Go to any shopping mall, and inexpensive clothes are abundant — $4.99 T-shirts, $7.90 skinny jeans, $8.90 sandals. But as we fill our closets, who pays the price?
That question is answered in the wide-ranging new film "The True Cost."
In the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 garment factory workers, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Morgan set out to make a documentary about the human and environmental cost of shopping at H&M, Forever 21, Topshop, Zara and other stores associated with the $3-trillion fast-fashion industry, in which stores receive trendy new merchandise on a daily basis.
The film, which opens May 29 in theaters, on video on demand and iTunes, was shot in 13 countries, from the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the cotton fields near Lubbock, Texas. It includes interviews with fashion designers, factory workers and owners, cotton farmers, labor activists, academic experts on consumption, sustainability and more, to shine a light on the "perfectly engineered nightmare" that feeds shoppers' insatiable appetites for cheap chic.
"The day I read about the [collapse], I looked down and realized I had never thought about where clothes come from," says Morgan, 28, who lives in Sherman Oaks. "When you grow up looking only at a store window and only thinking about your side of the equation, it leads to a very dangerous set of effects."
He began doing research into the causes of the fast-fashion problem. One of the first people he contacted was Livia Firth, creative director of London-based sustainability brand consultancy Eco-Age and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge (which encourages sustainable dressing on high-profile red carpets to focus attention on the issue), who agreed to be an executive producer, as did British journalist Lucy Siegle, who has written about the environmental effect of the fashion industry.
The film comes on fast and furious with staggering statistics about the rise in consumption: 80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased worldwide each year, which is 400% more than a decade ago. Three out of four of the worst garment factory disasters in history happened in 2012 and 2013. And as the death toll increased, so did the profits. The year after the Rana Plaza disaster was the fast-fashion industry's most profitable yet, and the world's top four fast-fashion brands — Zara, H&M, Fast Retailing (which owns Uniqlo) and Gap — had sales in 2014 of more than $72 billion, compared with $48 billion in 2013.
"Major fast-fashion companies have become investment vehicles," Morgan says. "These businesses have been on a trajectory for more than five years of 15% growth annually, which is incredible. H&M is opening a new store every day this year."
The film does not place blame on any one retailer (Morgan reached out to several but wasn't able to get any to comment), but all the major labels are name checked in footage of runway shows, advertising and Black Friday sales, as well as YouTube shopping haul videos.
Fueling the frenzy are cheaper prices, made possible because clothing production has been outsourced to countries such as Bangladesh, China and Cambodia, where wages are low, working conditions less regulated and factory disasters accepted as the cost of doing business.
The film puts a human face on how the world's 40 million garment workers are feeling the squeeze as developing countries, desperate for economic opportunity the business provides, fail to enforce wage and labor laws, while big fashion brands keep their hands clean.
Morgan zeros in on Shima Akhter, 23, who moved from her local village to the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, at age 12 to work in the factories. Unable to afford child care, she is forced to leave her daughter behind to be raised by relatives. After the Rana Plaza disaster, Akhter was moved to start a union and submit a list of demands to her employer, which led to a violent altercation in which she and other workers were held behind locked doors in the factory and beaten.
"I believe these clothes are produced by our blood," she says, wiping away tears, in one of the film's most poignant moments.
"One of the things I hope gets communicated in the film is that these women, at great risk to their own health and families, are starting to stand up and really fight for and claim basic dignity as human beings," Morgan says. "I hope we can get behind them in their fight."
As a consumer, don't think you are doing your part to offset increased consumption by donating excess clothing to charity. Morgan dispels that myth, showing that while the average American discards 82 pounds of textile waste a year, only about 10% of what's donated gets sold in thrift stores. The rest is dumped into landfills ("the dirty shadow of the fast-fashion industry") or into Third World countries like Haiti, where the castoffs could conceivably end up being worn by the very people who made them.
"I almost wanted to overwhelm the viewer with just how enormous the issue is," Morgan says. Mission accomplished.
As a counterpoint to the fast-fashion offenders are several businesses that subscribe to another way of making clothing, including British fair-trade fashion brand People Tree and California-based Patagonia, which encourages its customers to buy less.
Despite the grave environmental and human effects of fast fashion, which are laid out in great detail, the film suggests we could be on the verge of a turning point.
"What we need now is a greater awareness of what's a stake. It's not just brainstorm time, because there has been pioneering already. To use a business term, now we're ready to scale," Morgan says. "You don't have to love fashion any less. Celebrate the beauty and artistry of clothing and invest in things you really love and will wear and take care of a long time. That in itself is sustainable."