Review: The True Cost

The True Cost: A Review.

Industrialized clothing production has always been problematic, but those problems have become intensified and have much more far-reaching consequences in recent decades. This is due in large part to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion.” In the not-so-distant past, the fashion world had two, at most three “seasons” of new clothing. However, global capitalist markets and industrialization have sped up production, shipping, and other processes that bring new styles to market, so much so that new fashions can hit shelves practically weekly. Hence, “fast fashion,” which encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable.

The True Cost (2015) is an exploration of the causes and consequences of fast fashion in particular, and global capitalism in general. The film’s creators journeyed from Texas to the UK, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, from China to Haiti, and other places around the world. The film features interviews with experts from a multitude of fields, including ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Free Market Institute director Benjamin Powell, physician Pritpal Singh, and animal rights activist and fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features individuals struggling against the systemic problems associated with global capitalism in their own niches. Though they may be less famous in Western contexts, their stories are no less important. They help to shed light on the day-to-day consequences of the capitalist system, the ways in which seemingly disparate sectors are intrinsically connected within this system, and what individuals can do about it. Bangladeshi union leader Shima Akhter, American organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, and Cambodian parliamentarian Mu Sochua are among these voices.

The True Cost takes a wide-lens view of the garment industry and the various economic pockets tied to it. I’ll discuss a few of the major themes that are the focus of this film here.


The huge growth seen in the fashion industry would not be possible without accompanying intensive industrialization of agriculture. As infrequently as we ponder the impact on garment workers as we shop for clothes, much less frequently do we think about farmers, who are one more step ‘removed’ from the final product. These industries appear disconnected to most of us, yet our constant consumption of “disposable clothing” would not be possible without industrialized agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture includes the mass use of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals that are not only dangerous for the natural world but also to human beings.

When her husband died of brain cancer, Texan LaRhea Pepper realized that organic farming isn’t just important, it is “imperative.” While she doesn’t have “a smoking gun” that directly connects the agrochemicals used on the farms surrounding her community to the many farmers she personally knows who have died from cancer, she has more than enough evidence to know that there is a dire need for organic farming techniques. She echoes ecofeminist Vandana Shiva’s sentiment that nature is the original economy, and when the land and waters suffers, humans suffer. Pepper says that we must “respect the life that’s in the land,” a lesson passed down to her in her farming family.

For farmers around the world, ‘modern’ agricultural products and techniques are tempting, despite the harm they can do to people and the environment. Yet it is a hard trap to escape from once signed onto, especially for farmers in “developing” countries, such as India. GMO cotton and other patented seeds have proven to be “ecological narcotics,” as Shiva calls them, because they require ever more chemicals (e.g. pesticides) to maintain their productivity. This in turn creates a dependency on GMO-patenting companies like Monsanto—which are the same companies producing agricultural chemicals. Even more disturbingly, Shiva asserts that the corporations selling carcinogenic farming chemicals are also investing in the development of cancer treatments and pharmaceuticals. In other words, these corporations benefit from causing, as well as treating, human ailments. It is easy to see that there is little incentive for this system to change itself, particularly when it prioritizes profit over human well-being.


We think of propaganda “as a foreign thing,” says Mark Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, “but it’s actually as American as apple pie.” Advertising is essentially a form of propaganda that encourages us to buy stuff. Psychologist Tim Kasser has found that increases in materialistic values are associated with increases in anxiety and depression. After reviewing research on marketing, this is perhaps a predictable outcome of advertising that is designed to makes us feel insecure, incomplete, and incompetent—problems that can be ‘solved’ through the constant consumption of new products. Modern day marketing has become the art and science of what 19th century advertising copywriter Samuel Strausser called “consumptionism.” Miller explains that the logic of consumerism wants people “to treat the things we use as the things we use up.” This model is plainly unsustainable, but as economist Richard Wolff points out, American capitalism is treated as above criticism, regularly getting “a free pass” on its dysfunction.


