"There is nothing intrinsically dangerous in sewing clothes," Kate Ball-Young, former sourcing manager at Joe Fresh, surprisingly states when director Andrew Morgan interviews her about sweatshops in his documentary The True Cost (2015). Working in a factory making clothes for people based in the States or in Europe, she points out, is indeed not as dangerous as coal mining. Her words sound rather shocking for many of us, immediately conjuring up news clips of huge human disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013, the deadliest garment factory accident in history.
Morgan's The True Cost - premiered in Cannes, and launched in May in London to a crowd of celebrities including Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco-Age and executive producer of the film and husband Colin Firth, designer Tom Ford, milliner Stephen Jones, and founder and Executive Chairman of Net-A-Porter Natalie Massenet - analyses the many dangers caused by fast fashion.
Selected to be screened at the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival (it's on tomorrow), the documentary argues that cheap garments are not about bargaining to get a trendy look, but bargaining with the life of our planet and of our fellow human beings.
The ever-expanding fast fashion industry with its constant production of new clothes and accessories, is indeed exploiting underpaid workers and causing ecological emergencies. The toxic pesticides used in cotton and chemicals dyes in leather production release indeed their deadly products into the environment, affecting the health of people working around them, and causing cancer and birth defects.
The True Cost takes the format of a sort of long journey from one country to the other - from the United States to Bangladesh and China, from India to the UK, from Haiti to Cambodia.
The most interesting parts show the human cost workers are paying: apart from receiving very low wages and working in unsafe conditions, they are often separated from their families and must leave their children with relatives living in villages in order to move to big cities and work in factories, as we are told through the story of Shima Akhter, a garment worker.
Other shocking aspects, highlighted also by environmental activist Vandana Shiva, include the damages caused by Monsanto's monopoly on cotton seeds: farmers become indebted to corporations selling genetically modified cotton seeds (and often commit suicide not finding other ways out of their debts), they have to buy more pesticides because genetically modified cotton seeds do not work and, doing so, they end up spreading more harmful and toxic substances in many villages.
Morgan also takes the viewers to a peaceful demonstration in Cambodia for a decent living wage that turned into a bloody war when the police opened fire on the protesters, and stops at the funeral of one of the victims.
Though The True Cost has some interesting parts, there is a major problem with this documentary: Morgan is an enthusiastic reporter, but lacks solid investigative and research skills. At times he comes up with unchecked facts (the film claims fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil, but, while that may be true, we don't know where or how he found this piece of information), and missed opportunities, as the director doesn't sit down to consider the real markups that could mean tangible improvements in sweatshops.
Besides, Morgan seems to have just found out about the big containers filled with unwanted clothes from charity shops being sent to countries such as Haiti.
This practice, Morgan points out, has killed the local textile industry, but the director doesn't seem to be aware that it has also been used by Western countries to prove how powerful they are, as the containers are marked as "exports" and used as proof of internal growth.
Besides, though representatives of major mass market retailers refused his requests to be interviewed, Morgan may have tried to talk to more fashion designers who are into supporting environmental causes (Vivienne Westwood would have been interesting) or with people working in other sections of the fast fashion industry chain, including designers (and even bloggers) who work for or collaborate with fast fashion retailers.
There is also another major problem with all the documentaries and books focusing on analysing the faults of the current fashion industry (but, if you like the genre, and you're looking for something more political with an arty twist about it, try Im Heung-Soon's "Factory Complex"): they mainly look at High Street retailers and limit their research to underdeveloped countries, but their findings would be equally shocking if they widened the scope to designer brands (Morgan seems to hint at this issue in the shoots of catwalk shows, but he doesn't really mention it) and Europe, where production is tendered and sub-tendered to illegal factories scattered in Italy and in various Eastern European countries.
Though documenting the tragedy of several factory workers and presenting alternatives through an interview with Safia Minney, founder and CEO of fair trade fashion brand People Tree, fashion designer Stella McCartney and Livia Firth (well, in this case Morgan could have found another interviewee rather than his patron...), The True Cost doesn't have a final solution.
The latter lies indeed in consumers' behaviour: the director implies indeed that by buying or refusing to buy something we can express a sort of vote for or against specific brands and prompt them to change.
Will this happen? It is very unlikely that one documentary will change the fashion industry, but The True Cost could have the same impact that other accessible films had on our collective eating habits and dependance from junk food and fast food chains.
It would indeed be interesting to show The True Cost in schools (even though the documentary is rated PG-13) to educate young consumers and alert them about our collective obscene consumption, reminding them to buy less and resist being brainwashed by adverts that make them believe their needs will be satisfied or they will sort out their life problems by buying this garment or that accessory.
As YouTube videos of young girls back from a clothing haul session claiming they love something bought from mass retailers (one of them actually admits she doesn't even know if she will ever wear one top she got...) are mixed with footage of consumers rushing to shopping malls on Black Friday, images of villages, women sitting in sweatshops and landfills with mountains of non biodegradable textile waste releasing armful gases, the viewers easily understand that slowing down and reducing our consuming habits can represent significant changes.
Yet there is something else that Morgan only touches upon towards the end and that could be the key to unlock the changes in our personal spending and buying habits - the current Capitalist system.
As Richard D. Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, states towards the end of the documentary, if we really want everybody to share on a global level benefits in a reasonable way, it is even more imperative to criticise and change the system that has worsened the gaps between have and have nots, increasing social injustices and social tensions.
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos