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.

 

 

Take Back the Night 2012, Koh Kong!

Only two weeks in, and already June has been an eventful month. The first weekend was the national commune elections, and I was happy to see the political hubbub finally die down. But the very next weekend (after a week of my being sick) was the event which has been months in planning.

Click the link below to open up the full post and see photos of the event! ^_^

Continue reading

I’m Not Commodity

For some unexplainable reason, I woke up at 5 this morning with R.E.M.’s “King of Comedy” (from the Monster album) stuck in my head. Obviously that means I need to write about the commodification and objectification of women.

Let’s start with objectification. Objectification is simply the process of recreating or using a person as a thing. We do this all the time. Some time ago, a friend told me that I was objectifying them by resting my head on them; I had turned them into a pillow. It is objectification to lean on someone when exhausted, as if they are a crutch. It quickly becomes apparent that some objectification is fairly mundane or benign, and other kinds of objectification are harmful. Sexual objectification is an obvious example of this.

Sexual objectification means turning a person into an object, accessory, or tool for sex. If you like sex in which either you or your partner is not an active participant, not giving and receiving pleasure mutually, then sexual objectification is probably gratifying to you. If sex is more than you using another person as a means to an end (your own sexual satisfaction), or being used to this end, then this kind of objectification is problematic.

The traditional view of heterosexual sex is deeply entrenched in objectification. The man is the pursuer, the initiator; he is necessarily aggressive, maybe even forceful. The woman is the pursued, the “end goal”, the object; she is passive, submissive, although in many ideal fantasies she also secretly wants to be pursued and caught. This view is reinforced in mass media the world over, in magazines, TV shows, movies, music videos, books, advertisements, video games. It is no wonder that lots of boys and young men are both confused and resolute about their understanding of a girl or woman who says no as just playing a role, and of girls and women who say yes as breaking that role (that is, as being sluttish).

Sexual objectification unavoidably sets the stage for the commodification of sex. Commodification is the process of recreating or portraying someone or something as a commodity– a good, an object for consumption. The ways in which sex is commodified still conform neatly to traditional views of heterosexual sex, which are also patriarchal. In this situation, men are the subjects and women are the objects. Patriarchy holds that sexual pleasure is naturally (or should be) centered around men; there is an emphasis on the uncontrollable nature of male sexual desire, whereas women are either passive recipients of this desire, or objects used to cater to it.

Women, specifically, have long been commodified as sexual objects (and men have, too, in a different fashion and to different ends). We aren’t just used to sell things, but we are things; we are figuratively “on sale” for consumption all the time. Although women are hypersexualized in this process of commodification, as individuals they are stripped of their own sexuality. If an object has a perspective on its own sexuality, its sexual identity or desires, it is in danger of becoming real, a subject. Commodification thus also means the smothering or eradication of female subjectivity.

I think a lot of men find all of this difficult to swallow. On the one hand, I guess I can see why it would be challenging to view things from such a different perspective– if you have always been the buyer, the consumer, there has probably never been much reason or incentive to view things from the perspective of the good/commodity. On the other hand, I think men can understand this perfectly; a large number of them are sexually objectifying and commodifying females all the time. I have a large number of very close guy friends who would adamantly deny this, but even if they truly see all human beings as, well, human beings, they surely experience their peers doing this much of the time.

What surprises me is when men have absolutely no qualms about doing this blatantly and shamelessly in front of women. I think this is because they feel either there is nothing wrong with it, or that there will be no consequences for doing it. For example, I was fundraising outside of a supermarket (for a project to end gender-based violence, no less) not too long ago, and I was observing a security guard as he was…observing a young woman coming out of the store. She was loading her groceries into a tuk tuk. She was wearing a dress, though by American standards I can’t say it was “too short” or what have you. The security guard was standing not far from her, staring at her– no, not staring at her, but staring at her behind. His stare was long and open, and at one point he even licked his lips. I had been talking to him earlier about the project I was helping fundraise for, so I felt it was not too out of place for me to ask, “What are you doing?” His answer was phrased completely innocently: “She’s a beautiful girl, why shouldn’t I look? Why is she wearing that dress if she doesn’t want me to look?”

