A few weeks ago, I helped coordinate a screening of The True Cost documentary in partnership with local sustainability advocates Linnea of Darling Boutique, Lorraine of the Spirit of 608 podcast, and Sallie of Ten Thousand Villages.
I hadn’t watched The True Cost since it premiered in 2015 and, while I remembered feeling a bit hopeless afterward, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of tragedy and turmoil woven into the narrative.
In case you haven’t watched The True Cost (you really should - it’s available as a rental on YouTube and Amazon Prime, and I think it’s still up on Netflix), the premise is simple: documentarian and fashion industry novice Andrew Morgan is profoundly affected by the Rana Plaza collapse, which killed over 1,130 garment workers in April 2013, and sets out to uncover “the true cost” of the international fashion industry, from the cotton fields to the tanneries to the factories to the high street stores.
Though the film runs around an hour and a half in length, it’s more than enough content for opening conversation, and it manages to weave in the environmental, health, and psychological toll global Capitalism takes in a way that’s every bit as overwhelming as reality.
While watching it this time around, I took mental notes on what was missing from the narrative, and was struck by two main weaknesses:
The fashion industry and its related industries change quickly, and so a four year old documentary is, by nature, not going to tell an up-to-date story.
The film doesn’t provide a true call-to-action, but instead requires the viewer to stew in existential dread and helplessness. This was even more apparent in a group setting - we had actually planned to do a fun photo booth for social media afterward, but everyone was too sad to pull it off.
In this post, I want to address both of those concerns, highlighting a few bright spots in the ethical fashion conversation and providing a sense of hope so that we can move forward.
What’s Changed Since The True Cost?
A Living Wage in Cambodia
The True Cost covers worker protests over low wages in Cambodia, particularly state-enacted violence that resulted in the deaths of several workers. While this is undoubtedly horrific, the ongoing legacy of garment worker protest in Cambodia has proven effective at building people power.
According to 2016 living wage data collected by wageindicator.org, a standard living wage in Cambodia converts to about $156 USD per month. As of October 2018, Cambodia has raised minimum wages in the garment and shoe production industry to $182 USD per month. Now, this number still falls short of union demands (of $189 per month), but represents a significant increase over the last five years.
Of course, the global garment industry relies on the cheapest possible labor in order to generate the highest corporate profits, which potentially puts Cambodia’s garment sector at risk as wages increase, but Cambodian workers’ ability to unionize and demand a higher wage could set the stage for worker protests and unionization across the Global South, which would bring about a sea change in the garment industry at large.
“Fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil”
Alden Wicker of EcoCult debunked this a couple years ago, but as people continue to discover The True Cost film, it will undoubtedly live on in the public consciousness.
According to Alden’s analysis, using data from the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report:
That makes fashion the 10th most polluting industry in the world. Ninth, if you put electricity and heat production for the commercial and residential sectors together.
That is still really high, as one industry, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Literally, there is more pollution from the cement industry than fashion.
She goes on to consider what we actually mean by “the fashion industry.” If we’re just talking about garment production, that’s one thing, but the fashion industry really isn’t one thing, as The True Cost indicates fairly comprehensively.
The fact of the matter is that the fashion industry and all of its related industries - like agriculture - ARE rather polluting, but using data that isn’t based in fact does more to discount the seriousness of our activism than it does to change the industry. We should take pollution and its effects on human and environmental health seriously, but we don’t need a tidy quote to do that.
This just goes to show that what the industry needs right now is more serious thinkers and data-driven experts rather than another sustainable fashion brand touting unproven “facts,” as Whitney Bauck points out in a recent article for Fashionista.
Fast Fashion Goes Fair Trade
The True Cost spends a lot of time on fast fashion shopping montages, arguing that our throwaway culture leads us to disconnect from the makers and perpetuates an unsustainable production system. It juxtaposes this against slow fashion brands like People Tree, one of the original fair trade garment producers. The feature on People Tree is actually really inspiring - and make me want to support them even more - but it doesn’t really provide a metric for what to do about preexisting fast fashion supply chains.
