The True Cost of Fast Fashion

(3BL Media and Just Means)- In the middle of a conversation with film director Andrew Morgan, you suddenly find yourself standing on your feet, completely ready to radically change your lifestyle and consider the consequences of your consumption choices.  Ironically, I thought I had already considered my choices. My attitude going into this interview was just to tell the story of the upcoming film, True Cost, so that others would be moved to change. Wow, did I eat a big piece of humble pie.

“There are two paths given to people. One is incredibly funded and marketed, a world of access and consumption which denies the reality of the world. I’m going to choose to open my eyes [to the other path]. When I wake up and I realize for no choice of my own that I was born into a culture with the greatest amount of wealth and influence, that I’m standing among the wealthiest, most educated people and at the same time there is more inequality and injustice and suffering than ever before… I want my life’s work, I want to spin the narrative in a new way. There’s a story happening on this planet and it's so exciting that to sit on the sidelines and just consume- let’s make that the odd thing. Let’s make that the pathetic thing.”

Morgan reminded me how I’m connected to the billions of people living on less than two dollars a day.

“Growing up in the States, I had the experience where everything [I consumed] was abstract. My parents did white collar work. We didn’t live in a home we had made. Everything I consumed across the board came from somewhere else from someone else. Until a shockingly recent time, I never questioned that. What’s happening for me, and probably for you, Julie, is that there’s a growing number of people saying, ‘why are the human rights and dignity of others around the world, these things we hold so dearly locally, why in a globally-aware world would I think any differently? Why would I think it’s so removed?’

As this gap closes we see things differently. There’s a growing thoughtfulness now that we can see what we are doing in the world. So, how are we going to go about it differently? For a long time, we dumped stuff out. Out of sight, out of mind. As it begins to catch up environmentally, there will be more and more thoughtfulness.”

True Cost will follow the stories of several people working in the fashion industry, a garment worker in Bangladesh portraying the implications of a 'living wage.' The film will show the pressures of a Chinese factory owner and the importance of a labor union in Cambodia.

“We are going to give the viewer a big snapshot of things happening around the world. We are going to take the viewers into the lives of people who are, in large, on the bottom of the system looking up. We want the audience to hear the stories of some of the powerless looking up. You will get to know the characters. We can talk about a living wage, but when you see someone who is working six or seven days a week and they still can’t provide a living wage for their family, you’ll see this is a reality for a lot of people. You will also see some animation and learn some of the history of the fashion industry in order to give it context,” Morgan explained to me.

Serving as an introduction to the complexities of the fashion industry, True Cost, will propose a new set of questions for viewers.

“People need a new conversation. Instead of making a serious, deep, dive film with one aspect for one audience,  I’m trying to make a film that’s accessible for everyone who is generally concerned about the people and the planet and who could be inspired to do more,” said Morgan.

I asked Morgan if he could explain the fashion system to me and in his opinion, what he thinks it will take to tip the system. 

“There’s a triangle between major brands, consumers and policy. The role of the consumer and frankly, the role of a film like this, is to put pressure on brands. I don’t think consumers have the power to boycott brands and strong-arm the system. I think they can continue to vote with their dollars for what’s good. But we have to lean in on transparency from companies. On the brand side there is no doubt that they have unprecedented influence on supply chains.

When you go back to the ‘90’s, when a lot of environmental issues came to light, the response of brands was to say ‘it’s not our responsibility.’ We exist to make money. The cleanup is up to the NGOs. Now you can’t say that as a multinational corporation (MNC) and still do business. Now, what’s shifting is that brands are saying, ‘How much responsibility do we take? And what’s our relationship between our response and policy makers?’  

Some of the [global] labor standards haven’t updated since the ‘70’s. We are unfathomably behind on ensuring basic human rights in a world of global, supply chains. Some of this policy stuff we think of as stricter legislations. A lot of it is about incentivizing the right kind of behavior. Policy needs to catch up and incentivize brands that are then incentivized by consumers to do the right thing. Consumers ask for more transparency and reward better behavior [with their dollars]. Brands take more responsibility and policy makers provide incentives. Right now, we are in an opposite cycle. Regulation is so non-existent that the MNCs can figure a way around regulations and do as little as they can while appeasing consumers.

There’s a need for cooperative action for moving forward. We won’t move to a better, more sustainable place while moving forward in one area of the [fashion] system without updating the other. My experience is that most of these folks want to do the right thing. Most of the players in this system aren’t waking up trying to hurt others. They are just living in a competitive system. A lot of big brands are willing to move together cooperatively.”

Don’t worry big brands: Morgan assured me that True Cost is not out to play the ‘petty game blame.’

“There has been a sentiment that big is bad, and if there’s a problem, then we blame it on the MNCs. I’m not uncritical of big corporations, but it takes away responsibility from everyone else in the system.”

“In addition to the human story, will True Cost address the environmental impact of fast fashion?" I asked.

“Yes, we are examining waste dumping into rivers, like the Ganges, and the impact on farming communities. Environmental damage sounds so broad. We want to show specifics. We will examine the consumption side too, the amount of clothing we consume and then give it to Goodwill...”

“Thinking we are doing something good!” I interrupted.

“Yeah! We will actually follow it [the donated clothing] and show how it gets shipped to Africa and hurts local economies. The environmental side makes it personal. It’s shocking. It might be the tipping point. We can’t keep doing what we are doing. This is an unprecedented amount of waste.”

“What then is the solution to such a complex and unjust system?” I asked Morgan.

“There is not a perfectly clear, comprehensive solution where we can flip a switch. This has been decades in the making.  We are using vastly more resources. We are exploiting people. It’s a very complex problem. This film isn’t about us coming up with solutions. We are just bringing the questions to the table.”

Morgan’s dream is to see the system revolutionized by the restlessness of ordinary people.

“When you look at historical trends what has to happen first before big systemic change is that people have to see it as the unsustainable, contradictory system that it is. I am making a film that focuses on questions that frame it for everyone where they say, ‘I can’t be part of this. This has to change. This is a contradiction to my values when I’m clothing my kids. I don’t want to be buying into this. I don’t want to be part of this. Everyone can’t go out and buy ethical clothing, but we have to look at a broad set of issues, as dynamic as international trade agreements and labor laws and buying practices. I want people to watch this film and think, ‘I can be part of a growing movement in the world to the brands I buy from and people who make policy that this has to change.’”

True Cost will be filming throughout 2014 and will hit the nation with a tour in early 2015. Over $76,000 has been raised by crowd funding and tax-deductible donations are being accepted in partnership with the Creative Visions Foundations.  Click here to show them some love via your wallet.

“This story is making my life more compassionate,” Morgan said. “It’s opening up my heart.”

Me too, Andrew Morgan. Me too.

To watch the True Cost trailer, check out their website.  For an introduction to fast fashion, read here.