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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Patriarchy: How Everyone Suffers

I’m fond of using the word Patriarchy (especially capitalized). Lots of people are. It’s a catchy, encompassing term. The problem is, Normal People tend to associate it (and thus its most ardent users, feminists) with crackpot conspiracy theory.

Can we take a minute and dissect this concept?

A few definitions of Patriarchy I have stumbled across recently are:

from Wikipedia: “Patriarchy is a social system in which the males, especially fathers, have central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and property. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage. The female equivalent is matriarchy.”

from blogger ballgame: “Patriarchy is a system of rigid rules and expectations around gender that unjustly overvalues certain qualities and undervalues others. Typically, dominant males are overvalued, and the average woman’s macropolitical agency is significantly constrained. (Patriarchal societies also frequently devalue the average man’s emotional value and possibly his micropolitical agency, though I don’t know whether this is necessarily a hallmark of patriarchy like devaluing the average woman’s political agency is).”

from Kamla Bhasin: “[The concept of Patriarchy] is a tool to help us understand our realities.” She continues, “The word patriarchy literally means the rule of the father or the the ‘patriarch’, and originally it was used to describe a specific type of ‘male-dominated family’– the large household of the patriarch which included women, junior men, children, slaves and domestic servants all under the rule of this dominant male. Now it is used more generally to refer to male domination, to the power relationships by which men dominate women, and to characterise a system whereby women are kept subordinate in a number of ways. In South Asia, for example, it is called pitrasatta in Hindi, pidarshahi in Urdu and pitratonto in Bangla.” She also adds that Patriarchy assumes different forms in different times, places, and cultures.

(Also, interesting essay here.) 

Parts and conceptual sums of these definitions, among others, have shaped my [working] concept of Patriarchy. I guess I don’t have a simple definition, but this is generally what I mean when I say it…:

Patriarchy is both a system and a way of thinking which holds certain values that benefit some peoples and individuals and necessarily discriminates against others. Although these values and their manifestations vary by culture, location, and time, a general pattern can be identified: value for competition; value for strength, power/authority, and domination; value for role conformity; value for hierarchical structure; value for masculinity. Patriarchy also devalues femininity, weakness, subordination, and deviation. The forms these values take are necessarily shaped and expressed by culture, by which ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’, gender roles/norms/expectations are defined, and the specific values of a culture in terms of race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Hierarchy within Patriarchy is multifaceted; multiple hierarchies may exist which are interconnected or interdependent and function around concepts not only of gender but also race, age, sexual orientation, and so on.

Thus can it be that “progressive” America (in which women can vote, run for office, work outside the home, have sex with other women, and so on) is a Patriarchal society and “backwards” Afghanistan is a Patriarchal society, as well.

The BBC just had an article on Men’s Rights activists. The reason why I am so irritated by this movement is not because I want to subjugate men, don’t believe in their rights, etc. Obviously not (see my definition of feminism). What is so utterly bothersome is that these proponents are either a) complete ignorant of their victim-agent status within Patriarchy (and sometimes Patriarchy, itself), or b) want to have their cake and eat it too. That is, they want all the benefits and privileges of their Western White Wealthy Phallocentric Patriarchy without any of the consequences. Well, I’m sorry people, but if you subscribe to hierarchy (and even if you don’t), you had better know there are drawbacks for those who are not at the top.

Some of those consequences/drawbacks are nicely illustrated by the article. I will go through some of them. Please note the irony of blaming feminism for these “ills upon men” (nevermind their Patriarchal origin).

As described in the article, David Benatar’s new book addresses the various ills of men which include: being conscripted into the army, being victims of violence, losing custody of their children, and taking their own lives.

1. Conscription into the army. Last time I checked, there was a lot of hesitation (confusion?), even disgust, about women joining the army in “the West”. Yes, they can do so in a lot of countries. Yes, publicly they are praised as patriotic for their service. But American women are still not allowed into combat. Hatred of women by the military apparatus, itself, manifests as [tolerated] violence against their own. And the Ideal Soldier will never, ever be recreated as feminine or female in the eyes of the Patriarchy. Fighting for one’s country is a classic Patriarchal value in America and much of Europe, not to mention elsewhere. Blood-letting is considered masculine and unfeminine, and unfeminine women are often portrayed as “butch” and repulsive. But ultimately, allowing for the conscription of women into the army would not reduce Patriarchy, at all: the very purpose of the war machine as a tool of domination is both a manifestation of and means of perpetuating Patriarchy, regardless of whether the fighting puppets have penises or not. (Personally, I don’t think anyone should be conscripted into the army. But I’m radical like that.)

2. Victims of Violence. It’s true that men are more likely to experience and die of violent crime than women (excepting rape).  It’s also true that men are more likely to commit violent crime than women. This probably has little to do with the inherent nature of men or women as more or less violence-prone, and more to do with our socialization within a Patriarchal society. Patriarchy often dictates that men are naturally (and should be) assertive, aggressive, even forceful if that is necessary to get what one wants. Women, on the other hand, should not be aggressive, or are “naturally” more nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Men who display these attributes are labeled emasculated, effeminate, even gay (oh god, not that!) the world over, from the States to Cambodia. Women who are assertive, aggressive, or forceful are abnormal, unnatural– “bitches”, reallly. All this masculine-identified aggression is partly responsible for violence in all forms. This is not to say that women aren’t violent– of course they are, but statistically they are far less likely to be physically violent– perhaps because the Patriarchy has many recourses to put them back in their subordinated place. The other aspect of this is risk-taking; both as perpetrators and victims, men are encouraged to do more risk-taking than women. The leading cause of death for young men is accidents, and more men die of accidents than women, generally. Women are encouraged to adopt “safer” lifestyles than men. They are child-bearers and raisers, after all.

