The Hidden Price of Fast Fashion - "The True Cost" Documentary Film Review by Sasha Cohen, June 24 2015, 0 Comments

“This enormous, rapacious industry that is generating so much profit; why is it that it is unable to support millions of its workers properly? The business model is completely unsustainable.”

-British journalist Lucy Siegle in The True Cost

The True Cost, directed by Andrew Morgan, takes a critical look at Fast Fashion and its negative effects on humans and the environment. Morgan has been commended for conducting solid due diligence and for interviewing factory owners and free market proponents. Fast Fashion, as it has generally been used, refers to the ability of clothing companies to capture runway fashions very quickly, produce them cheaply overseas, and offer them to consumers at very low price points. 

I had the opportunity to attend the New York premiere last week (6/17/2015) at Lincoln Center's Francesca Beale Theater, where celebrities and many others came to support Livia Firth, executive producer and champion of the film, and the film's ideals advocating fair trade, fair wages, and care for our planet. 

I found the documentary, filmed in 13 countries, compelling and a poignant reminder of the real cost of inexpensive fashion. Having the privilege of being on the buying end of Fast Fashion, it is important to understand the human and environmental cost of purchasing a T-shirt for just $5. I cried, more than once, feeling great compassion for the individuals interviewed by Morgan and his team, and for the communities in which they live.

THE EVOLUTION OF FAST FASHION

In the 1960s, America produced all but five percent of our own clothing. Today, the production of 97 percent of what Americans wear is outsourced, mostly to developing nations.

Fast Fashion started to establish itself as a new fashion category in the late 1990s when companies producing value and mid-priced brands began to look for new ways to increase profits. Global trade grew rapidly in the 80s and 90s, facilitating low-cost country sourcing. This shifted the bulk of production to the developing world where labor and overhead costs are much lower. Many fashion workers in developing countries made (and continue to make) clothes in unsafe conditions and at the low-end of the pay scale, earning less per day than most Americans pay for a cup of coffee (shocking to American ears)—throwing the discrepancies of the global economy into glaring relief.

During the same period, fashion houses evolved from having two seasons to being able to offer up to 18 collections a year—and the low cost, or so called "value end" experienced a "boom, doubling in size in just 5 years," according to the Ethical Fashion Forum.

AT WHAT COST?

One fashion retailer, Zara, often studied and held in high esteem in business schools, is portrayed in the film as a leader in lean production and the ability to quickly pivot and alter geographically market-specific fashion lines. This film asks, “At what cost?”

Fast-fashion retailers (e.g. Zara, Uniqlo and H&M, which is a leader in the category) have come under increased scrutiny for their heavy reliance on low-wage factory workers, many of whom work in dangerous, grueling conditions, as well as for the environmental toll of 'throwaway fashion'. This fast fashion is possible through “vertical integration”, or ownership at multiple stages of the production chain (e.g. owning factories, as in the case of Zara). This type of supply chain allows for quick production and delivery to stores. H&M, for example, gets new shipments every day. Struggling brands like Gap, which have been losing market share over the last 20 years, especially to fast-fashion brands, aim to emulate more successful fast-fashion rivals.

 

Morgan’s film showcases “multiple problems caused by America’s current clothing gluttony”, or rather the developed/ing countries’ gluttony. This behavior leads to: farmlands drenched with pesticides; birth defects; unwillingness to provide a safe working environment; and other issues that take a toll on human lives and the life of our planet. One wonders if only fast fashion is guiltyhow widespread are these abhorrent practices in the fashion industry in general?  It is important to also note the rising number of fair trade fashion companies that have brought worker safety and fair labor practices to the core of their mission.

PRAISE AND CRITICISM FOR THE FILM

Although the documentary is praised for uncovering the true effects of fast fashion, it is also criticized on some fronts including the fact that Morgan does not present the effects of fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified cotton or chemical dyes adequately, or as in-depth as he addresses the aesthetics of pollution (e.g. environmental damage) and birth defects. As well, he does not address significant retailer mark-upsincreased profit that could instead go into improving sweatshop manufacturing conditions rather than profit marginthough to me this seems a rather naïve understanding of the capitalist global economy.

My criticism follows from a fact mentioned earlier in this article—pictures of children living in poverty and squalor pull at the heart strings and make us (lucky middle and upper class Americans) regretful this exists in our world. Not intending to be cynical, though, were it not for that world, where routinely accepted daily pay is equivalent to the cost of ONE cup of coffee in the developed world, where mothers working in factories do not have homes or income to afford to raise their children – our world couldn’t exist. That’s something worth exploring and illuminating; I would welcome further work from Morgan addressing this paradox.

 

I also found myself thinking about the ecological tipping point. I’m not a scientist, but I understand enough to know we live in a closed environment. Our ecosystem recycles - but if we continue to pollute, regardless of origin, we will all suffer. And so will those who follow us on this planet. Journalists have speculated that government bodies are quietly investigating the impact of nuclear waste washing up on western US states’ shores from Fukiyama. Leather factories in Kanpu dump more than 50 million liters of waste water and toxic substances daily, including Chromium-6, into the Ganga River. In our own backyards, we still do not know the long-term damage caused by fracking and the potential impact on our ground water. How long can the world dump chemicals directly into rivers without consequential effects for the entire world?

Yet the fashion industry has been seeing record profits of $3 trillion per year, according to the filmmakers. As Orsola de Castro, a fashion designer, points out in the film, “The shift is moving ruthlessly towards a way of producing that only really looks after big business.”

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?

With Fast Fashion, the poor are at risk from deplorable work conditions and low wages in order to keep churning out goods that no one really needs. The film also makes this point very clear: more stuff has never been a source of human contentment.

Some companies are fighting to rectify conditions in the clothing production cycle. Many European companies and precious few American-based ones have signed a binding accord that sets minimum standards for building safety in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy. You can find a list of participating companies here.

Where is the place for conscious consumerism? Will you change your purchasing decisions in the future?

Click here to see The True Cost trailer.