I recently watched the 2015 film documentary, The True Cost, on Netflix by Andrew Morgan. A critical examination of the industry known as fast fashion. A film that left a lasting impression on how I view clothes. I am sharing this in the hope you too will watch it and it’ll have the same impact on you.
Fundamentally, the film is about capitalism, and its infinite demand. Explaining this through the mode of clothing gives an accessible analysis that doesn’t require you to have specialist knowledge in economics. Empowering us to think and make a real change.
Morgan shows us that the clothes we wear, cost far more than the price tag. They are made from the exploitation of people from the poorest places and the world’s natural resources. Created therefore to appeal to a large audience, including those interested in environmental issues, equality and women’s development.
These clothes including those by H&M, Zara, Gap, Forever 21 and M&S. To name a few. Making the point that this is an industry problem. An industry that makes clothes in increasing volume that bears no relation to consumer need. An industry that guarantees one winner, the businesses who make huge profits. But if the consumer and the businesses aren’t paying for this volume, who is? His insight takes us on a journey to the places the clothes are made, and ultimately, who makes them.
Location, location, location…
Morgan points out what seems obvious but easily missed. The reason Swedish businesses like H&M choose to work in countries like Bangladesh is because it costs less. The justification that they bring jobs that help stimulate economic growth is false. Morgan shows us the more realistic reason, these places can be exploited without fear of consequences.
These are countries yet to instil defences to human exploitation. With no minimum wage, worker’s rights, standardised safety requirements and established unions. Where governments are motivated to keep international businesses happy. And, in my view, perhaps willing to trade the poorest people for the money these contracts bring in. Leaving businesses free to assert their power that’s fully felt by those at the bottom of the chain.
The people that create our clothes matter and should benefit from their craft!
Criticism of fast fashion is not new. What I have observed however is that it is often talked about with little emphasis on the people it exploits. Which tells me we value them the least. The conditions revealed in the film make this point emphatically.
Morgan interviews factory owners, all men, who talk of their reliance on the contracts from these businesses. Indicating pressure to stay competitive. A weak position to perhaps negotiate contracts that benefit them, their workers and community whole. The impression we are left with is of factories that take whatever they are offered. Who in turn exploit those at the bottom of the supply chain. It is unclear whether they do this because they can, or see it as a necessary evil, to stay afloat. Whichever it is, the people made to bear the true cost of our clothes are those who create them.
The film makes the point these creatives are mostly women. With over 85% of the work force in Bangladesh for example. This is an important fact. For in addition to being poor, their gender makes them doubly invisible. Allowing the exploitation of their craft to go unnoticed and thus unchallenged. While the factory owners are filmed in what we assume are their homes and offices, nicely attired, the women are shown in bleak conditions. Conditions that leave the viewer in no doubt how the industry views them. At best mere machines to deliver on its demands.
In addition to the women’s testimonies, we see little of what would suggest they benefit from their craft. No home or ability to keep their families together. Their attempts to challenge the system is met with violence. Demands for the basics, a fair wage, reasonable hours and safe working conditions are responded to with kicks and punches. While we only have the women’s word for this treatment, testimonies from the factory owners indicate this is not fabricated. Factory owners who speak confidently of their requirement for absolute obedience from their workers.
Bringing the dire conditions to life, Morgan reminds us of disasters like the Rana Plaza in 2013 where over 1100 workers were killed when the 8 story building collapsed. We are told of workers who had warned the factory owners of the danger but, they were ignored and forced back in building.
The consumer has an important role for this industry to work as it does.
Morgan doesn’t shy away from making us see we play a significant role in this. Reminding us of the responsibility we have to ourselves, others and the environment.
- Updating our wardrobes more times than the four seasons demand makes us poorer. Additionally, it makes us sadder. For this habit is an attempt to resolve problems in our lives. Problems that cannot be resolved with more and more clothes.
- Fast fashion makes us beneficiaries of goods obtained from exploiting others. Taking from some of the most vulnerable people in the world makes a mockery of our goals and values. We have a responsibility to ensure our actions do not go to maintaining the oppression of others.
- The film shows us our efforts to protect the environment, by recycling our unwanted clothes, are ineffective and actually harmful to other countries. Our jeans are dumped in places like Haiti. This has adverse effect on its economy. Which is the opposite of H&M’s objective to “spark further industrial development…”
Fashion can be done differently.
Morgan’s documentary offers an alternative way to doing fashion. One that takes a collaborative approach between the businesses and the creatives. Ensuring everyone benefits from their craft. An approach taken by People Tree.
In Conclusion: In my mind there is no doubt that businesses like H&M have a responsibility to the people making the clothes they make so much money from. A responsibility to ensure they are paid a wage that delivers on the promise to “…help to lift individuals and nations out of poverty.” To guarantee safe working conditions. At the very least. Businesses however put up legal barriers to superficially distance themselves. Absolving themselves of any responsibility.
The films offers a workable solution to capitalism in clothing. We need to start thinking of our clothes as long-term investments rather than single use items. We need to stop buying what doesn’t add real value to our lives. We need to think and start challenging the social injustices this industry upholds. Because we are not okay with businesses exploiting the most vulnerable for their own gain or even for ours.
We can demand our brands to demonstrate how their presence in these countries improve the lives of their creatives. Especially the women. We are best placed to do this than the women who have no option but to do the jobs that exploit their talent for so little. Under conditions that bear some resemblance to slavery. Make no mistake, this is a big deal.