Most of the waste we produce is non-biodegradable. In recent decades, a growing proportion of that waste is clothing. Increasingly, people think of fashion “as a disposable product,” according to journalist and True Cost producer Lucy Siegle. Many of us try to be more conscious of this, and believe we are doing good when we donate clothing to charity. But the “journey of a t-shirt donated to charity is unpalatable in itself,” says fashion designer Orsola de Castro. For example, almost 90% of the clothing we donate to local charities actually gets shipped to “developing” countries, such as Haiti. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts Haitian clothing manufacturers out of business, so there is less home-grown business and less local capital.

Consumer Capitalism as a Worldview

The True Cost creators interviewed Kate Ball-Young, a former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, and in many ways her worldview neatly encapsulates the abstracted beliefs about globalization and capitalism held by most Americans today. Of garment factory workers, Ball-Young asserts that “they could be doing something much worse,” like coal-mining or something. She clearly has no idea just how hazardous garment manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh truly is, both in the short and long-term. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with selling clothes,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that is true, but she appears to be disconnecting her own work from the very industry that provides her with a source of income in the first place. Ball-Young is emblematic of a Western mindset that as long as we can’t see where a thing came from, then we don’t need to ask hard ethical questions of ourselves, even when we sell or consume that thing.

For me, one of the most serious problems with this mindset is that we are not just cultivating an ignorance of where things come from, but indulging in a fantasy that real people did not create those things. Whether it is clothing or cars or food, we would much rather purchase and enjoy the end product guilt-free than contemplate the journey from field or mine to factory to storefront that a product must take. In doing so, we can overlook the human element of global capitalism—especially human suffering. Maybe we take it a step further by patting ourselves on the back for ‘supporting livelihoods’ overseas. Accompanying this belief is the attitude of TINA: “There Is No Alternative.” When we as consumers choose to believe that “there is no alternative” for the people producing our goods, we can excuse human rights violations, environmental devastation, and other associated problems because—well duh, what other choice do those people have? But what happens when we confront someone who believes this with, Well, aren’t we complicit in a system that has eliminated alternatives? We can’t abstract ourselves as individuals from these complex and interconnected systems in which we participate—and, frequently, which we benefit from. We must acknowledge that our choices as consumers has the power to perpetuate or alter these systems.

Some Criticism

As can be seen from this brief overview of a few of these major themes, the scope of the film is daunting. In its attempt to be accessible by not getting too deep with any one topic, The True Cost touches upon a variety of interconnected issues only superficially. This ends up becoming a core critique from film reviewers, such as Vanessa Friedman. In her New York Times review, she wrote of The True Cost’s director Andrew Morgan, “it’s hard not to feel in the end that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In trying to do everything, he skirted a lot of things, including acknowledging the shades of gray in this subject.”

Another shortcoming of this film is that it is not explicit enough in stating the disproportionate effect of exploitative industries like fast fashion on people of colour, most of all people of colour in the ‘Global South.’ To put it into perspective, (particularly white) Western consumers are exempt of accountability for their part in exploiting the time, health, and labor of people of colour in ‘distant lands.’ So while I commend the film for putting women of colour’s voices and experiences front and center, it cheats its own argument by shying away from the ways in which gender, race, and nationality play into global capitalism’s systemic violence. The film also does not in any way note how global capitalism is in part an expression of Western colonialism and imperialism, and how people of colour (especially women) continue to suffer the greatest burden of this legacy.

Finally, although there is some discussion of disability and mental health throughout the documentary, this is done without exploration of the experiences of people who are multiply marginalized. That is, the film’s creators do not flesh out the ramifications of living and working within an oppressive system that contributes to mental and physical disabilities disproportionately in communities of colour and in the ‘Global South.’ And where women of colour are place front and center to tell their own stories in their own voices, disabled people are not afforded this treatment. Rather, they are featured more as props backgrounding the ‘horrible’ stories of environmental contamination explicated by the director/narrator.

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, for people who have never met a garment factory worker (let alone are friends with any), The True Cost may bring the human element of exploitative industries, like fast fashion, to the fore of their consciousness. Maybe they will start to pay more attention to workers’ struggles around the globe, including in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Maybe it will start to sink in how these systems do much for the West at the expense of the Global South, especially women of colour. Maybe they will start to see how our decision-making processes impact the direction industries take, and thus how we need to take responsibility for those decisions and their effects on our fellow Earthlings.