3. Losing custody of the kids. Alas, the Woman as Nurturer motif has finally come back to bite men in the ass. Patriarchy, of course, doesn’t only discriminate against women in its sometimes ironic functioning. Discrimination has long worked in apparent favor of women in this regard: women are Mothers and innate Nurturers; men are (or should be) distant, emotionally-detached Providers. You can’t rightly expect a Provider to properly raise babies, now, can you? But also, the realm of babies and children is a necessarily feminine one, for babies and children are weak, just as women are. This is why women and children need the Protector/Provider male, and why single motherhood equates to child abuse.

4. Suicide. Higher rates of suicide among men can be partly explained by the methods men employ as differentiated from women. Suicidal men statistically resort to more violent means than women, which results in higher rates of success. Although women attempt suicide more often (and have higher rates of self-harm), men actually succeed in killing themselves more often. It has been suggested that men are not only encouraged to seek out more violent means to commit suicide, but also are able to attain those means more easily (such as acquiring and using a gun). Mental illness is a major (if not the major) factor leading to suicide, and men are less likely than women to seek help over mental health issues. This tendency is also founded in normative masculinity: “real men” don’t show weakness, don’t cry, and don’t talk about their feelings. [Interesting side note: the suicide rate is actually higher for women than men in China. Between that and female infanticide, the future sure looks grim for Chinese women.]

Other points mentioned:

5. 90% of prison inmates are male. This ties in with much of the above. Value of male aggression and even violent competition are at the root of this issue, but it should also be pointed out that the majority of prison inmates are people of colour. The systems within the System are not simply based on gender, but privilege or disadvantage is based on a myriad of other factors, as well– including ethnicity and social class. Many styles of Patriarchy love White Wealthy Westerners, hence one reason why you don’t see a whole lot of them in prison. And class is of course derived from our status within the system of capitalism. Let me tell you, Patriarchy loves Capitalism. (Hehe.) They are old friends, although Patriarchy is a lot older. Capitalism has a lot going on that Patriarchy adores: cutthroat competition, domination, winners and losers, and so on. But as a way of life, Capitalism sets up a situation which almost ensures that some groups of people are going to be underrepresented in the upper classes and overrepresented as the bottomfeeders or criminals; Patriarchy helps shape how those groups are defined (as by colour, religion, etc.). As a fortune cookie once told me, “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” It should have added, “And Patriarchy unfairly molds certain groups of people into the criminal role.” If you’re about to say, “Crime is an individual’s choice,” say no more Dickensian nonsense; crime as an individual choice complete removes both the crime and the individual from the context of culture and thus makes it into a moral dilemma-scenario in a philosophy book. In other words, completely detached from reality.

6. Men are invisible victims. An American web designer in Ohio is setting up a domestic violence shelter for men. I think this is an absolutely pro idea. A lot of people, though, are probably going to laugh their heads off at this. Why? Because MEN HIT WOMEN NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND, DUH LOL. Well, that is certainly what Patriarchy wants us to believe. And, more often than not, that is the reality; most perpetrators of violence are men, most survivors and victims women and children. But not all. And an increasing number of women are becoming perpetrators (which, by the way, women have long perpetrated violence against children, no surprise there) as the physical and psychological moorings of Patriarchy continue to shift. Women are Patriarchs, too, after all. Anyhow, this shelter: it directly points to how Patriarchy does not simply function on gender, but is multidimensional. Hence why white middle class American men should think again about their fervent support of Patriarchy, for when they becomes its victims, who is left to turn to? Suddenly the marginalizers have become the marginalized. Men are supposed to be the aggressors, not the victims. Am I being redundant? Is a pattern emerging here?

7. Men’s body image. Pressure and negativity surrounding male body image has grown steadily from an almost-neutral standpoint in the industrial era of “the West”, to a nigh-obsession today. Women have experienced this since…well, who knows when, and that’s not to say male beauty standards have not also been prioritized for a long time. But for modern men, I can see why these changes should come as a shock; they’re not the fair sex, after all– women should be the ones worrying about their appearance, dammit! A man can and should be able to fuck anyone he wants regardless of how he looks, and to be loved by anyone without them caring about his appearance. My, how the times have changed. Vanity and beauty are suddenly no longer so, well, feminine. Does this mean we are now going to admit to the subjectivity of beauty and toss out antiquated “ideals” and norms that control people’s lifestyles and cognitions? Somehow I doubt it…

There are a lot of other points mentioned in the article that should be addressed within a conceptual framework that accounts for Patriarchy. Maybe I’ll get to them later, but I don’t want to bore you… The point is, Patriarchy is shit. It’s not just bad for women. It’s bad for men. It’s bad for black people. It’s bad for Cambodians. It’s bad for Canadians. It’s bad for the elderly. It’s bad for kids. It’s really really bad for young, black, poor single moms, and it’s the least bad for White Wealthy Western males. This is not just about sex. This is not just about colour or class. And no, Men’s Rights Activists, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.