This is an argument that I’ve heard time and again. Women secretly desire the male pornographic gaze on them. It’s what compels women and girls to wear make-up, to dress like the models on magazine covers, ultimately to sexualize themselves. Under the surface, all women really want to appeal to male sexual desire.

If that woman wanted that security guard to stare at her while licking his lips, I’ll eat my hat.

But that’s besides the point. This idea of women’s secret desire for men to visually consume them is based on a much more sinister myth: the idea that women secretly want men to fuck them. This sounds so absurdly egotistic and narcissistic as to be unbelievable, but when I look around myself I can see how it sort of…makes sense, in a sort of droll, male-centered way.

In high school I had a friend whose room was covered with large, glossy posters of Playboy Bunnies. There was one at the head of his bed that I can’t seem to forget; whenever I think about this person, I inevitably think of this poster. In it, a typical white, blonde “Bunny” is positioned on the floor with her butt high in the air, her knees bent, and she is propped up on her elbows. She is looking at the camera with an ecstatic, childish expression, and she is wearing nothing but bubbles. Yes, only soap bubbles, on her breasts and her crotch. I remember feeling horribly uncomfortable when I would go to this friend’s house to play video games with him and our other friends– all of whom were Good Christian Boys who regularly attended church and youth group. And stuff. Only one of my guy friends had the nerve to ask him if it wasn’t such a great idea to put up posters of mostly naked women on your walls– wouldn’t God be offended? (God definitely would be offended, since the Christian God hates women, after all. Ho ho ho, surely I’m just kidding…)

When I look around myself right at this moment, I am in an internet cafe in which every computer besides this one is occupied by a young man or boy. I am tempted to check each screen to see how many of them are watching porn, but I don’t want to get kicked out. Don’t worry, most of the younger guys are just playing WoW… Well, I guess that’s sort of the same as watching porn, isn’t it? Anyway, on the walls are posters advertising various Khmer and other Asian websites, mostly for games. Almost all of them feature partially-naked women, even the cartoon ones. The one behind me features two realistic-looking cartoon women with guns posed between two bulky men in armor; both women have huge breasts and long, skinny bodies. One is wearing a low-cut top with her midriff showing, and the other is wearing shiny black leather (she sorta looks like a dominatrix with that nazi hat on).

I could describe the other posters in here, but I won’t bother. You get the idea. Anyway, from your own experience, you already have an idea, I’m sure. Just looking around us at other people, at billboards and posters, at book covers and album covers, at music videos… We are constantly being inundated by this shit, all the time. Taking all this in, it isn’t hard to see why girls and women are so easily recreated as personality-less, consumable objects devoid of agency.

Perhaps the absolute worst part is that it is not only men who recreate and consume women as sex objects, but women recreate and consume women as sex objects, as well. Actually I think that’s why it is such an immense challenge to confront and negate these processes of commodification and objectification. Women and girls commodify themselves, early on and often for their entire lives. We hypersexualize and objectify our bodies, our sexual identities, but to what end? Ultimately it seems entirely dissatisfying, time-consuming, and hurtful. The results are a preoccupation with unattainable “beauty” standards, self-loathing of our own persons, and jealousy and contempt for other women whom we perceive as surpassing our own efforts. If you fail, all you get is some really low self-esteem; if you succeed, you get to be a sexually-consumable object for male-centered pleasure, which really only holds if you are available for consumption 24/7. Congratulations.

What I would like for us to do, then, is to reject our own commodification. Question yourself, question others, question culture, when you feel compelled to do something, go somewhere, dress some way, say something. I don’t believe this is easy, but I have learned multitudes about myself through such self-reflection and critical thinking of my surroundings. But it is as they say: once you’ve seen, you can’t un-see. Maybe ignorance is bliss, but transcendence is better.

I’m not king of comedy,
I’m not your magazine,
I’m not your television,
I’m not your movie screen
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity

[R.E.M., “King of Comedy]

p.s. This is a really aesthetically-shit but highly informative website on some particulars of how women are portrayed as sex objects in certain media.

p.s.s Post on the sexual commodification of men forthcoming.

