Shima Akhter’s voice shakes as she tries to describe her feelings about the thousands of people tragically killed in recent years by collapsing garment factories in Bangladesh. ‘I don’t want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood,’ she implores, fighting back the tears.
Akhter is one of the millions of people in developing countries who are directly employed by the fashion industry, and like most, she has to work in conditions so appalling she worries about ever bringing her daughter Nadia to her work because of the heat and harmful chemicals. Instead, Nadia stays in a rural village to be looked after by friends and neighbours. Akhter’s aspiration in life is for Nadia to be in a position where she never has to follow her mother’s footsteps into a garment factory.
Akhter’s story is one intimately shown by director and narrator Andrew Morgan in The True Cost, which explores the global impacts of the fashion industry from all angles. From factory working conditions for people like Akhter, to the health problems caused by pesticide use on cotton farms in Texas or chemicals in Indian leather factories, to the economic problems caused by cheap second-hand clothing, Morgan attempts to analyse the whole industry from start-to-finish, highlighting the social and environmental problems along the way.
It’s easy to lose count of the health problems caused at multiple stages along the production line. From the cotton farmers suffering from brain tumours in Texas, to the birth defects and cancers experienced by millions working on similar plantations in India, the extremely hazardous implications of pesticide use make switching to organic cotton production appear the most obvious thing in the world. He doesn’t even have to mention the immense water shortages caused by water-intensive cotton farms in countries such as Uzbekistan to show that these large-scale, relatively unregulated methods of growing such commodities is toxic to both the environment and local communities.
Record numbers of suicides by Indian farmers who have fallen into debt thanks to low commodity prices for the produce of their pesticide-polluted land, as well as essential regular payments to genetically-modified seed patent owners such as the giant Monsanto, show an industry forcibly kept on it’s knees by the all-powerful big brands who continue to make record profits each year.
Morgan is happy to allow opposing voices to have their say in the film, but their words about a globalised fashion industry bringing jobs and prosperity to people in developing countries ring hollow when presented along scenes of immense working poverty, and at times violent suppression, from India to Bangladesh to Cambodia.
Furthermore, he presents plenty of alternatives to the status quo, with smaller and more ethical brands such as People Tree and Patagonia exhibiting how they work directly with co-operatives around the world – primarily consisting of women – to provide quality clothing whilst also paying fair wages and generally avoiding any of the exploitative measures used by the third party manufacturers whom the familiar high street names outsource their garment production to.
Ultimately, it becomes a film criticising a wider system of capitalism which is reliant on growing materialism and consumption in order to stay alive, where all the people affected by the fashion industry as it stands are weighed against the profits which can be made using existing economic models. And that includes us as consumers, and the negative impacts which advertising and the invention of ‘fast fashion’ has on the way we live our lives.
With a supporting cast including the author and journalist Lucy Siegle and campaigner and consultant Livia Firth, as well as cameoes from big names such as Stella McCartney, there’s a broad and comprehensive feel to the film. It’s a lot to get into 90 minutes, but Morgan manages to include just as much detail as is necessary to make his point, before moving onto the next stage of his investigation.
While multiple talking heads are keen to argue that the big names in fashion are working within a broken system, and therefore that the wider model of globalisation requires reform before any significant changes can be made, Morgan does make a noteworthy point that such change has to start somewhere. ‘In the midst of all the challenges facing us today, for all the problems that feel bigger than us and beyond out control, maybe we could start here, with clothing,’ being his closing remarks.