The True Cost of what we wear

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If you’re interested in a comfortable lifestyle away from the trauma and terror of the world, then this 2015 fast-fashion documentary is not for you.

It’s hardly surprising to watch a film and see that this is still exploitative labour and unstainable practices involved in the modern fashion industry. Every so often, we are shocked by the horrible working conditions which appear in a major tragedy, such as the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. That incident was the inspiration for Andrew Morgan’s documentary film into the industry as a whole, including us consumers.

And it’s an understandably tragic story. I’ve often looked at the price tags on clothes in Primark and H&M and wondered how they can be so inexpensive. The sheer volume of garments in a store like Primark begs the question of how such low prices are achievable.

The answer, which The True Cost explores, is obvious: people elsewhere pay the price for our clothes. The film partly follows a Bangladeshi woman called Shima, who works in a garment factory and tried to organise a workers’ union with other women in the unit. She recounts how the owners and managers closed the exits of the factory and beat the women into submission.

Like many contemporary crises, the social and the environmental are inseparable when it comes to fast-fashion. The True Cost quotes the statistic that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil, a fact which has been questioned by some. Nevertheless, current fashion practices are undoubtedly damaging to the envrionment, and the documentary highlights how our demand for fashion is fundamentally changing our relationship with the Earth.

There are farmers in Texas, where there is the largest single area of cotton farming land on the planet, concerned with the way that land is treated as a machine, and pushed to the limits of what it can produce in order to feed the unrelenting demand for new clothes.

Whereas fashion used to run in two seasons, now we have virtually 52 seasons a year, a new style each week. The scale of demand is placing an unnatural burden on the Earth. As the cotton farmers in Texas remind us in the film, we have forgotten how to appreciate the natural cycles of the ground. We have industrialised the land.

The narrative follows the process of garment making, from the cottom farmers through the clothing factories and brings us inevitably to the consumer and the shop floor. To us, in short. We have a part to play in the story, after all. It’s largely our demand that drives the industry.

The filmmakers let the consumer attitude speak for itself, and it does so powerfully. In one of the most provocative scenes, we watch news reel footage of Black Friday shoppers rush onto store floors, scrapping their way to the deals and swiping goods from the shelves. In another montage, reviews from YouTube fashion vloggers are cut together. Each reviewer has a haul of highstreet bags, and they openly declare that they may not even wear some of the items they’ve bought.

There is no need for commentary; in contrast to the earlier interviews with exploited workers and penniless farmers down the supply chain, the culture of disposability speaks for itself. By this point we’ve seen the workers rights activist Shima weep, “I believe these clothes are made with our blood.”

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Perhaps it’s something of a cliche now to watch a documentary and declare that you’ll change your lifestyle. I remember a friend of mine going veggie after watching a slaughterhouse documentary, and I wondered at the time what the point was. Why let a single film change your lifestyle?

That kind of thinking is really just a poor excuse for being confronted with the realities of our global consumerist society. It’s not as if we’re oblivious to the fact that our clothes are produced in appalling conditions or that vast swathes of rainforest are destroyed for cultivating livestock. We know this happens in our world, and we know it is because of our rampant consumption.

As a film, some have critiqued the tact of Morgan for “fumbling” its attack on fast fashion. On the Village Voice, a reviewer concluded that “there’s nothing he’s found that isn’t already known to anyone who’s read a magazine in the last twenty years.”

But maybe that’s the point. These documentaries remind us of uncomfortable facts, even if they say nothing new. Our lives have become insulated. The scenes in The True Cost are shocking almost because they confirm what we already know about where are clothes come from. We just don’t like to think about it.

The human cost of producing our luxurious lifestyles is hidden, and the monetary price is constantly reduced. We are pampered and molly-cuddled, and then led to believe that it’s all okay, that this is just the way life is. There will always be a reason we can ignore the scenes from a film like The True Cost.

In the UK, we receive the end result of many products and services, and rarely do we comprehend, or even care about, how our lifestyles have been constructed behind the screens. The supply chain is hidden from us, and so are the people involved in production.

As director Andrew Morgan stresses in the closing montage, “everything we wear has been touched by human hands.”

Though made three years ago, the question which The True Cost poses is stell pertinent in 2018: How much longer will we choose to be ignorant to the stories behind our clothing?