Happy International Women’s Day– made happier by pushing the boundaries of gender discourse!

Happy International Women’s Day!

In preparing to write this special post for IWD, I found it difficult to choose a single topic on which to focus. Without a doubt I knew I wanted to spotlight one of the many sociocultural issues in my current home of Cambodia, there being a dire necessity to raise awareness and promote dialogue about gender and human rights issues, especially among Cambodians.

But which issue? Both fortunately and unfortunately, there are many from which to choose, and trying to narrow it down to a “most important” issue is simply impossible for me.

When in doubt, I take the advice of many writers (including my favourite author Ursula K. LeGuin, many of whose works center on issues of race and gender): “Write what you know.”

Which directs me to immediate, grassroots goings-on that are affecting and involving people right around me.

Many gender issues in Cambodia are intrinsically connected to this concept of “Development”. Now, it cannot be denied that I have some major hang-ups with “Development” (in any country). While the aims of Development may be noble in and of themselves, the ideologies and methodologies frequently employed to achieve those aims remain embedded in racist, classist, and sexist contexts which ultimately undermine their success, purpose, and effectiveness. I have found this to be very much the case in Cambodia.

Though it’s tempting to concentrate on these more negative aspects of Development, in honor of IWD and Gender Across Border’s special theme, I would like to draw attention to the positive. (I’m sure my more regular readers are quite astounded, but hey– I’m not always a cynic when it comes to gender!)

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious yet seriously under-discussed problem here in the Kingdom of Wonder, especially when that violence is occurring within a familial context. There are two complimentary Khmer proverbs which describe the larger sociocultural attitude towards familial violence: “Don’t bring the fire into the house,” which means to discourage people from bringing “outside problems” into their home (i.e. if it’s not our problem, it’s none of our business); and “Don’t take the fire outside of the house,” which seeks to discourage people from discussing “internal” or family issues with people outside of the family. In other words, there is a lot of silence surrounding issues of familial violence in Cambodia.

There are people who are talking about “the fire”, though, and are doing it loudly and in ways that involve those directly affected by it.

Eileen McCormick and Hannah East are two such activists who are, shall we say, fighting fire with fire.

Both McCormick and East are volunteers living in Cambodia with Khmer families, McCormick at the village level and East at the provincial level. They have been here for just over a year and a half, researching, working with locals, and organizing grassroots projects on various issues; both have a special interest in gender, to which they devote a significant amount of time and energy.

Photography credit to Eileen McCormick, republished with permission!

Recently their time and energy culminated in a workshop on domestic violence. The workshop, which was hosted by the local office of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kampong Chhnang Province, sponsored participants from fields which come into direct contact (usually through provision of services) with domestic violence survivors. More than 120 health center staff members, police officers, and village and commune government representatives attended the workshop sessions, which were co-hosted by local Cambodian NGOs and MOWA.

In spite of many obstacles, including resistance from their own superiors, McCormick and East were determined to bring attention to a subject which mainstream Cambodian culture wants to ignore. Most appreciatively, they sought to do so by educating and empowering the all-female staff of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, who led the workshop in conjunction with local NGOs in spite of not having an prior leadership experience. This is especially positive because McCormick and East recognize that Development and change are only as effective as the efforts made by sustainable sources– namely, local peoples.

 

Opening dialogue about issues directly impacting women and girls in Cambodia is a necessary first step to affecting successful change in behaviors and attitudes concerning gender. It has been my experience that Cambodian girls and women want to discuss these issues, but there are very few safe and open contexts in which they can do so. Perhaps this is one benefit of etic forces (such as McCormick and East), who can encourage women to actively create and participate in those contexts with significantly less stigmatization. I do not deny that this is the product of racist and classist privilege which have been projected onto volunteers like McCormick and East. Yet rather than partaking of and enjoying those privileges for themselves, these two young women push the boundaries of privilege into the realm of risk-taking in order to raise consciousness about gender and human rights within their local communities. By expanding the territory of “acceptable” dialogue, volunteers both etic and emic empower women and girls at all levels to talk about the issues that they face every day.