TOO SIMPLE

There Are No Easy Answers to Fashion’s Cruelty

A new documentary highlights the exploitation at the heart of the fashion industry. But beyond empty sloganeering, it lacks a prescription for change.

05.26.15 9:15 AM ET

The True Cost opens on the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that claimed 1,129 lives and left 2,500 more injured. We see bloody bodies trapped under the wreckage; wives and mothers screaming for their loved ones amidst the rubble.

It’s one of many devastating scenes in a new documentary out this week that presents the fashion industry as a destructive, rapacious creation of American capitalism.

“It’s a story about greed and fear, power and poverty,” says filmmaker Andrew Morgan in narrative voiceover. He shows us glamour juxtaposed with labor, models parading the runway in one clip, and rows of factory workers in the next.

Rana Plaza rallied renewed attention around the horrible conditions and low wages in so-called “sweatshops” in Asia, where fast fashion companies like H&M, Forever21, and Zara outsource their clothes.

The True Cost takes us to other factories in Bangladesh, interviewing disgruntled factory owners and workers who are “paying the price for cheap clothes.”

We meet 23-year-old Shima Akhter, one of 40 million garment factory workers in the world (more than 85 percent of whom are women earning $3 a day, Morgan tells us). Akhter is president of a factory union in Dhaka and recalls being attacked by dozens of staffers wielding chairs, sticks, and scissors after she and other union organizers demanded reforms from their managers. “They banged our heads against the wall,” she says. “I believe these clothes are produced by our blood.”

Morgan is appalled by people like Benjamin Powell, director of the Free Market Institute, and others who “excuse” low wages and unsafe working conditions.

Of the dozens of people he interviews, only two offer dissenting opinions about garment factories. One is Powell, who explains that factory jobs in poor countries are “part of the very process that raises living standards and leads to higher wages and better working conditions over time.”

We see him on Fox Business Channel's The Independents, where he underscores that factories are “places that people choose to work, admittedly from a bad set of other options. The alternatives are usually much worse than the factory job.”

Powell is meant to come across as a right-wing darling of Fox News, but his opinions on garment factories are shared by liberals like Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed writer for The New York Times who covers human-rights issues.

Kristof has pointed out that big-name companies “tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia.”

Courtesy of 2050 Group

Being associated with a garment factory like Rana Plaza is just bad PR. “The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there,” he writes.

But Morgan has no interest in visiting capital-intensive factories in Malaysia or Indonesia. Instead, The True Cost takes us to Punjab, India, a region that produces most of the country’s cotton and where crops are generously sprayed with pesticides.

Dr. Pritpal Singh of the Baba Farid Center for Special Children links the region’s heavy pesticide use to a dramatic rise in birth defects, cancers, and mental illness in recent years. (The film conveniently fails to mention a Baba Farid study that found high levels of heavy metals in Punjabi children’s blood, a potential cause of birth defects that is completely unrelated to pesticide pollution.)

In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, a Punjabi woman struggles to calm her wailing, severely disabled child in their ramshackle hut. It’s enough to make the most dedicated H&M shoppers renounce their cheap, trendy, fast fashion wardrobes—almost.

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The True Cost frequently traffics in stomach-churning footage of slum life and alarmist statistics to bolster its narrative.

We learn that India has seen 250,000 recorded farmer suicides over the last 15 years, “the largest recorded wave of suicides in history.”

Farmers are found dead in their fields after guzzling bottles of pesticides, one Indian environmentalist explains, because big agriculture companies like Monsanto are taking over their land.

Indeed, just as fast fashion and Big Business are exploiting laborers, they’re also exhausting Mother Earth’s resources.

Morgan cites numbers that underscore the glut of Western consumerism and its toll on the environment. Americans purchase a collective 80 billion pieces of new clothing every year, he tells viewers, and contribute 11 million pounds of textile waste to landfills.

And materialistic, money-grubbing Americans shouldn’t kid themselves: All of that stuff they’re buying is making them depressed, despite the promise of happiness in consumerism that the advertising industry is selling us. So much for the American Dream.

But this is where the film loses focus and credibility, criticizing not just the fashion industry but the global capitalist system that supports it. NYU media professor Mark Crispin Miller denounces advertising as sinister “propaganda.”

Garment Workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Courtesy of 2050 Group

“We think of propaganda as a totalitarian thing...we think of Hitler. But propaganda is actually as American as apple pie,” Miller tells us.

The film neglects to mention that Miller is a 9/11 truther, a once-respected writer and political activist whose views have become too fringe for even the most extremist pockets of the mainstream.

By including people like Miller, the film presumes that its target audience is both ignorant and impressionable: either we won’t recognize Miller as a conspiracy theorist, or we will but are too open-minded to dismiss his opinions about advertising.

We also hear from economist Richard Wolff, a Marxist idealist who is hell-bent on overhauling capitalism.

America is a “peculiar country,” he says theatrically, his eyes narrowed in disdain for a sinister and corrupt economic system. “You could criticize the education system...you could criticize the transportation system. But you couldn’t criticize the economic system. And if you don’t criticize something for 50 years, it rots!”

Morgan takes care to note that Wolff developed his ideology after graduating from Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, assuming that his multiple Ivy League diplomas will sway audiences.

The True Cost also makes the mistake in presuming its audience is a bunch of nostalgic, anti-capitalist hippies who think the world was a better place in the 1960s, back when 95 percent of Americans’ clothing was made in America. (Today, it’s 3 percent.)

Certainly some people who see this film will share Morgan’s socialist worldview. But the idea that we should to revert to the ’60s is silly.

We don’t churn our own butter anymore. We want products that will improve our lives on many levels—and yes, that includes affordable clothing that mimics high fashion.

The trouble with The True Cost is that in casting its net so wide, it fails to examine any one subject in depth. Morgan scores interviews with big players in sustainable fashion, like eco-activist Livia Firth (wife of actor Colin Firth) and designer Stella McCartney. But their contributions to the film aren’t particularly insightful.

“The fashion industry just needs to think, to stop and look at how it’s been working in a conventional way,” McCartney says, adding that the challenge of designing eco-friendly fashion is the most exciting part of her job. “The customer has to know that they’re in charge.” 

The implication here is that we all need to be more conscious consumers if we want to see change within the industry. But neither McCartney nor Firth—nor indeed any of the dozens of people Morgan interviews—demonstrate an understanding of how to effect systemic change.

Instead, the film bludgeons viewers with fatalism, hoping fear will make activists of us all. But in doing so it runs the risk of overwhelming audiences with problems where it should be proposing concrete solutions.

On that front, the most we get is a lackluster call-to-arms from Morgan as he closes out the film, proving he is perhaps better suited to activism than documentary filmmaking: “In the midst of all the challenges facing us today, the problems that feel bigger than us and beyond our control, maybe we can start here. With clothing.”