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Laura Blum

Laura is a festival correspondent covering films and the festival circuit for She also publishes on Thalo



Director Andrew Morgan Shows "The True Cost" of Fashion

So, what are you wearing? For anyone who has ever flirted using this line, the new documentary The True Cost  will explain how to get a really hot conversation going. As we see, the question aroused global citizens are asking is, Baby, what did it take to make what you're wearing?

Directed by Andrew Morgan (After the End, Here for Now), the film pulls the panties off the fashion industry, exposing its disastrous human and environment impact around the world. Unsurprisingly, the picture is especially bleak in the developing countries where mega brands such as H&M, The Gap and Geox are outsourcing their production. While the price tag for our trendy threads has markedly dipped in recent years, the toll they're taking on the planet and its inhabitants has risen prohibitively.

The True Cost gives new meaning to "fashion-forward." A pair of giddy ingenues pumping their latest, cutest acquisitions on YouTube suggest the consumer demand that drives the fashion ecosystem. In today's accelerated style cycle, materialist societies like America purchase and dispose of clothing with an abandon once reserved for paper towels. Just as Fast Food Nation investigated the dark underbelly of our fast food industry, The True Cost reveals the ugly shape of fast fashion.

Along the way it drops some pretty staggering stats. For example, in the past two decades, clothing consumption has increased by 400 percent. And how's this for a beaut? In the 1960's, the United States manufactured more than 90 percent of our wearables, but now that number has plummeted to 3 percent. Chalk it up to corporate greed. Companies operate wherever labor is cheapest and least protected by governments, who are in competition with other nations to attract business. "There has been this race to the bottom effect, where countries are played off of countries," Morgan remarked at a recent press screening in Manhattan. In the event, a garment worker in the developing world averages a daily wage of less than $3.

For Morgan, it all started with a newspaper image. As he told the assembled journalists, he was getting coffee on the morning of April 25, 2013 -- the day after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 garment workers -- when he saw a New York Times photograph of two boys walking by a wall of missing-persons signs. "The two boys were similar in age to my two boys at home, and whatever it was, it just grabbed my heart," Morgan recalled. Reading the article, he was both mystified that the underlying issues were unfamiliar and shaken that he had never before questioned the backstory to his clothes. By the end of the week, after immersively researching the global fashion industry, Morgan and his producer, Michael Ross, had slated The True Cost as their next project. 

Production took them to Bangladesh, India Haiti and Cambodia -- and Texas -- among other outposts in this $2.5 trillion sector. What they found wasn't pretty. In Dhaka, garment factory worker Shima Akhter talks about having formed a union only to find her and her co-workers savagely assaulted by their employers. The young mother, who herself left home for the factory town at age 12, gives us a glimpse of the sort of desperate conditions under which our shiny labels are conceived. These include unthinkably long hours in a sweat shop that is too toxic for her daughter to hazard for more than a brief semi-annual visit from the rural village where another family is raising her. Shima no doubt speaks for the world's 40 million garment workers, the vast majority of whom are women, when she tearfully rues the system of "clothing made by our blood."

Another 30 or so interviewees help Morgan elucidate The True Cost. Some, like Eco-Age creative director Livia Firth, fashion designer Stella McCartney and Safia Minney, founding CEO of sustainable and Fair Trade fashion label People Tree, give faint glimmers of hope for the most labor-dependent and second-most polluting industry on earth. They have their work cut out for them. What will it take to move from an economy based on the dictates of capital to one favoring the needs of the natural world? Can change come before it's too late? The scope of the challenges are given sharp expression by such mavens as Indian environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, economist Dr. Richard Wolff and, on the "ecological narcotics" of genetically modified cotton that have led to 2,500 farmer suicides in India, Jagdisan Tiruvadi, former managing director of agriculture at Monsanto India.

What does all this mean for your inner fashionista? Morgan isn't saying you can't get that slinky Zara top or those Guess jeans you had your eye on. "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 onto," he advised. "Let's take clothing back out of just being like a hobby or a pastime and let's make it be something that we're mindful of."

Nice start. But how to truly motivate fashion brands -- which have "far more power than the host governments" -- and their customers to relinquish their current addictions? For anyone who wears clothes, The True Cost raises tough questions about how we got into this mess and how we might find a way out. And with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bill hovering, it's not a moment too soon.



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