Writer’s Note: Originally written for The Circle Fashion Magazine. Can be found here.
“This is a story about clothing. It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make these clothes, and the impact that it’s having on our world. It’s a story about greed, fear, power, and poverty.”
Those are the words that open up Andrew Morgan’s 2015 documentary, “The True Cost.” While filming the documentary, all that Morgan learned changed the way he thought about the clothes he wears and he hopes that it does the same for whoever else watches it. Or in this case, whoever reads a summary of it.
The film mentions how the fashion system ran like clockwork for years, but now the industry has been reinvented with more focus on looking after big business interests.
In the past, most clothing was made right in America, and, as recently as the 1960s, America was making 95% of its clothing domestically. Today, America only makes about 3%, and the other 97% is made in developing countries all around the world.
Over the last 20 years, the price of products has gone down. The more that companies outsource, the cheaper the prices, which has created what we call fast fashion. But from fast fashion comes many risks and issues in the garment industry.
Tragedy and unsafe working conditions occur because factories are cutting corners and disregarding safety. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, an eight-story building collapsed, killing more than 1000 people. The workers already pointed out that the building was structurally unsafe, yet they were still forced to work. Management was aware of the cracks in the building and the worker’s concerns the day of, but they ultimately chose to ignore them.
The garment industry generates so much profit for a handful of people, but it cannot support millions of its workers properly. For no reason, they cannot guarantee their safety, which brings up the question, is it because the system does not work properly?
No Sympathy for Garment Workers
Everywhere Morgan looked he kept finding more and more people that would justify the cost of the garment industry because of the economic benefit that it generates. Benjamin Powell, director of the free market institute, said that sweatshops are a benefit because it is a place where people can work and that the alternative jobs available to them are much worse in these developing countries.
Kate Ball-Young, former sourcing manager for Joe Fresh, says it does not even bother her what the garment workers are going through. She says they are doing a job and that there are a lot worse things they could be doing. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with sewing clothes,” she says with an ignorant laugh.
Women Garment Workers
Morgan talked with a couple of people who he says found a better way to produce in the garment industry while still generating economic growth.
Safie Minney, the founder, and CEO of People Tree went to Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, India, and many other countries and she put together a network of like-minded Fair Trade organizations. These organizations put women’s development, the worker’s social development, and the environment essential to everything they do.
In the film, Morgan follows a young garment worker, Shima Akhter, in Bangladesh. Akhter is one of about 40 million garment factory workers in the world, of which almost 4 million are in Bangladesh.
Over 85% of the garment workers in Bangladesh are women. They have a minimum wage of less than $3 a day, making these women among the lowest-paid garment workers in the world.
Akhter has a daughter that she has to send to a village outside the city like many other parents do because they do not have the proper resources to care for them. These parents might only get to see their children once or twice a year because of their long hours and little pay. Through all of this, Akhter keeps on a smile as she goes back home to drop off her daughter, and talks about how this is the first time she has seen either of her parents in a year.
At her work, Akhter mentions how she formed a union and they made a list of demands and gave it to the managers. When the managers got the list, they had an altercation with the union. After the altercation, the managers locked the door and along with them 30-40 staffers attacked the union and beat them up.
“I believe these clothes are produced by our blood,” Akhter says as she breaks down crying. She says that people do not understand the process and how difficult it is for them.
When you write to these companies about labor issues, they’ll send you a code of conduct, which says that they take responsibility for the conditions under which their products are made. But when a bill was submitted to Congress called “The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act,” the same companies said that it would be an impediment to free trade. Companies have gotten laws to protect themselves, but what about the workers?
The Ecosystem and the Fashion Industry
Pesticides are also widely used in the garment industry, especially when it comes to cotton. The Punjab region is the largest user of pesticides in India. Dr. Pritpal Singh says there are negative effects on human health, and a dramatic rise in birth defects, cancers, and mental illness in the region. The big companies are ignoring the after-effects of pesticides and fertilizers and do not really give it a second thought.
Our Purchasing Habits
The documentary touches a little bit on advertising and how it heavily influences buying habits. These ads tie the consumption of their product to happiness and satisfaction, causing people to consume more.
Today, we purchase over 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year, which is 400% more than the amount we bought two decades ago. The number of clothes and textiles that are being thrown away has increased steadily over the last 10 years.
Fashion should not be seen as a disposable product. The average American throws away 82 pounds of textile waste every year, and most of that is nonbiodegradable and just sits in the landfills for at least 200 years releasing harmful gases into the air.
Only about 10% of the clothes we donate actually get sold in local thrift stores and the clothing is then dumped in developing countries like Haiti.
Fashion designer Stella McCartney says the fashion industry needs to stop and think about how it’s been working and question and challenge it and that the fashion industry should work in a way that is not harmful to the planet.
Fashion is the second most polluting industry on earth. Not only is fashion using a huge amount of natural resources and creating staggering environmental effects, but this impact also is not even measured.
American economist Richard Wolff says the problem is ultimately within the system itself. Capitalism is the reason why the fashion industry looks like it does today. When operating in this system, all one cares about is profit.
When it comes to the environment, capital cannot have limits on its growth, but we all know that the natural world has limits. There are defined limits the world can sustain in terms of production, trade, transport, and distribution and we’ve already overstepped a lot of those limits.
Happy Consumers, Unhappy Garment Workers and the True Cost of the Industry
Towards the end of the film, there were shots of people buying clothes, having fun, and fashion shows combined with shots of the worker’s conditions and how unhappy they look, showing how people are not thinking about what goes into the making of a garment.
The documentary ends with the people that were interviewed throughout the film, saying what they think will and should be done about “the true cost” of the garment industry:
- There will probably be a significant change in the industry over the next 10 years, whether it’s in time or not is another question.
- We need to stop treating people in ways that are just about profit, but instead, treat people in a real and human way.
- We need to spread industry around the world and let the benefits be shared globally and do it in an orderly, reasonable, and careful way.
- We need to look at the land, not as a commodity, but as the very basis of our life, as mother earth.