Most of the films that we review at sharmbaa are a celebration of the world of fashion. Whether we’re watching the romanticism of troubled genius Yves Saint Laurent, or reveling at the personal expression of style-maven Iris Apfel, or savoring a sneak-peek into the rarified world of the atelier of the House of Dior, the films all contain heavy doses of fantasy and escapism. Both jive well with how the fashion industry wants to see itself and the image it works to project to the world.
The True Cost is a decidedly different kind of fashion film. The call-to-action documentary begins with Director Andrew Morgan stating his aim is to change how we think about the clothes we wear. He will do so by showing us how a few multinational corporations put profits over people and the planet, and how our own consumption habits are contributing to these problems.
These themes are familiar to anyone who has seen documentaries like Food Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth . But, when they are applied to an industry that sells fantasy for a living, they add a poignant twist. If we’ve learned to think of fashion as glossy magazine spreads, stylized runway shows or celebrities in couture, The True Cost explains that there’s a huge disconnect between the reality of who and how our clothes are made and the illusion the fashion industry presents of the finished product.
Morgan starts The True Cost by defining the phenomenon called fast fashion. In short, globalization has delivered the one-two punch of fast and cheap to the fashion industry. Fast means mass-production that pushes a shorter and shorter trend cycle. Cheap means ravenous consumer desire for the quick fix of the latest styles at bargain-basement prices. Together they amount to low-quality garments that are wantonly consumed, and are ready to be thrown away when the next round of disposable fashion comes along in a month of two. The film points out that we consume 400% more clothing than we did 20 years ago, and that price points for garments have actually decreased in that time as well.
It’s not hard to work back in the supply chain from these statistics, and figure out that there are troubling social and environmental implications to the fast fashion business model. Ironically, Morgan’s choice to present a plethora of mostly-Western experts, who convey a smorgasbord of facts and figures about the many issues surrounding fast fashion can feel distancing, at best, and paternalistic, at worst. The film packs more of a punch when it brings humanity to the alarming statistics -- supplying us with images, voices and personal stories that bring us face-to-face with the people and land directly affected by American prosperity.
In the film, globalization has a Wild West feel to it -- unchecked capitalism runs rampant in third world countries like Bangladesh and Haiti, which are treated like the new frontier ready for Manifest Destiny. Workers toil in life-threatening sweatshops barely making a living wage. Union organizers are beaten and killed. Peaceful demonstrations for a fair wage lead to two days of police violence in Cambodia. Farmers commit suicide at an alarming rate in India. Pollution pours into rivers, and we are confronted by end-of-world-looking images of the horrifying maladies that the area’s population suffers, as a result of contaminated drinking water. Closer to home, a Texas farmer dies from a brain tumor with a possible though unprovable link to Monsanto pesticides, and his wife makes it her mission to support organic cotton farming.
But the story with the greatest impact in The True Cost is that of Shima Akhter, a charismatic and smart Bangladeshi garment worker, who was attacked for her union organizing activities. Morgan makes the good choice to take the time to allow her story to develop throughout the film. We follow her around the slums and factories of Dhaka with her young daughter, Nadia, in tow. She explains that she takes Nadia to work with her occasionally, because she has nowhere else to go. However, Akhter says, the heat and chemicals of the factory are no place for a little girl. So we take the journey with mother and daughter to her parent’s village in the countryside. Akhter must leave Nadia there to be cared for and to have a chance of receiving an education. We are told Akhter will likely see her daughter once or twice a year after she is gone. She leaves to return to the brutality of the sweatshop.
Like so many of the people in the movie tasked with making the clothes that we buy without giving a thought to the hands that make them or the repercussions of our purchases, Akhter’s story is heartbreaking and her lack of choice is beyond justification. When she says near the end of the film, “I believe these clothes are produced by our blood”, Morgan’s goal is achieved. We have changed how we see both the fashion industry and our clothes. Now, all that’s left is to figure out how to make it a requirement that everyone even considering entering a mall watch The True Cost.
Available on Netflix