This documentary is best for people with limited knowledge of the themes it discusses, as it provides some solid, entry-level information. It’s a great starting point for getting a big-picture grasp of the abusive nature of global capitalism. From there, hopefully viewers will continue to more deeply educate themselves on these issues.

Here is some literature that might prove helpful for such continuing education on global capitalism, the interconnectedness of its systems, and how this impacts all of us:

And for those specifically interested in “buying better,” check out this page on the film’s site.




Feminism and Spiritual Ecology

100_3038Lately I’ve been exploring the connections between feminism and deep ecology, also sometimes called spiritual ecology. Sometimes these connections are obvious, like the notion that the Earth is a Mother and humanity’s wasteful and thoughtless destruction of her “resources” and inhabitants is equivalent to matricide, or rape. Sometimes the overlap of these philosophies surprises me, as when I saw nexus where feminism’s agency and autonomy concepts meet deep ecology’s unity and lifeforce concepts. (Probably more to articulate on that later.)

Ecofeminism explores the connections in these two subject areas more explicitly, and some of the contributions to the book Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth are what I would consider feminist philosophy. Below are links to some readings from that book which seemed especially relevant to me, both to feminism and ecology and to the more pressing matter of our treatment of Earth. If you read and have feedback, ideas, critiques or questions, please feel free to comment on this post!

Revelation at Laikipia, Kenya100_3043
Chief Tamale Bwoya
(Scroll down the above linked page for article.)

Listening to Natural Law
Chief Oren Lyons (Here: lyons-oren-essay)
(Also, a video here.)

The Koan of the Earth
Susan Murphy
(Scroll down the above linked page for article.)

Creation as the Body of God
Fr. Richard Rohr

Spiritual Ecology is a great starter read for anyone interested in feminist-related and deep ecology.

This isn’t an excerpt from Spiritual Ecology, but this blog has some appreciable, and fun, insights (and also a really cool banner).

100_3039Much literature within the deep ecology movement echoes feminist themes regarding the harm of hyperindividuality and patriarchy, particularly our disconnection from the Earth and our environment (and from each other) as well as the devaluation of the ‘Feminine’. ‘Western’ (and some ‘Eastern’) philosophies have long seen the Earth as a wilderness waiting to be dominated, its forests, mountains, sands, waters, and living things waiting to be harvested and recreated into materials more useful to [white, hetero, cis] capitalist patriarchy. Capitalist patriarchy devalues the ‘feminine’ wild in its natural state, thus othering the natural world (the anima mundi) and creating the illusion of human superiority over it which justifies our domination of all other living things. At the same time, capitalist patriarchy encourages our egoistic arrogance and our delusion that, not only are we separate and different from the Earth and its lifeforce, we are so important as individuals that we are also separate from each other. A lot of deep ecology talks about the fostering of human community in conjunction with reconnecting to land, weather, water, and living things.

More readings and resources on feminism + deep ecology are likely forthcoming. Also, if you have suggestions of your own, please send me a message or post them below!

The Return of Vishnu following is the transcript of a dialogue I, Lee Solomon, had with my feathered friend, Vishnu. In case you missed our first conversation, Vishnu is a hen empowered to speak through a machine that translates Vishnu’s chicken thoughts into human language. *Warning: Links are to Graphic Images*

[Transcript Opens]

LS: Hello, hello…

V: Hearing you loud and clear.

LS: Great, it works. So, how are you, Vishnu?

V: Amused.

LS: Eh? How’s that?

V: I’ve just been reading something on this organization called PETA.

LS: Ah, yes– People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. What’s amusing?

V: Well, that they lobby so ardently against animal testing and experimentation, fur, animal products in the food industry, animals used for entertainment, and so on, when their very presence on Earth is a serious threat to the health and well-being of other animals around them. That, and that they distinguish between “people” [makes quote motion with wings] and “animals”. We…animals are always the Other, you know?

