Fashion is the most labor-dependent industry on Earth with one in six in the world engaged in some aspect of it. Yet, how much do you know about where your clothes come from and who made them? A new documentary, "The True Cost," shows you the people who do that work.
Director Andrew Morgan's film is a beautifully shot and edited look at where our clothes come from, and it includes the voices of a huge variety of people who are a part of the garment industry. They include an organic cotton farmer in Texas, shopping haul-video teenagers, fast-fashion company executives, women who sew clothes in Bangladesh, reporters and writers, stressed clothing manufacturing managers, labor organizers, and designers and CEOs who are trying to change the fashion paradigm.
Why the need for change? We buy 400 percent more clothing than we used to. While the breakdown of seasonal clothes shopping is one reason why, the other has to do with costs. Most clothing costs the same or less than it did 20 or 30 years ago.
Italian investment manager Guido Brera explains in the film: "If you have noticed, the price [of clothing] has decreased in the past years. At the same time, the middle class is disappearing. The things people really need are very costly. Housing, school, life insurance. On the other side, there is a consolation — they can buy two T-shirts — even though they are very poor and have lost the things that they really needed."
How can clothing be so cheap today? As recently as the 1960s more than 90 percent of clothing was made in the United States, and employers had to abide by this country's environmental and labor regulations — not to mention pay competitive wages and provide benefits to those American workers. Today, most of that labor is outsourced to places where the workers can be paid as little as a couple of dollars a day and sometimes children are employed for even less than that. That's how you get new $20 jeans and $4 T-shirts. Safety is, of course, given short-shrift, as the 1,129 people who died in a factory collapse in Bangladesh could tell you if they were still alive.
The film is remarkable for its breadth of coverage. It moves easily from a chat with Stella McCartney about why she makes ethical choices as a designer to Vandana Shiva, an Indian labor activist who details why pesticides and Monsanto cotton are so destructive. (Shiva credits more than 250,000 farmer suicides in India, the largest wave of recorded suicides in history, to the debt farmers get into working with Monsanto Roundup Ready seeds.)
We hear from Safia Minney, the founder and CEO of People Tree, a U.K.-based ethical clothing manufacturer with more than 7,000 employees, who visits the sites where the company's clothes are made three times a year, talks to the women doing the work, and finds new and beautiful ways to adorn the label's clothing. An intimate portrait of a Bangladeshi garment worker's relationship with her daughter and her work rounds out the story. Livia Firth, who heads up the Green Carpet Challenge — which encourages celebrities to wear ethically made clothing on the red carpet to bring attention to the labor and environmental issues of the fashion industry — asks some very tough and challenging questions to fast fashion executives.
Those who would argue that these kinds of labor violations are the normal growing pains of a modernizing country are addressed — mostly by the fact that fashion CEOs are some of the world's wealthiest humans. This proves that not paying workers and slacking on health and safety in the name of cost is a red herring.
And then there's us — the shoppers. Psychology professor Tim Kasser at Knox College points out that all of this harm done to others in the name of commerce doesn't even result in happiness in the consumers on the other end. In fact, the opposite is true. "Twenty years, and hundreds of studies later, we see that the more that people are focused on materialistic values, the more important they say that money and image and status and possessions they are, the less happy they are, the more depressed they are, the more anxious they are. We know that those problems go up as materialistic values go up. That's really at odds with the thousands of messages a day we receive from advertisers."
So who is all this exploitation helping?
Just a very few people — making a tremendous amount of money at the top of the fashion chain.
"The True Cost" debuted on May 29, 2015 and is available via screening services including iTunes, Amazon and VHX.
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