lower.
Join us April 24th for a Screening and Discussion of The True Cost and how we can create change through our purchasing. Event Details on Facebook.