LS: So I have come to realize. Well, don’t you think they’re doing some good work?

V: I guess it’s better than doing nothing.

LS: Oh, come on, they have achieved some pretty admirable things, don’t you agree?

V: Such as?

LS: Such as… Well, getting some pretty famous celebrities not only to stop wearing fur, but also to campaign against the killing of animals for fur. That’s pretty remarkable, yeah?

V: Oh, you’re talking about this. [Holds up ipad.]

LS: Since when did you get an ipad?

V: Since I started saving money by selling my eggs.

LS: [pause] Oh. [Takes ipad; browses webpage.] What…the f***?!

V: Ha ha!

LS: [Shouting.] Vishnu, you’re not funny! I know you think you’re funny, but you’re not!

V: Come on, you have to admit, this is pretty funny. [Pause.] In an ironic way.

LS: [Shaking head.] Yeah, or it just makes me nauseous. Campaigning for animal rights by fetishizing and commodifying women? W-T-F?

V: It’s rather incredible…[sarcastically] don’t you think?

LS: [Frowning.] Sometimes you’re just mean.

V: So what do you think is wrong with this ad campaign. Doesn’t it serve a good purpose?

LS: If they reinforce the idea that the female body can and should be use to sell something, then to me it defeats the purpose. The ends does not justify the means.

V: Maybe, but it’s not so bad, is it– how exactly are they commodifying women?

LS: By depicting their bodies as hypersexualized, passive, consumable objects, slung with slogans and brands.

V: It is disturbing the way they are posing nude with those rabbits… [Shudders visibly.]

LS: Both the women and the various animals posing in these pictures look really vapid and devoid of thought.

V: They look rather silly, yes.

LS: The women– oh wait, and this one guy, too [holds up ipad]… But even this picture is not hypersexualized, the pose is not erotic or suggestive, he is just standing on a runway with this sign. Anyway, the women in these ads are not on a level with animals, or as you say, V, the Other– they are like pieces of meat. The underlying tone of these ads, [makes quote motion] “CONSUME ME”, speaks louder than their so-called “good message”.

V: That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?

LS: What’s dramatic are these ridiculous taglines. Is sexual double entendre really necessary to convince people to respect animals, even if it worked? Which it doesn’t, by the way. The idea that PETA, who are supposedly all about the rights of animals, would use tactics so degrading the rights of human beings makes me doubt that any outsider would possibly take the issue seriously. When has that ever worked? [Mimicking a man’s voice.] Oh, well, this sexy ad has caused me to reevaluate my moral position on eating animals. [Scoffs.] Yeah, right. Not to mention it’s playing on detrimental norm-enforcing dogma. I mean, look at this one. [Holds up ipad.] Masculine stereotypes are also being reinforced in these ads, though virtually never in a sexual way– no, no, that would be too feminizing, emasculating. The men are necessarily shown in strong, powerful poses with forceful, aggressive expressions. Or they just general look like bad-asses. The women, on the other hand, are posed suggestively with seductive looks. I’m sorry, but how does soft-core porn encourage one to become a vegan?

V: [Smiles.] Indeed. It is surprising that a group so devoted to the rights of animals would not see a problem in their using this particular kind of animal– humans, specifically women, I mean– in such a way… [Silence for some moments.]

LS: [Browsing with ipad.] What the– really? Not all…? [Sighs.] Here’s your ipad. [Hands back ipad.] Let’s watch a movie or something.

V: Sure.

[End of Transcript]

Addendum: A brilliantly written article from Lucy Uprichard on Huffington Post Students. The real problem with PETA– couldn’t agree more.

A Conversation with Vishnu

A device was recently invented which instantly translates the language of chickens into human languages, like English, and vice versa. The following is the transcript of a conversation between myself, Lee Solomon, and Vishnu, a chicken, which was held using my newly-purchased device.

[Transcript opens.]

LS: Testing, testing.

V: I got that.

LS: Okay, me too. We’re good. [Clears throat.] This is Lee Solomon speaking with, with my friend here… For the record, can you please state your name and species?

