The True Cost

Documentary Review: The True Cost By Maya Finley

The key statement of Andrew Morgan’s documentary ‘The True Cost’ is that “the clothes we wear communicate who we are”. The decisions we make every day when choosing what we wear tells others how we feel, think or even if we care about each other. Consumer demand drives the market place and determines what products stock the shelves. Currently 80 billion new pieces of clothing are bought each year, a 400% increase from two decades ago. The documentary is the story of how these fast fashion clothes are made and the real social, environmental and economic costs.

The fashion industry exploits cheap labour. The majority of the clothes are manufactured in developing countries, where factories pay their workers as little as $3 a day. In 2015, Cambodia became a warzone between activists and riot police. 5 people died and many more were injured when workers campaigned for a pay-rise, asking for just $160 a month. Because ‘fast fashion’ brands outsource to factories to produce their clothing, they can stay one step removed from the real issues. If the producers question the retail price of the merchandise they supply and push for higher production fees, the brands ‘bully’ them and threaten to change supplier. The producer market is highly competitive and the factories need their contracts, consequently they have little choice other than to comply. The ‘fast fashion’ brands mantra appears to be exploit those who can be exploited.

By wearing these clothes, are we supporting manufacturers that don’t care about their workers and let people die in buildings that are unsafe? Tareen Fashion (Pakistan) and Ali Enterprises (Bangladesh) both had fires rip through their buildings killing 289 and 112 respectively. In the Ali Enterprises incident, iron bars imprisoned people who consequently burned to death. More recently, Rana Plaza collapsed killing 1,129 employees due to a major structural issue. Employees there had previously complained about their conditions, but there concerns went unheard and they were forced to keep working.

But the impact of ‘fast fashion’ goes beyond the social; we need to consider the impact it has on health and the environment. One example is the production of Indian leather that has led to 50 million tonnes of toxic water containing chromium 6 being dumped into rivers and water supplies, causing birth defects and death. Workers are similarly exposed to these chemicals on the factory floor, meaning that simply breathing the air can be deadly. Similarly, in the cotton industry, farmers are required to use high levels of pesticides, often without adequate safety equipment to the detriment of their health. Frequently the pesticides get into the water supply that supports the local inhabitants having devastating effects.

Today the average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste a year, totalling 11 million tonnes of textiles a year. Do we really want to trash clothes that people have been dying to make? A simple sustainable alternative to incinerating unwanted clothing, a process that releases toxic gases and adds to the carbon footprint, is to give them to charities to sell or donate. Another alternative is to change the business model as Safia Minney. Founder and CEO of People Tree, has done. Her fashion brand started over 20 years ago in Japan, works with developing countries, building a business that is sustainable and treats their producers fairly. Focussing on biodegradable materials and recycling as much as they can, the company is working on making ‘fast fashion’ slow, reducing the pace that clothes go ‘out of fashion’.

The global fashion market is exploitative, outsourcing its problems to developing countries, which is clearly reflected in the living conditions of the employees who work for this multibillion dollar industry. The documentary’s focus on the social, environmental and economic issues surrounding the industry helps the public to start to understand ‘The True Cost’ of this market. Well-known economist Dr. Richard Wolff sums it up perfectly “Before you can fix a problem, you have to admit you have one,” this is a stimulus which should push us forward to find an answer.

To visit The True Cost website: