The True Cost: Fashion in the Developing World

The True Cost was premiered at The Patio Theater in Chicago on June 3, 2015, preceded by time to visit vendors selling Fair Trade merchandise and followed by a short Q&A with Director Andrew Morgan and local ethical fashion designers. Guest blogger Christina Como, a sophomore at University of Illinois, reviews the film below. 

true cost

In the 1960s, 90% of American clothing was manufactured in the United States. Today, only 3% of our clothing is made in the USA; most of the clothes we buy have been outsourced. We buy 400% more clothes and spend $80 million more than we did two decades ago. This is due to the phenomenon of Fast Fashion. Stores typically have 52 seasons in stock, with new items coming in every week. H&M, one of the largest producers of clothing and worth more than $18 billion, is the master of Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion is fueled by consumptionism, which is about tricking people into thinking that the things they use are the things that they use up and that will fulfill their needs.

Many think that the fashion industry is progressing. Yet The True Cost reminds us otherwise: “Because we can buy so much for so little, they are making us believe that we are richer, when in reality we are becoming poorer. The only person becoming richer are the owners of fast fashion [brands].” The producers set out to reveal the shocking struggles of producers as well as the harmful environmental effects of fast fashion behind the glamorous electronic billboards, store windows, and runways. The fashion industry employs one in six people in the entire world. So, they wonder, “why does this enormous, rapacious industry not guarantee the ability to support all these people’s lives? … How can a system make us feel rich but leave the world desperately poor?”

Some might ask, what is wrong with sweatshops? The people working there are provided with jobs, and at least they are not working in the coal mines. This might be true, but their working and living conditions do not even compare with those in the U.S; factories are often hot, and they work among dangerous chemicals. Moreover, factories are not safely constructed, which has caused factory collapses such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1100 people in 2013. This incident was frustrating because the workers had already pointed out the cracks in the walls to the managers yet were forced to reenter. Additionally, there is violence and abuse towards the workers: in one instance, managers locked the door and beat up thirty workers.

The poverty also means that children are separated from their parents. Since parents work incredibly long hours and cannot afford to care for their children, they send them to live with family or friends outside of the city, where they can attend school, which they hope will enable them to have a better life one day. One Bangladeshi mother tearfully said, “I believe that these clothes are produced by our blood. We want better working conditions so that no one dies like this. So that children do not lose their mothers like this… No matter how much someone loves a child, they can never love a child like a parent. I feel heartbroken. I don’t want my daughter to work in a garment factory like me.”

Workers survive on a mere two dollars per day, which is not a sustainable salary. In Cambodia, workers took to the streets for two days to protest for a raise in minimum wage. They were met with violence from the police. A protester commented, “We are not actually asking for much money. We just want a decent living with dignity [$160 U.S. minimum per month]. The government does not care about us.”

Moreover, fashion is second only to the oil industry in harming the environment.  For instance, it creates chemical destruction, water contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions. “We become more and more hellbent on using things as we become closer to species degradation and using up the environment.”

Whole fields of cotton are sprayed with pesticides. No one knows the full impact of these pesticides, but effects have already surfaced. Spraying the fields does not reduce the amount of pesticides used because it contaminates the soil, which requires even more pesticides to be used. Since farmers are thus required to pay for both seeds and chemicals, many cannot afford this investment and lose their land to big companies such as Monsanto.  Damage is done to more than just the soil, however; pesticides have also wreaked havoc on the public’s health. Pesticides have led to a dramatic increase in cancer, severe birth defects and mental illnesses. Pesticide infection is a common phenomenon in the Punjab region of India: 60 deaths have occurred in just one village. Many mothers wait for death to put their children out of their misery. An American farmer’s wife whose father and husband’s lives were also claimed by exposure to pesticides commented, “At that point [after my husband’s death], organic was no longer important to me. It was changing chemicals.”

Similarly, chemicals that are used to treat leather have caused water contamination. More than 50 million liters of chemicals have flowed into drinking water; the groundwater is contaminated with chromium. Physical effects of too much chromium include skin rashes, boils, numbness in limbs, and jaundice. Chromium also attacks the liver directly, which creates digestion problems and liver cancer. One father attested, “All our savings are used to treat the disease.”

Fast fashion has caused production of waste which is mostly non-biodegradable, meaning that it won’t decompose for 200 years, and in the meantime will release harmful gases. Of all the clothes that people donate to charity, only ten percent is resold; the rest gets dumped in places such as Haiti.

One solution to this widespread exploitation is to set standards that require employers to compensate their employees fairly. However, these standards are not a final solution because even if one factory refuses to make clothing as cheaply as requested, the company will simply seek out another factory that complies. While there are still factories that are desperate enough for business that they will accept inadequate pay, clothing brands will refuse to accept higher costs.  In response to the need for advocacy for these workers, Safia Minney founded People Tree to ensure that producers of clothing eat, and the Green Carpet Challenge calls for celebrities to become more conscious of what they wear.

“This system is immoral. We need to change the way these companies profit. Companies of unprecedented size and power have little incentive to do anything other than profit more.” Richard Wolf, a well-known economist, agreed. He became convinced that the problem is within the economic system itself. He commented, “I think we need huge systemic change. Capitalism is the reason that workers have these conditions. More profit drives the price down. We have to open a national debate about the system as a whole; we should think long and hard about other systems. Stop this stuff about improving their conditions and change the system… My God we can do better than this. Let’s share the profit globally.”

Wolf wants us to stop treating people like profit, stop treating land as a commodity, and start talking about creative work instead of labor. To remember that everything we wear was touched by human hands.

Director Andrew Morgan stated at the premiere, “I do not want you to feel guilty. I want you to feel angry, I want you to feel moved. This was made on the assumption that you wouldn’t ask questions. We have a responsibility. We were given this little piece of history. Let’s leave the Earth better than we found it, using our voices on small city or global levels. Take this life in the most personal way that you can.”

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– Christina Como