V: I’m Vishnu, I’m a chicken, Michigan-born and raised, and I’m 25 years old. In chicken years.

LS: Wow! Me too! What a coincidence. That I’m 25, and from Michigan, that is, not…that…I’m a chicken.

V: Right. Ha.

LS: Say, isn’t Vishnu a boy’s name?

V: No.

LS: Oh…Okay, anyway, let’s get started. I have a few questions lined up, but whatever you feel like discussing, let’s just go with it.

V: Shoot.

LS: I hope this isn’t too predictable, but it needs to be asked. You are aware that I technically bought you from a chicken farm, right? [V nods.] And how do you feel about this?

V: Pretty horrible. I’m sure you can imagine how horrible you might feel if your life was a commodity, especially given your interest in human trafficking. It’s the same concept.

LS: Hm, yes, I suppose it is. But humans have had a long relationship with many domesticated animals, including dogs, sheep, and cattle, going back thousands of years. Would you say these relationships are symbiotic?

V: No, because they are not entered into mutually, but are assumed. By humans. Even now that we have a voice, chickens are not being asked for their consenting participation in their own domestication. That participation is still being assumed, because humans don’t want to hear what we have to say.

LS: Mm. So you don’t see the chicken-human relationship as mutually beneficial?

V: That is not the point. A marriage can be mutually beneficial even if it’s arranged, but that doesn’t make it consenting. Whether or not “real” [makes quotation motion with wings] symbiosis is occurring is secondary. What’s missing is consent.

LS: Okay…Okay, my next question is even more complicated. Now let’s say I want to enter into a mutually beneficial, consensual relationship with you. I will agree to– [V interrupts.]

V: Wait, wait; aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves?

LS: What?

V: You paid for me, remember? So that makes you, like, my slave master. Before we can even begin to use words like “mutual” and “consensual”, you need to acknowledge the illegitimacy of your action of purchasing me, and denounce your superior status. Then we can actually get somewhere. [Murmuring, background noise.]

LS: [Nodding.] Ah, all right, all right, you’re making sense… So, I acknowledge my “master” status as false, that it arises from my privileged position within a social hierarchy, and not from some inherent or “natural” superiority as a Homo sapien. And, although we may be trapped inside this human-created hierarchy, I want this relationship– you and me– to exist outside of that, on the same level.

V: Okay, well, that last bit might be a bit too unrealistic, [both talking at once] but this is a good starting point–

LS: Wait, why is that, why is that unrealistic?

V: Because we would need to have a dialogue in which we rethink what it means to be human, what it means to be chicken, what it means to think, what it means to be alive–

LS: I see…I see. All right. Let’s go on.

V: [Scratching on the couch cushion.] So you want to enter into a relationship with me.

LS: Yes, and in that vein I agree to provide food for you, aah, shelter, protection from predators…

V: And in return you’re asking…?

LS: I’m asking for your consent to consume your body for sustenance after you’ve passed on.

V: You want to eat me after I’m dead.

LS: See, I went to such effort to phrase it so nicely, and– [both talking at once.]

V: Yeah, well, I don’t usually care for niceties. [Smiling.] You know that I may die from disease, in which case my body would be unsafe for, for consumption.

LS: [Shrugging.] That’s a possibility.

V: You’re also aware that people don’t often eat old chickens, because we just don’t taste that good after we get on in years.

LS: I’m more concerned about caloric intake than flavor quality.

V: The other problem I see– well, let me ask you this: are you an organ donor?

LS: Yes, I think my organs should be harvested, but I really want my body to be donated to science. For instance, to a medical school for use in the practice of autopsy. [Laughs.] I’d rather not be “wasted” [makes quotation motion with hands], you know. I mean, I’ll be dead, so I won’t care– I just hope my body is used in the best possible way.

V: [Nodding.] Well, you must be aware that some people are morally– religiously– opposed to the, to what they see as the desecration of a body? Of a human body.

LS: Yes.

V: You think chickens aren’t like that?

LS: Oh, I…Well it never occurred to me before.

V: [Clucking.] Obviously. Well, I’m okay with you eating my body after I die. But for the record, something to keep in mind for the future, not all chickens are the same, hold the same beliefs.

