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.

Agriculture

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.

Marketing

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.

Waste

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.

 

 

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A Beautiful Day for a Protest

The crowd in front of the Institute for Foreign Languages is enormous by 9 o’clock, comprised of thousands of mostly young women, though there are young men and older folks as well. Here and there is a monk or two. They stretch for almost a kilometer in each direction down Russian Boulevard, with the crowd still growing, spilling onto side streets, Cambodian flags scattered amongst them. They are garment factory workers protesting the abysmal wages they are expected to survive and support families on. They have demanded $160, and it looks like they’re not going home ‘til they get it. They turned down the government’s recent offer to raise minimum wage from $75 to $95; $95 is still not a living wage, but it did seem like a mild insult.

In the epicenter of the noisy scene is a group of tuk tuks with the strikers’ ringleaders on top, a handful of men and a couple of women. They have megaphones, enormous loudspeakers, and they shout their demands from the tuk tuk roofs. For the first three hours, it is mostly the same two men, looking to be in their 30s, leading the cheers and shouted slogans. Then some drums and music sound, and there is dancing. After the dancing, a young woman appears on top of the tuk tuks, holding a microphone. She gets the crowd riled, her fist raised in the air. Participants and bystanders alike record the scene with their smartphones. RFA and Phnom Penh Post journalists retreat into the coffee shop across from IFL, which is virtually empty…besides me.

I talked to a group of young women just outside the coffee shop, who told me they are from Prey Veng, Kampong Speu, Kandal. The youngest was 16 and the eldest 30, but most were 18 or 19. I wanted to ask them loads of questions, like who were they staying with while they were in the city, so far from home? How could they afford to strike for so long and travel so far to petition their government? How long have they worked in the factories, what were the factories like, what did their families think of their working in them? But they are far from home, indeed, and they look on me with suspicion and perhaps amusement, or puzzlement. Perhaps it is because I’m a short-haired white ‘girl’—a ktheuy (a “queer”) for all intents and purposes, and why do I want to talk to them? City folk are more or less comfortable with me, and I have no trouble around the people in the places I frequent, but people from remote villages are another story. I baffle them, and maybe scare or disgust some of them (sentiments I have heard my Khmer friends and acquaintances express about their ktheuy counterparts). Mostly they are too polite to say anything, but they have few qualms, it seems, about giving me the cold shoulder. A few minutes milling around a huge crowd is not much time to gain someone’s trust.

I am impressed by the strikers’ tenacity; strikes have been happening on and off for months now in various parts of the country, but this round of strikes began last Tuesday. Strikes have often lead to protests, which occasionally have turned violent (which is nothing new). In Phnom Penh they have marched to four kilometers to Hun Sen’s building, carrying signs and wearing smiles. Cambodia is not a union-friendly nation, but it would seem that Cambodians see value in them, and in workers’ rights. Enough to fight for them, though their opponents are formidable. The atmosphere of unrest is tangible; these protests are concurrent with the opposition CNRP’s protests against the 2013 national election results. Various other protests over land grabbing, workers’ rights, environmental and other issues occur on what is becoming a regular basis across Cambodia. One wonders how long things can go on like this before something gives…

Striking factory workers march down Russian Blvd.

Striking factory workers march down Russian Blvd.

Thousands of protesters clog Russian Blvd for over 5 kilometers.

Thousands of protesters clog Russian Blvd for over 5 kilometers.

Here’s hoping for $160 in 2014!

Post Election Jitters

Things appear to have calmed down quite a bit from Sunday night, when army trucks and military police were out and about, roads were shut down (Monivong, Norodom, parts of Sihanoukville, and some in Steung Meanchey), and people returning from the provinces were trying to decide if and whether or not they should come back to Phnom Penh.

There was a riot in Steung Meanchey supposedly set off by a man of Vietnamese decent hitting a Khmer monk outside a polling station. Whether or not that was the actual catalyst, people flipped their lids and angry voters tried detaining the polling station election official and burned two police cars because their names were not on the registry. After watching several videos of this event posted by people on facebook, it appears that several of the rioters were young men, possibly even teenagers (i.e. not legally old enough vote).

Many people still have not returned to Phnom Penh, but on the whole things seem mostly “back to normal”. Some shops and homes are still shuttered, which is unusual; for most Phnom Penhers, though, today seems like business-as-usual. I have been hearing an unusual amount of sirens, but haven’t seen anymore army vehicles or soldiers in my part of town (Toul Kork). Yesterday, a cruise through Kampuchea Krom revealed a typical amount of traffic, with many businesses still shut but the local market hopping as normal. Nevertheless, a sense of anxiety pervades, with people simultaneously saying, “there’s nothing to worry about” and “wait and see”. Who can blame them when there are reports coming from provincial residents that they have seen military units moving from the provinces (e.g. Kampong Cham, Preah Vihear, Pailin, etc.) towards Phnom Penh. An atmosphere of an uncertainty has thickened since Sunday as everybody “waits to see” what will happen.

