The True Cost: documentary review

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

With recent news about alleged “disappearances” of Chinese activists working at factories producing Ivanka Trump’s line of shoes, as well as President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, citing economic “unfairness” to American workers, the documentary The True Cost feels powerfully relevant right now. Where do our clothes come from, and how is “fast fashion” so cheap? What is the actual cost of our consumer choices, in environmental impact and human labor?

The True Cost offers a comprehensive look at the fashion industry, from its history to its profit margin, from garment workers to executives, from the worst environmental and human rights offenders to the designers and entrepreneurs who are attempting to create new fashion industry standards. Viewers are reminded that in the 1960s, 95% of Americans’ clothing was made in the United States, while today, factories are outsourced to the lowest bidder in locations with fewer regulations. Safety measures are disregarded, leading to factory building collapses and health problems for many workers. The film also brings us to an American cotton farm, exploring the impacts of pesticides on human and ecological health, of treating the land like a factory. The True Cost looks at all stages in the process of creating textiles and other clothing, from raw materials to production to consumption to waste, showing the human and ecological cost at each stage. As the second most polluting industry in the world (after the fossil fuel industry), textiles account for 82 pounds of landfill waste each year per American.

A poignant interview introduces viewers to a garment worker in Dhaka who tried to form a union, citing long hours and unhealthy working conditions. She tells us her daughter cannot live with her, but must live in a village outside the city, where she can receive a bit of an education due to the salary her mother receives, and where she is not exposed to as many chemicals. The Dhaka workers were locked in their work room when they tried to unionize, beaten by their managers. This is not an isolated example, but several similar (and sometimes worse) examples are cited.

The film asks us to examine our “consumptionism.” In an economy built on eternal growth, we have to keep consuming to keep the economy going. We buy into the myth that buying something new will make us happy. Does it actually make us happy? For how long? Is it worth the life and health of other human beings, and the degradation of the land?

The filmmakers also interview designers and business owners from clothing companies attempting to create clothing out of a different mindset, such as People Tree, which attempts to “design the collection up,” designing with available textiles and labor rather than designing a concept and then looking for a place that can manufacture it. This model focuses on capacity building within a local community. Representatives from Patagonia are also interviewed, stating that their goal is to help people question consumerism, and to create durable products that are the opposite of planned obsolescence. The filmmakers state that they hope to change all consumers into activists asking simple questions about where their clothes are from, recognizing it’s not acceptable for people to die in order for us to get a new shirt. This, ultimately, will shift the industry. Weaving together images of crazed Black Friday shoppers, factory working conditions, and textile waste, the film conveys powerful juxtapositions that put consumer choices into perspective.

This film is challenging for any of us who are lured in by the seeming frugality of cheap clothing prices, and the momentary gratification of getting something new. While the film emphasizes the positives of expressing ourselves through our wardrobes, it asks good questions and exposes parts of the garment industry that are all too easy to ignore, from a consumer perspective.

I recommend this film to everyone, and it could be particularly impactful in a college classroom, where students are dealing with low budgets and wading into the waters of personal consumer choices for the first time. Community and educational groups can purchase rights to show the film through Bullfrog Films, and individuals can watch it on Netflix or rent it on YouTube. The website for the film has a helpful page called “Buying Better,” including questions to ask prior to purchasing new clothing (“Will I wear this 30 times?”), links to more just clothiers, and ways to support activism and policy change.

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