Review: ‘The True Cost’ Investigates High Price of Fashion Bargains
The True Cost
By JEANNETTE CATSOULISMAY
28, 2015 / http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/movies/review-the-true-cost-investigates-high-price-of-fashion-bargains.html
A distressing overview of the consequences of our addiction to fast fashion, “The True Cost” might suggest another exposé of corporate greed versus environmental well-being. That is certainly in evidence, but under the gentle, humane investigations of its director, Andrew Morgan, what emerges most strongly is a portrait of exploitation that ought to make us more nauseated than elated over those $20 jeans.
To learn who is paying for our bargains, Mr. Morgan dives to the bottom of the supply chain, to the garment factories of Cambodia and Bangladesh and the cotton fields of India, where he links ecological and health calamities to zealous pesticide use. Garment workers subsisting on less than $3 a day recount beatings by bosses who resent unionization and requests for higher wages. At the same time, a factory owner in Bangladesh — where the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building caused more than 1,000 deaths — tells us candidly that when retailers squeeze him, he must squeeze his employees.
“There are a lot of worse things they could be doing,” a former sourcing manager for the fashion brand Joe Fresh says about these unfortunates, echoing an all-too-familiar justification. A visit to Haiti, however, where millions of tons of our castoff clothing have clogged landfills and destroyed the local clothing industry, makes us wonder how much worse these people’s lives could become.
Offering few solutions beyond a single fair-trade fashion company, “The True Cost” — whose serene interludes compete with sickening recordings of Black Friday shopping riots and so-called clothing haul videos — stirs and saddens. Not least because it’s unlikely to reach the young consumers most in need of its revelations.
“The True Cost” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Toxic chemicals and obscene consumption.
‘The True Cost,’ a Different Kind of Fashion Documentary
MAY 28, 2015 / http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/fashion/the-true-cost-a-different-kind-of-fashion-documentary.html?_r=0
I suppose it was inevitable that after the spate of fashion brands embracing documentaries (see Dior, Gucci, Chanel, Valentino, Gaultier), many of which proved surprisingly effective pieces of industry propaganda, a director would come along to put the whole thing in context.
That director is Andrew Morgan, and his film is “The True Cost,” which probably gives you some idea of the subject. It premiered in Cannes, complete with a red carpet appearance by Livia and Colin Firth (Ms. Firth is one of the film’s executive producers and also appears on screen, as do — full disclosure — I, sitting next to her on a panel at a Copenhagen Fashion Summit). It will be screened Thursday night at the IFC Center in New York, with public showings beginning Friday, and open later in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo. It will also be available on iTunes and Netflix.
Viewers will get a feature-length look at the human and environmental cost of fast fashion, from workers in Bangladesh to cotton farmers in Texas, by way of India, Cambodia and Fifth Avenue. It is affecting and upsetting, and will probably make some consumers think twice about where they buy clothes — though arguably the sort of moviegoers attracted to a film like this already share its point of view.
Mr. Morgan, who also provides the narration, comes at his subject with the naïveté and enthusiasm of an amateur — he acknowledges that he didn’t think much about his clothes beyond style and cost until he started the film; he didn’t, that is, think about supply chain issues. This viewpoint gives the film’s difficult and multidimensional subject an easy-to-swallow accessibility.
But it also oversimplifies it to an extreme and, it seems to me, undermining degree.
Starting with the fact that, either for brevity or impact, Mr. Morgan conflates “fast fashion” with “fashion” writ large. And while he is condemning the Main Street megaliths for producing in sweatshops, he slips in photographs of high-end runway shows, implying that they also produce in sweatshops. Yet fashion (the “almost $3 trillion industry,” as he calls it) is not created equal, and fashion’s impacts are not equal. Sports brands have different problems from premium brands, many of which have their own factories, and premium brands have different problems from mass brands.
This is not to say that high-end fashion should not be taken to task for its failings, but simply that to police a sector effectively, or call it out on its shortcomings, you need to do it in an informed and realistic way. Otherwise you create openings for companies to dismiss the charges as irrelevant, which can taint the whole project.
(Not that any companies, aside from those known to have an ethical agenda like Stella McCartney and People Tree, appeared willing to speak to Mr. Morgan, which suggests they have their own fears about this subject. I think that was a big mistake. To begin to address the issues we first have to know what they are, thorns and all.)
Similarly, though lots of eye-popping statements are used, including that fashion is the second-most-polluting industry on the planet, after oil, they are unattributed. Because they are so powerful, this seems a surprising omission.
I emailed Mr. Morgan to ask about the pollution comment, and he wrote back that it came from both the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Danish Fashion Institute, and that the statement referred to the whole process used by the fashion industry. “The chemical industry” — which I mentioned in my query — “is now most often seen as being a part of other key industries, fashion being key among them,” Mr. Morgan wrote.
Still, “The True Cost” would not have been hurt if Mr. Morgan had taken a slightly more granular approach to his subject — had he, say, included the sources of his statistics, or limited himself to the biggest, most mass-market brands, as they touch the most people. He spent two years making the film, visiting 13 countries, and 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.
It’s too bad, because doing less might actually have added up to more.