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.
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.