Everyone loves a good deal. Some people, like any McDonald’s customer will tell you, can even repress questions like, “How is it possible that I can order 50 chicken nuggets for 4 cents?” and “Where does any of this come from, anyway?”
And although the fashion industry may seem glamorous thanks to The Devil Wears Prada-esque representations, when it comes to labor exploitation, there is little difference between the hidden horrors of Taco Bell and, say, that shirtdress you love from H&M or your drawer of 2 buck tank tops from Forever21.
Fortunately, a new documentary called The True Cost will help those of us who (guilty) manage to silence voices in our head while shopping and push curiosity to the periphery better understand exactly how these prices and products reach us—and who is suffering because of it.
Basically, the way it works is simple. Mass brands want to minimize cost to maximize profits. In order to do that, they pit factories in countries such as India and Bangladesh against one another to get them competing on pricing. As one might imagine, this turns on the heat for the manufacturers, who in turn agree to lower and lower rates for work at the expense of their factory workers. As reported by Fashionista, we shouldn’t be surprised that the vast majority, nearly 85 percent, of those workers are women.
And according to one woman in the film, forming a union or demanding higher wages isn’t just close to impossible, it’s also highly dangerous.
“It’s not only price pressure,” she said, referring to American brands’ attitudes towards their foreign manufacturers. “It’s ignoring other people’s lives.”
Aside from the testimony of the system’s victims, the film’s main impact comes from the few brand execs who agreed to speak on camera about their choices (such as Kate Ball-Young of Joe Fresh), as well as the the argument director Andrew Morgan makes about the reciprocal consequences people and the environment suffer as a result of the industry’s practices. Examining everything from “common” brain tumors in the cotton fields of Texas to the escalating cancer and birth-defect rates in the Punjab region of India, Morgan explores a narrative that ultimately lands at the feet and in the hands of consumers and the informed.
“I don’t want anyone to walk away from this film and think less of fashion,” Morgan explained at film screening, insisting that dousing every individual who loves or works in fashion with shame is not his main priority. “I don’t want to feel guilty if I love the things that I love to wear. What I’m trying to get through is: let’s all take a step back from this incessant process of consuming mediocre stuff. And let’s go back to a place where we invest in pieces of clothing that we love, that we’re going to wear, that we’re going to hold on to.”
The film opened worldwide on May 29.