Shima Akhter is a garment factory worker in Bangladesh. She leaves her young daughter behind in a village to be watched by neighbors and family when she goes to work. She earns less than three dollars a day. She numbers among the most poorly compensated humans on Earth.
So she started a union. She and her fellow unionizers made a list of demands and brought those requests to management. Her managers proceeded to lock Akhter and her companions in the office, where between 30 and 40 staffers beat them: with fists, with scissors, with chairs, by banging their heads against the wall.
“I don’t want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood,” she says.
Akhter is, by far, the most haunting and powerful presence in The True Cost, a documentary about the impact the fast fashion industry has on the world. As the film makes clear — as anyone must know, if anyone thought hard enough about what conditions enable the existence of an ever-refreshing selection of $5 crop tops at H&M; — the most appalling “true cost” is human.
Other costs, too, are explored, like the environmental impact these massive factories have on the communities in which they are located. But even those consequences are connected back to the people they destroy: another sickening scene shows a mother next to her young son, who is disfigured, mentally disabled and staring off into some indeterminate middle distance. The man next to her describes how women like this “ultimately have accepted the death of their kids.” A child in a wheelchair passes by, then another scrawny boy, hobbling along on walker, appears.
Does the average consumer already know that fast fashion depends on cheap, expendable labor from the other side of the world? That the factories in which these people work would never pass muster in the developed world, and that the people who work in them barely make enough money to survive? Surely, in some locked-away part of our consciousness on which we prefer not to dwell, we do.
The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment-factory accident of all time, killed 1,129 people. Just a few months earlier, 112 Bangladeshi workers were killed in the Tazreen Fashions fire. And seven years earlier, 64 workers died in the Spectrum sweater factory collapse; that factory was used by Zara’s owner, Inditex. All of these incidents made international news.
The rise of fast fashion — chains like H&M;, Forever 21, and Zara, where clothing is absurdly cheap and inventory is updated weekly — has been well-documented. It’s even gotten the John Oliver treatment. So what does The True Cost have to add? What can this documentary illuminate?
The True Cost (directed by Andrew Morgan) can’t seem to figure out how to present the information it has to offer. A few different angles are trotted out, then put away. At one point, we inch towards a feminist perspective: the idea that and anyone who cares about the welfare of women should care about the fashion industry, fast fashion in particular. An astounding 85 percent of the 40 million garment factory workers in the world are women. Improving conditions for garment workers, by default, means improving the lives of impoverished women.
There’s the humanitarian approach: disasters in the fashion industry have killed thousands of people in just the past few years. The True Cost estimates that one in six people work in the global fashion industry. The environmental take also gets its moment in the sun, as the filmmakers visit an organic cotton farmer who laments what the chemicals now sprayed on the overwhelming majority of cotton crops do to the land, soil, water, air, and people who labor there. The True Cost claims that fashion is second only to oil as the most polluting industry on Earth. There is, too, a shot at something close to nationalism: in the 1960s, America produced all but five percent of our own clothing. Today, the production of 97 percent of what Americans wear is outsourced, mostly to developing nations.
While a quick interview at the start of the film with Orsola De Castro, a designer, acknowledges the importance of fashion — “We communicate who we are through clothing” — the documentary never returns to this point. The True Cost is about the ugly side of the fashion industry, but it doesn’t take the time to analyze the value of clothing in the lives of everyday people, or how fashion can be a powerful means of self-expression, of asserting your identity and your place in the world.
A psychologist explains that, though advertising would have you believe buying stuff will make you happy, the opposite is true. His thesis is that materialism makes us miserable. America’s consumerist ways are critiqued harshly in The True Cost — cue the requisite footage of Black Friday shoppers swarming the mall — but belief in the transformative power of clothing extends beyond, and is far older than, America. The earliest written version of Cinderella came out of Italy in the 1600s. The sign that her life was about to change for the better? New dress, magic shoes. Even in the original.
For a documentary aimed at people who want to swing by H&M; every weekend and find something new on shelves, The True Cost is remarkably fast to dismiss shoppers, and what drives them, out of hand. Why not engage with the all-American pastime of seeking affirmation and joy through consumption, instead of simply stating that it shouldn’t exist?
From a narrative perspective, the documentary drags. We spend too much time with people who keep repeating themselves, pointing out self-evident truths: chemicals are harmful to the environment and cancerous to humans; working conditions in factories in developing countries are dangerous and show no sign of improving; price points plummet and, as a result, the most vulnerable workers in the supply chain see their hours rise and wages drop.
This is all vital information, but it’s not new information, and even someone who never gives the industry any thought could pick up on these basic realities quickly. Someone reaching for a $5 tank top at H&M; is not thinking, in that exact moment, of half-crushed bodies or the sounds of screaming from the wreckage of the Rana Plaza building. But most consumers, while careless in the moment, aren’t actually unaware of, as the film puts it, the true cost of the clothes we wear. If anything, we’re too aware, and a sense of fatalism settles in: well, I’m not going to leave the house naked, so what am I supposed to do?
Which brings us to the major failing of The True Cost: the documentary does not offer any reasonable alternative to living the way we do. And since most people are still going to buy things, where, realistically, should an informed consumer spend money?
If H&M; and Forever 21 are bad news, if Zara — your go-to retailer for Holocaust chic! — is a no-go, fine, but people still need to buy clothes, and The True Cost offers little by way of guidance as to where an ethical shopper should go to do that. One figure we follow throughout the film is Safia Minney, founder and CEO of People Tree, a fair trade and sustainable fashion brand. We spend a lot of our 92 minutes of running time with Minney.
But no attention is paid to the myriad of mid-range chains where millions of dollars are spent each year: we learn nothing about the supply chain for Anthropologie and Free People and Urban Outfitters, or The Gap and Banana Republic and Old Navy, or J. Crew and Madewell, Ann Taylor or Talbots, or any other middle step between the disposable miniskirts on Topshop mannequins and designer wares at department stores. We do go to Patagonia, though. So I guess between that and People Tree, your wardrobe is supposed to be covered.
The solution posited by the documentary is sudden and bizarre: basically, the problem with fast fashion is far bigger than fast fashion. The True Cost’s response here amounts to: throw out capitalism because it is an inherently flawed system that incentivizes constant consumption. Which, okay, that’s an approach, but let’s just say you had neither the means nor the desire to completely change the way our national economy, and the economies of most developed nations, are structured. What are you supposed to do then? Is this really a choice between continuing to shop at H&M; and therefore remaining complicit in the fatal conditions factory workers face or literally dismantling our financial institutions, our national character, and our way of life?
When it comes to making you think, The True Cost succeeds. If you want a plan of action, though, you’re on your own.