On Thursday, Oct. 29, West Chester University screened a chilling documentary as part of the “Film for Thought” series at Sykes Theater entitled “The True Cost” – a film exploring the repercussions and impact the fashion industry has on people and the environment.
The film, directed by Andrew Morgan, asks a simple yet important question, “Who pays the price for our clothing?” and goes through painstaking, thorough efforts finding out who, where, why, and how.
In 90 minutes, Morgan methodically answers the question he poses, exposing the horrifying realities hidden beneath the glamorous sheath of “fast fashion” – a contemporary trend in the fashion industry where cheap, plentiful clothing quickly cycle through clothing stores; a practice adopted by stores including H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Walmart, Target, and many others.
In short, we all pay the price, some much more than others. Fast-fashion’s impact is complex and multifaceted, guilty of everything from human rights violations to environmental havoc and exploitations of individual psychology.
UK journalist Lucy Siegle comments at the start of the film that fashion is “moving ruthlessly towards a way of producing that only looks at big corporate interest.” Why is this so?
Is it fair to blame American advertising for selling to the masses the notion that purchasing affordable, fashionable products facilitates happiness and acceptance….or does the blame lay, at least partially, within ourselves? The name of the game has always been supply and demand and a corporation’s greatest ally is a docile and mindless consumer whose sole concern is personal satisfaction.
Over pans of several third world countries, Andrew Morgan narrates that in the 60s nearly 89 percent of clothing was produced within the United States, a startling figure when measured up against the staggering three percent domestic production rate of today – a result of manufacturing outsourced to developing countries around the world.
“Clothing becomes cheaper as outsourcing grows,” narrates Morgan.
Following clever shots of anorexic models encased in elegant attire juxtaposed with sewing machines amidst operation in gritty factories, “The True Cost” quickly plunges the audience into the depths of Bangladesh, India, where a majority of American clothing manufacturing has been outsourced.
In India, “cutting corners and disregarding safety measures” are the norm. In an effort to assure the lowest cost of production, budget cuts are made to building infrastructure and employee’s salaries – salaries as low as $2 US per day.
As a result, several devastating repercussions have occurred, a high death toll of anonymous-to-us garment workers the ultimate and frequent consequence.
The film cites several instances, however the “Rana Plaza collapse” is most notable.
A structural failure occurred on April of 2013 in Bangladesh, where an eight-story commercial building called “Rana Plaza” collapsed, killing 1,129 and injuring approximately 2,515, establishing this catastrophe as the deadliest structural failure accident in human history.
It’s worth noting that workers pointed out previous to the collapse that the building was structurally unsafe, bringing attention to management the several cracks found in the building: a minute detail management chose to overlook. The fear of having to pay for renovations must have overshadowed the fear of imminent death.
After news of Rana Plaza hit American airwaves, hundreds of broadcasters, including “The Today Show,” expressed horror and condemned companies such as “Joe Fresh” and “The Children’s Place” for their clothing production taking place at Rana Plaza.
However, blinded by shocking low prices, just a few months later “The Today Show” aired glorification of products from the previously condemned company exclaiming mindlessly “It’s only 20 dollars!”
This isn’t an anomaly, and this isn’t simply an example of dull broadcasters carelessly pushing cheap products masquerading as entertainment. We do it everyday. A pressing issue hits public eye and, for a brief amount of time, we pretend to care. However, as days pass, we return to our daily habits, turning a blind eye to the concerns of yesterday.
In terms of broadcasting, what sells and garners viewers just as much as cheap clothing is pretending to care.
As for the public, proliferating care seems to last as long as news coverage does, which is to say, concern fades the moment it arrives. And this cycle of caring, not caring, caring and not caring is a perpetual wheel that serves to accomplish very little to nothing.
The tragedies occurring in Bangladesh aren’t foreign to America; they’ve just been displaced through time. Along with the outsourcing of labor-intensive work also came the outsourcing of the US’s history of poorly treated immigrant workers.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in Manhattan, New York killed 146 garment workers, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in US history. This tragedy, which resulted from neglected safety features, led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.
Protests such as the “Uprising of 20,000” contributed to the development of unions and eventual diminishing of dangerous and difficult working conditions in sweatshops.
In America, we fought so hard to have better working conditions in these factories. So what do the companies do? They move the factories abroad and retain the archaic harsh conditions. All for a profit. All so someone in the Western world can garner self-worth.
As “The True Cost” points out, Cambodia attempted such a protest as well as several individuals throughout India. Shima, for example, created a union and made a list of demands for a better wage and safer working conditions. Her plea was met with physical violence toward her and all the other dissidents challenging status quo.
Western consumption habits facilitate the injustices found in “The True Cost.”
The hunger for clothing also establishes fashion as the second most polluting industry, second only to the oil industry. This stems from the farmers’ reliance on genetically-modified seeds and rise of pesticides to sustain enormous fields of cotton that feed the ever-growing demand of fashion.
Mark Miller, professor of media culture at New York University, suggests towards the end of the documentary that advertising sells the idea that “the way to solve the problems in your life is through consumption.” And this is the very model that allows consumption to thrive.
The film’s inclusion of several YouTube clothing “haul” videos, a series where young, attractive girls show off various purchases from their shopping efforts, makes a very poignant and convincing claim.
Following scene after scene of the harrowing aforementioned realities, then seeing footage of “Black Friday” shoppers as well as individuals glamorizing their shopping habits creates a very unsettling effect. Our consumption habits are repulsive.
With the glimmer of “Black Friday” quickly approaching, the choice to support the generation of greed and corruption lies, ultimately, with the consumer.
No one likes their lifestyle challenged and put into question – but what does it say to the rest of the world, what does it say about us, to even allow “Black Friday” to exist as a holiday?
On Thursday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m., Sykes Theater will be screening their final film in the “Film For Thought” series entitled “3 ½ Minutes,” a film that explores the demonization of young black men.
Dimitri Kandilanaftis is a third-year student majoring in communications with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at DK838967@wcupa.edu.