LS: Oh, no, of course not.

V: Yeah, so, it seems to me like you’re getting the shorter end of this stick. You provide me food, water, shelter, protection– can we add entertainment? I saw part of an episode of “How It’s Made” once; I’d really like a TV.

LS: Well, there is, there is one other thing… I mean, sure, of course, TV. Um, so the other thing is…

V: Is what.

LS: Is…[both talking at once.] I’m just, well, it’s–

V: Are you gonna make me say it? Are you gonna make me say it?

LS: It– [Pause.]

V: Eggs.

LS: Yeah, all right, eggs. [silence for several more seconds.]

V: What if I don’t want you to eat my babies.

LS: Well technically they won’t be babies– [both talking at once] you would need, you would need–

V: Are you saying, you’re going to deny me the right to reproduce?

LS: That would require me to buy– I’m sorry, that would mean we’d have to find a rooster, you know, and…

V: And who are you to decide when life begins? Just because my eggs aren’t fertilized doesn’t mean they don’t carry the potential for life. [Silence for several seconds.] As it happens, I agree with you; I don’t think an unfertilized egg is “alive” [makes quotation gesture with wings], and I don’t think that just because I have a fertilized egg means I have to keep it. [Stares up at the ceiling.] Listen to me, I’m speaking in the language of the Masters! [Laughs.]

LS: I take your point.

V: You look upset.

LS: I’m not.

V: You sure look upset. [Both talking at once.] You look, really, you look upset.

LS: I’m– I’m not– I’m, okay, yeah! [Slaps the side of the chair.] I’m…I’m upset!

V: What are you upset about.

LS: I’m…I guess this is all really overwhelming. [Takes a deep breath and then releases it.] Please, continue.

V: I think what it comes down to is, are you prepared to sell me one of your ova?

LS: Wh-what?

V: Would you sell me one of your ova?

LS: Ye—yeah, I think I would.

V: Would you give one to me?

LS: Well, we don’t really know each other that well…

V: But you want me to give you– [both talking at once] you want me to give you one of mine, several, so you can eat them?

LS: You brought it– you brought it up! [Pause.] You brought it up.

V: I just said what you couldn’t.

LS: So…Okay. Eggs are off the table.

V: I didn’t say– [interrupted by LS.]

LS: Eggs are off the table.

V: Okay, eggs are off the table. Literally. Haha. [Flutters wings, settles again.]

LS: Wow, damn, I never though one day I might be eating chicken, but not eggs. [Silence for several seconds.]

V: You might be eating eggs. Everyone feels differently about their bodies. I’m okay, actually, with my unwanted eggs being eaten, but I would like to be appropriately compensated for them. [Silence for several seconds.] You look upset again. [Pause.] I’m guessing this is not how you imagined this conversation going down.

LS: Uhm…[Rubs face.] Well god, I never had to think about all this stuff before! I mean, not like this.

V: Why not? I mean, take this as a for-instance: the FBI recently changed its definition of rape to a broader one, of which I’m sure you’re aware.

LS: [Nodding.] A step in the right direction.

V: Sexually touching an unconscious person is considered a violation of their body. They do not have the ability to consent if they are unconscious. Anyone who does not have the ability to clear communicate– because they are unconscious, intoxicated, mute, cognitively impaired, whatever– cannot give consent. So, before this device [gesturing to the translation machine], all kinds of things were– are still! Are still being done to chickens without their consent. And you can have the same dialogue about dogs, and sheep, and cattle, and pigs, and fish, and animals kept as pets, animals kept and bred for commercial usage, animals used for experimentation…

LS: Kept in zoos…

V: Exactly. [Several seconds of silence.] Exactly. [Pause.] It’s going to be a long road to change.

LS: It’s a struggle. I see myself as an ally in that struggle– [interrupted by V.]

V: And while I think you’re moving in the right direction, you really have a long ways to go, in terms of self-reflection, reassessing your values, your definitions, rethinking reality…

LS: I think so… I think so….

[Eng of transcript.]