The True Cost premiered four years ago and I recently re-watched it. Here is what has changed in the fast fashion industry, where there’s cause for hope, what The True Cost misses, and ethical fashion advocacy that really works, plus a call-to-action.
Last Monday, I sat down with Corban Addison, bestselling author and fellow Charlottesvillian, for a chat about the research he conducted for his most recent book, A Harvest of Thorns, a fictionalized account of a garment factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh and the fallout for a global brand whose clothes were in it at the time.
The day was unseasonably warm, so we grabbed a table on the patio of a favorite local coffee shop and spent a couple hours weaving in and out of related topics. I'd originally anticipated recording a formal interview to turn into a transcript for StyleWise, but it felt right to let the conversation move with the breeze, to allow for the type of organic storytelling that Corban tries to capture in his fictional narratives.
On the State of the Fast Fashion IndustryIn his research, Corban discovered that for the majority of garment workers, per-item costs would only have to take a hit of 2-4% to provide adequate wages. This is an amount that could easily be absorbed by corporations, most of which have a profit margin of around 70%, but even passing it onto the consumer would have a negligible effect in the long run.
Garment Work is Skilled LaborCorban had the opportunity to visit several garment factories during his research. He was astounded by how quickly and skillfully the seamstresses worked. Garment work takes extreme attention to detail, excellent hand-eye coordination, and knowledge of machinery and yet, we call this type of work unskilled. It's time we change the language to value the artisans of mass production.
A Bangladeshi Garment Worker and Labor Rights Activist Speaks OutCorban was able to attend an event in Sri Lanka last fall that brought together activists and major brands to discuss corporate social responsibility. A Bangladeshi garment worker and labor activist spoke up during the Question & Answer portion of the event requesting to send this message to Westerners:
Tell people in America not to stop buying Bangladeshi clothing. Speak up for workers' rights and demand that your corporations use safe factories, but know that we need the jobs - we need the production orders.
Corban says that there are examples of factories in Bangladesh that are up to code (Nike uses state-of-the-art factory, Young One), but that many companies aren't using them because they're more expensive.
We must understand that it costs something to not abuse people, but that it doesn't cost as much as we may think.
Target May Be Leading the Way to a More Ethical IndustryCorban knows a few people at Target and he's excited about their plans. Target has already partnered with fair trade companies like PACT to release limited edition fair trade lines. A growing number of household and cosmetic products come from small, ethical brands and brand collaborations. And now, they're looking to find ways to release ethically sourced items on a larger scale.
He and I agreed that it will take a big box store like Target to prove the market for ethically branded goods, but if they commit to making that change, the whole industry could shift overnight. And what's great about this is that they wouldn't have to dramatically increase prices to deliver as long as they're savvy about scaling.
Target, and companies like it, must think in terms of a future customer who cares about ethics and sustainability if they wish to maintain or better their market share. It's simply good business.
Mutual Trust Doesn't Require FriendshipThrough the course of writing 5 books (his next novel is about Syrian refugees), Corban has had the opportunity to sit down with dozens of people and hear their stories. He says that once you have access to a person, it doesn't take much to build trust. All you have to do is remain open and listen.
As a result of this posture, Corban has been able to create complex, realistic characters for his novels. He's spoken to female Somali refugees in Minneapolis about Female Genital Mutilation over dinner and a refugee turned aid worker in Greece who abandoned his chance of reuniting with family to care for strangers. The refugee thanked him for asking him to share his story - he found it cathartic to be able to give voice to his experience.
Corban has talked with people across racial, cultural, and religious divides with mutual vulnerability and kindness, and he insists it's because, at their core, people want to be heard and respected. Building a bridge is as easy and holding out your hand.
When You Know People, You Aren't Afraid of Them AnymoreWhen I attended Barbara Kingsolver's Earth Day talk last year, she expressed that she writes fiction because it's the best way to change someone's mind. Corban agrees.
He told me that writing fiction allows him to create an artificial universe where people can interact with each other in humane, deeply personal ways, establishing mutual respect. This allows his readers - who may have virtually no experience of the cultural and religious context of his characters - to catch a glimpse of their humanity and be changed by it.
Corban writes Muslim characters frequently because he hopes that through his work readers, many of whom have never interacted with a Muslims, will come to understand that Muslims are people just like they are.
Writing as a Catalyst for ChangeCorban says the most gratifying thing about being a writer is when people wake up to the realities of injustice and ask what they can do to change it. He writes to connect at every level, from research to book signings. I admire that willingness to stay engaged.
Star StruckLivia Firth gave Corban an enthusiastic blurb for A Harvest of Thorns, calling it a “must read” and promising that “you’ll never be able to look at your clothes the same way again.”
Also, through friends, Corban passed a copy of the book along to Emma Watson! Emma, we’re waiting on your book review.
My conversation with Corban proved to me, once again, that all justice issues are connected. If you talk about garment manufacturing, you have to talk about politics. If you talk about refugees, you have to talk about trafficking, and then you find yourself back at manufacturing. When you talk about bias and fear and religion, you boil it down to human stories and then it all just melds into a quilt of simultaneously individual and universal narratives.
You open your eyes, you unclench your fists, and you listen. That's where the seeds of transformation are planted and watered.
I'll be reviewing the book as soon as I get my hands on it. You can order it here and we can do a book club!