The True Cost, a 2015 documentary about the negative environmental and human effects of the global garment industry, is a lesser-known film in the Netflix catalogue that attempts to tackle an issue that perhaps not many people are aware of.
Netflix has no shortage of documentary films. Compelling and thought-provoking works such as Blackfish, Virunga, and The White Helmets have all had considerable success in bringing previously unheard of issues into the mainstream. Hidden away in the far-reaches of Netflix’s vast library, The True Cost lacks the finesse and high production value of some of Netflix’s more popular documentaries, but provides a down-to-earth, personal account of the detrimental effects that the global garment industry is having on our planet.
The True Cost covers a lot of ground. The documentary uses the personal experiences of several garment workers in the Third World to highlight the strenuous and hazardous conditions that many thousands of workers face in the garment industry every day. The film places a lot of the blame for these conditions on the relatively new phenomenon of “fast fashion,” a trend that has its roots with brands such as H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. Under this model, poor working conditions in the Third World are perpetuated by the demands of these big clothing companies for increased production at lower costs, keeping clothing for Western consumers cheap, abundant, and constantly changing. As highlighted by the film, the phenomenon of fast fashion is a product of the materialistic, capitalist society within which we live.
The True Cost very clearly outlines the problems with the modern fashion industry on three main levels. There are the immediate, local problems where workers like Shima Akhter, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, spend their long working days with hazardous chemicals, unable to spend time with and properly care for their children. This smaller-scale view sees workers suffering from increased risks of cancer and greater chances of workplace accidents.
There are the regional and national problems, as well, where governments keep wages low in order to continue to attract the business of multinational corporations. As documented in the film, workers in some countries have recently begun to protest these low wages by taking to the streets where, as in the case of Cambodia in 2013-2014, they face violent government crackdowns.
As you near the end of the film, however, it becomes clear that these local, regional, and national problems are part of a larger, global issue. The global environment is bearing much of the brunt of this clothing production with fashion being the second-most polluting industry in the world (the first being the oil industry). Waste created at the textile production site in the form of air and water pollution is having global effects on the climate and on people’s health. The clothing itself that is being shipped to various Western countries becomes waste when styles change or when owners decide to replace instead of repair their clothing.
The True Cost essentially concludes that the root of the problem of the modern fashion industry is materialism and the dominant system of the Western world: capitalism. Those interviewed in the film in this final section, university professors and various experts and activists, ultimately argue that in order for change to occur, the system itself must be changed. While, of course, the conclusions that the film comes to make a lot of sense, I think it is these same conclusions and calls for global economic system changes that may dishearten some viewers and leave them with a sense of futility. With a system as entrenched as capitalism, it’s difficult to envision any meaningful or impactful changes being made; the problem feels too big to tackle.
That being said, the film does show several individuals, namely Safia Minney, the founder of People Tree, a fair trade fashion retailer, who are actively working to promote ethical and sustainable clothing production. In addition, The True Cost pushes organic cotton as a smart alternative fabric, with one organic cotton farmer telling of how her husband– and many other’s like him– died of cancer, likely due to the heavy pesticide use in agriculture. Despite these measures to combat the current state of the global garment industry, however, the problem is still left feeling very much too big. It’s very easy for large problems like climate change, poverty, famine, and the issues associated with the global garment industry (particularly since the majority of the effects of these problems are concentrated far away from us in the Global South) to feel simply too daunting to try to solve.
Nevertheless, if you’re at all interested in learning more about the ways in which fashion and the garment industry are affecting our health and the wellbeing of the planet, you should check out The True Cost. There’s a lot of information crammed into the film’s 92-minute runtime. Different parts of the film will resonate with different people. Whether you’re interested in the gendered division of labour in the Third World, workers’ rights, occupational hazards in the garment industry, agriculture and cotton production, or the ecology of consumption, there’s something for you in The True Cost. Because of its breadth and the range of topics it covers, The True Cost is an excellent place to begin further research. In fact, I’d say that is one of the film’s greatest strengths: it pushes you to learn more. Even if The True Cost is a less-than-perfect documentary in some respects, if it can make you do a little more digging online or, at the very least, get you thinking about where your clothing comes from, I think it’s done its job.
To learn more about the effects of the garment industry on the planet and our health, check out Trusted Clothes, a non-profit organization working to promote ethical, sustainable, and healthy fashion.
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