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.

 

 

Reblog: On the Medicalization of Donald Trump, via crippledscholar

There has been quite a bit of discussion around whether it is appropriate to speculate about whether Donald Trump has a mental illness. The rhetoric and armchair diagnosis of Trump is already happening and it’s important to look at the arguments for why people are doing that and perhaps more importantly whether people should. I […]

via On the Medicalization of Donald Trump — crippledscholar

Reblog: Akala on Xenophobia In Britain

Feminist Philosophers

This is footage from Frankie Boyle’s Election Autopsy aired in 2015. Akala starts talking around 1.38. Worth a watch.

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A Blog of Ire and Spite

There are many reasons why ‘feminism’ is a dirty word, not the least of which is when certain people who personify feminism’s opposition call themselves feminists (e.g. racist Camille Paglia, victim-blaming Naomi Wolf, etc.) Now George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Song of Fire and Ice medieval fantasy books-turned-HBO-series, joins the ranks of pop feminists. He kindly defines for us what his feminism is:

“To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,” Martin is quoted as saying in this Telegraph article. “I regard men and women as all human – yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.”

Of course, I am dissatisfied by so many definitions of feminism nowadays, so I shouldn’t be too harsh. But by his own definition, Martin’s literary works are surely not feminist.

While Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice female characters are arguably more three-dimensional than most other fantasy of the same ilk, I find their stereotyped natures tiring. Cersei is the seductive slut; Arya is the tomboy; Catelyn Stark is the steadfast mother and wife; Sansa is the sweet and innocent princess in need of rescue; blah blah blah. Predictable, and therefore reliable. To some degree this can’t be avoided, right? Fiction, especially fantasy, functions at least partially on the familiar, shared assumptions (read: stereotypes) about kinds of people to anchor us while guiding us through a fantastic and impossible story. Besides, not all of Martin’s female characters have been created from drab stereotypes (Brienne of Tarth, for example).

No, what truly bothers me about Martin’s comment about feminism, and the serious slack cut him by supposedly feminist bloggers, is his constant depiction of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of sexual violence as attractive, arousing, enjoyable. This is where Martin gives himself away: a feminist does not depict rape as sexy and enjoyable.

Why stop at sexual violence. Martin glorifies battle and the taking of lives throughout the series, a huge portion of which is devoted to high-def, graphic scenes of beheadings, disembowelments, torture, and other “glorious” aspects of war and the violent societies in which the story takes place. The content is patriarchal, and is consumed largely by a patriarchal audience (men and women alike). War is cool, rape is sexy, same old, same old. To his credit (?), Martin makes half-hearted attempts to suggest that war isn’t all cool: look, you could get your sword hand cut off, and then no one will want to fuck you– least of all your sister. Wow, is that the best he can do? Can we drop the feminist act now?

And besides, there is a whole realm of racism in A Song of Fire and Ice that we haven’t even touched on yet. Highly illuminating read on that topic here!

Whatever the case, I (mostly) enjoyed reading these books. I even (mostly) enjoyed the one or two episodes of the HBO series I’ve seen. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying works of fiction that are inherently racist, sexist, classist, and so on (unless it’s for those aspects that we enjoy it, of course)– but that we like or enjoy something should not stop us from critiquing it. Or from calling out its makers when they say shit like, “Ima feminist LOL.”

Fantasy doesn’t have to show rape as sexy, or war and killing as glorious. It doesn’t have to paint all the people white or all the heroes male, though it is true that you will sell more novels if you do these things. But if you choose to do so, as an author, then you have forfeited the right to call yourself feminist. As readers, we have the right to read what we enjoy, but I think we also have a responsibility to question that literature, even literature we praise. When useful criticism like this happens, valuable conversations can take place about issues that matter IRL (that’s IN REAL LIFE for you non-nerds out there, though sometimes I think nerds forget IRL exists).

Let’s also not forget that there is really great fantasy and science fiction out there which questions, analyzes, deconstructs, and parodies gender, race, class, age, ability, and so on, and dreams up whole new ways of conceptualizing these things. A Song of Fire and Ice is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy literature, and even if it were, that shouldn’t stop us from questioning it, taking it apart, and assessing it from different points of view.

Now I’d better get a head start on the Martin fans; I hear them trying to break down the door as I write!

Beautiful [and Nauseating] Creatures

‘Tis true that good movies are hard to come by in Cambodian cinemas, but that doesn’t stop me from going most every Sunday. Now that I can (mostly) afford it, I will shell out to see films I would never have considered back home. I’d have probably preferred a sharp stick in the eye to Beautiful Creatures, for example. But these are desperate times I live in.

Having read an interview with the authors of the B.C. series some time ago, I was looking forward to seeing if their ambitions with an anti-Bella female protagonist would translate in the films. Well, shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I haven’t read the books, so maybe I’m giving the authors too much credit as it is, but the movie’s version of the protagonist Lena wasn’t exactly light years ahead of Twilight’s Bella.

It was sort of refreshing to see the female protagonist fanning her lover after he had swooned, and to see him in awe of her magical powers. (Sort of interesting, too, was that this witch story was set in a very Christian town in the South.) The pluses basically end there. The film (and books, presumably) focus on the boy’s perspective, which is all well and good except that Lena remains bland and personality-less. And for whatever reason, female witches, though not male ones, can’t control whether or not their “true nature” is ultimately good or evil. Unlike boy witches, their fate is predetermined and revealed on their 16th birthday when they become “a woman”. This is a form of ageism that I particularly despise, but I guess they can’t be blamed for using it, how else would this story have worked?

A much bigger hitch, though, was that this movie is a carbon copy of almost all the “romantic” movies I’ve seen in the past couple years. Yes, I’m desperate, I’ll see just about anything in the Kingdom because I love the Big Screen experience, but if I have to watch one more moody, melodramatic, I’m-pushing-you-away-but-don’t-leave-me-I-can’t-live-without-you teenage love story I am going to punch out the nearest theater steward.

On the same note, I can no longer stand overly long make-out scenes, with which B.C. was rife. Sex scenes are always a bore, but I actually prefer them to make-out scenes now because they take up fewer minutes of my movie-viewing time.

I get it: these movies are made for teenagers. But cartoons like Toy Story and Up were supposedly made for children, and people of all ages can enjoy them. Is it impossible for Hollywood to make a movie about teenagers that isn’t just for teenagers? I am quite sure there are plenty of teenagers who are bored by that crap, too.

Are movies like this still being made because there is genuine demand for them, or are they made to perpetuate certain cliches upon which so many high-grossing films are made and about which books and movies are quickly and easily produced? Are we really interested in buying this crap, or is the movie (and book) industry just that good at convincing us we are?

(On a more personal note: is the fact that these movies make me nauseous a sign that I am maturing into a real, live adult? Maybe that’s a bit optimistic…)