In today’s world of fast-fashion, running to the store for a $5 shirt sounds like a great deal, but small price tags come with large costs to the environment and laborers throughout the supply chain. A reality commonly overlooked. The movie “The True Cost”, guided by director Andrew Morgan, explores the disconnect between what we wear and who makes our clothing throughout each step of the product journey from farm to factory — from the pesticide exposure cotton farmers experience in India to the exploitation and abuse garment workers face in Bangladesh and Cambodia. The documentary highlights the objectives of clothing brands and retailers to satisfy high margins and to compete with one another by creating cheaper and cheaper product, and the pressure on factories in poor nations to gain those companies’ business by allowing for increasingly lower costs. The results are devastating. Corners are cut in worker safety that result in tragedy, most notably the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh where 1,127 workers died and more than 2,500 were injured.
The documentary also focuses on more sustainable ways to make clothing. This includes spotlighting Safia Minney, CEO and founder of People Tree, a fair-trade fashion brand based out of the U.K., which provides jobs and fair wages to laborers in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Nepal. The documentary also makes a stop at an organic cotton farm in Texas where we learn about environmentally sustainable farm practices to avoid nitrogen fertilizers that are commonly used on plantations throughout India, creating toxicity for nearby children and adults, and polluting the soil that people depend on for the livelihood.
Although exploring the methods used on the organic cotton farm in Texas is well intentioned and educates viewers on sustainable practices, it doesn’t explore the challenges of translating these same approaches to poor nations. There are groups that systematically help cotton farmers in poor countries become organic, but the film doesn’t talk about these approaches or how farmers must find ways to make ends meet during the roughly five-year period it takes for the farm to produce sufficient profits.
Another aspect of the film that may frustrate viewers is that it doesn’t examine that even sustainability-oriented companies face supply chain hurdles. For example, viewers are introduced to Patagonia, a socially conscious clothing brand, but the film does not discuss the company’s internal audits in 2011 that revealed exorbitant brokers fees in their supply chain. These fees create debt bondage and indentured servitude because the workers don’t earn enough income to pay back the brokers. The company is working to improve conditions for everyone throughout their supply chain, but this would have been an excellent opportunity for the film to illustrate how pervasive these issues are, not just discuss good and bad brands.
Thankfully, Morgan doesn’t leave customer responsibility out of the calculus and leads us to step away from budget conscious shopping, and instead, he says, become human conscious. To illustrate how it’s problematic that we expect a garment to cost the same as our favorite blended Starbucks beverage, Morgan takes viewers deeper into the underbelly of the garment industry where laborers face inhumane working conditions, are underpaid and often must separate from their children because they can’t afford to keep them. In the movie, we meet Shima Akhter, a 23-year-old mother in Bangladesh, whose starting salary was $10 a month. She is among the lowest paid garment workers in the world. She tells viewers how she lives with her aunt, and sometimes brings her small child to work with her. The heat and harmful chemicals within the factory walls are unsafe for anyone, she says, but especially children. Along with unsafe working conditions, Akhter describes physical abuse that occurs in factories, particularly if workers try to unionize or stand up for themselves. In fact, she and her colleagues were beaten, punched in the stomach and chest by 30 to 40 factory managers for forming a union and appealing for change in worker conditions. These are the hardships laborers face every single day.
As consumers, we make choices daily, Morgan says, and these choices “both big and small” influence global poverty, human equality and environmental sustainability. In essence, we hold tremendous power for change in our pocketbooks. Shop wisely.
“The True Cost” movie was released worldwide on May 29th, 2015. You can view it from the comfort of your own living room at http://truecostmovie.com/.