The reality is that, in most cases anyway, the best way to bring about change in industry isn’t to obliterate current systems. Instead, major corporations operating in the global garment industry should be required to track their supply chain in detail and be transparent about their standards.
This is the method author Corban Addison advocates in his novel on the garment industry, A Harvest of Thorns (which everyone should read), and was recently reiterated by my pal Whitney again for Fashionista:
...there's a lot that needs fixing in Malaysian fashion manufacturing, and these five factories are likely just the tip of the iceberg. But the responses of a number of conscientious brands proved that companies can accomplish more good by taking responsibility for their existing supply chains than they can by severing relationships as a knee-jerk response to negative reports.
Fortunately, some conventional fashion brands are starting to scrutinize their supply chains and work to become more consistent in enforcing labor standards. While Bauck highlights sneaker brands like Brooks and Target (Addison, who lives in my town, also told me in an interview a couple years ago that Target has major plans to overhaul their sourcing) in her article, J. Crew and Madewell’s fair trade denim line - and the fact that they actually paid for the factory they are using to become fair trade certified - is very good news.
Pathways to Promise
Speaking of changing systems from within, I profiled Pathways for Promise a few years ago, a program of the Asian University for Women that hand selects garment workers and women from the marginalized (and increasingly displaced) Rohingya community to receive a humanities education in order to go back to their communities and make an impact. The initial results from the trial proved promising:
90% of reporting alumnae secure gainful employment or enter reputable graduate programs.
"AUW alumnae work in nonprofit organizations, research institutes, private companies and schools. The majority of alumnae pursue graduate studies outside their country of origin due to the availability of scholarships, but 85% of employed alumnae go on to work in their home country, thus limiting “brain drain” in the region. Roughly two-fifths of graduates have gone on to teach or work in the private sector; 36% of graduates have gone on to work in nonprofits or government."
"AUW has cultivated an international network of emerging leaders who are earning income, living independently, uplifting others, and promoting sustainable human and economic development in the region. Their accomplishments offer the surest proof that AUW is effectively achieving its mission."
It’s easy for Westerners to see people living and working in garment industry hubs as helpless, but there are structures in place to change things for the better. It’s not all on us.
Closed Loop Systems
The True Cost briefly mentions the toxicity of producing certain textiles, like rayon, because the chemicals required to break down wood pulp into workable fiber are extremely polluting and bad for worker health.
I wanted to bring your attention to Tencel, the brand name for a type of wood-based fiber, namely lyocell or modal, that is produced in a closed loop system. This means that the chemical used to soften the pulp into fibers can be recycled over and over again, and that it isn’t released into the environment.
While this system isn’t perfect, it’s become popular among ethical businesses because the fabric has a silken quality (like rayon) with a nice drape, and production requires less water usage than cotton.
Conclusion: Things Can Change for the Better
I hope the above data has provided a clearer picture for moving forward as an activist and consumer.
What emerges for me is the idea that putting pressure on preexisting companies to change their supply chains is actually one of the best ways to push the industry forward, and merely diverting our spending to indie makers can’t change the narrative.
It’s also worthwhile to interrogate our biases when it comes to benefactor and beneficiary. The True Cost’s narrative implies that WE - the Western consumers living lives of luxury - are best equipped to change things, placing us in a role of philanthropist and making garment workers and others living in the Global South our dependents.
But this is imperialist thinking, and it dehumanizes those who get placed in the role of “exploited.” As I said to the small crowd at The True Cost screening, one way to move past this kind of thinking is to see ourselves as co-exploited. We are all - consumer, citizen, and producer - being exploited by a small group of corporations, CEOs, land owners, politicians, and governments. Some of us are exploited through propaganda we call “advertising” to soften the blow. Some of us are exploited through wage slavery. Others are exploited through Monsanto’s “suicide seeds” that don’t allow farmers to propogate their own crops.
But we are on the same page, fighting against the same broken systems. This doesn’t negate individual and systemic power structures within our own ranks, but it does provide a better view of reality.
Until we realize that we’re vulnerable, too, we will continue to demonize fast fashion shoppers instead of the vast web of corporate and political interests that make fast fashion seem like the only option.