If it seems like I can’t make up my mind if things are actually back to normal, well…I have my doubts. Yesterday Sam Rainsy and the CNRP declared that they were rejecting the election results, which saw huge CNRP gains but not an actual, overall win. The election is contested for a number of reasons, including the casting of ballots by Vietnamese migrants who are not Cambodian citizens (and some of whom are in fact illegal immigrants); the “indelible” voter ink being easily washed off, resulting in the same person being able to cast multiple votes (also because of duplicate names on the voter registry); names being left off the voter lists; et cetera.

Nevertheless, even if the CPP refuses to budge on the results, the CNRP has really thrown a wrench into the works. CPP plans to continue their dynastic rule through their children won’t be possible in every province now. In Kampong Speu, for instance, Hun Sen’s youngest son Many was all set to have a seat in the assembly, but the CPP won only 3 seats there and Many was fourth on the list. Oops!

The National Election Committee has supposedly declared that the official results won’t be released for another two weeks, thus people seem to be getting back to work and school, and life is getting on as normal. Perhaps by mid-August, the anger will have died down and violence can be avoided. It seems highly unlikely that the official results will differ at all from the preliminary outcome.

un actionOn facebook there has been a proliferation of pictures and status updates pleading for the UN and/or the US to “help” Cambodia, declaring that the CPP has not allowed fair elections to take place. Many of these updates are coming from young people, who made up a large section of CNRP supporters.

Will CNRP’s wish for an investigation into the election be granted? Will the US do more than just tut-tut the CPP’s corrupt control of the RGC? Will people say enough is enough and take to the streets? Until the official results come out in August, there is likely nothing to do but wait. Jam mul sun. “Wait and see.”

Out with the old…?

The national elections are bearing down on us. The closer we get, the more frequent and raucous the political campaigning becomes. Where the commune elections saw hardly any crowds of campaigners or promotional flags, with only a propaganda video here or there, the election for the leader of Cambodia has seemingly galvanized most everybody. You can’t turn around without seeing a Funcinpec poster or a CPP TV spot or a CNRP radio advert. Even the little-known LDP has its supporters out in force.

Cambodian People's Party supporters near Wat Phnom

Cambodian People’s Party supporters near Wat Phnom

Friends, co-workers, and random people that I ask about the frenzy tell me that I didn’t see this during the commune elections because “they are unimportant”. Nobody cares about those positions, they explain to me; what really matters is who leads the country. “Who leads the country, leads all,” one young man told me. Perhaps so, but it seems like an awful small, not to mention imbalanced, basket to put all of one’s eggs in.

It seems a hopelessly rigged fight; the CPP is infamous for bribing, threatening, changing voter lists, and altering ballots to get their desired ends. Yet CNRP supporters seem more numerous by the day. Even supposed CPP “supporters” are often paid to join rallies, which explains their lack of enthusiasm when compared to CNRP rallies, to a degree.

Nevertheless, people seem to be pinning their hopes with ever-increasing fervor on the

Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters near Orussey Market

Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters near Orussey Market

Cambodian National Rescue Party and it’s just-arrived leader, Sam Rainsy. Rainsy got in yesterday morning (video here). My classes were half-empty, but the streets were full of excited people on motorbikes, in the backs of trucks, and in tuk tuks, shouting “lak prambi! Lak prambi!” Number seven! Number seven! Seven is CNRP’s number on the ballot. (You might be thinking, how is it that the main opposition party is so far down on the list? Good question, I don’t know how they structure the ballot; the CPP is number 4, if you’re curious.)

CNRP leaders ride a truck during a campaign rally

CNRP leaders ride a truck during a campaign rally on Kampuchea Krom Blvd

A parade of Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters

A parade of Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters on Kampuchea Krom Blvd

Rainsy has been back less than two days, and someone’s already shot at CNRP headquarters— though he wasn’t even there and no one was injured, fortunately. People are suggesting it was an intimidation tactic by CPP supporters.

Others have a different theory. The whole thing, claims one young Phnom Penher, is a sham. Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen are actually friends. Without an opposition party, the country would be much less stable; with no hope for the people, Hun Sen would have much more of a threat to his power on his hands.

It’s possible that Hun Sen will win outright. Plenty of people who hate the man still vote for him, because they fear him. They believe him when he says that if CPP loses, “Khmer Rouge shall return”. The specter of Khmer Rouge is never far and never forgotten. While most of Hun Sen’s ties from the murderous Democratic Kampuchea have magically disappeared, at least from the public eye, the threat of Khmer Krahom’s imminent return is fresh in the minds of any Cambodian adult over the age of 25. People will vote for him out of fear.

I am getting out of dodge for the weekend of the election (which takes place on Sunday the 28th), just to be on the safe side. While it would be interesting to see how Phnom Penh expresses its disappointment or elation, I think it probably would be safer to watch it on TV…just in case.

Ode to Search Terms

*Heads up: this post isn’t appropriate for everyone, it’s got dirty words in it. You’ve been warned.

**Moreover, trigger warning.

Many bloggers get their readers through links from other blogs; some even advertise their blogs. And a whole lot get readers from search engines who are looking for something and stumble onto blogs quite by accident. Below are some things people have apparently searched for (or should I say googled, since that’s my biggest referring search engine), and found me…haha. The irony. [Note: I’ve kept the original search terms exactly the same– spelling and all.]

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