Movie Review: The True Cost

As much as I love clothing and fashion, there is a lot about the industry that bothers me. I recently watched the documentary “The True Cost,” which takes a close look at the environmental costs and the human cost of the way fast-fashion is produced. Although the images in the film were unsettling and designed to shock, I didn’t walk away from it learning something that I hadn’t learned before. Instead, I walked away from it feeling pretty hopeless in the face of an industry that demonstrates the worst excesses of capitalism.

Aside from major systemic change, there’s a feeling that you can’t do much to correct the situation. There’s always the belief that you can “vote with your dollars,” and avoiding shopping at places such as Old Navy, H&M, and other fast fashion retailers. But, how much good does it do not to shop there? Does it do any more good than give you a bit of self-righteous happiness or the feeling that you can excuse yourself from the problem? You might not shop at those stores, but most likely plenty of people will, because of budget constraints or any number of other reasons.

I already avoid the standard “fast fashion” places, because their clothing is just too poorly made.  I get really upset when I buy something, even something really cheap, and it falls apart after a wear or two. But, I have to recognize that some of my favorite places to shop aren’t exactly guilt-free when it comes to the issue of over-production. Stores and brands that weren’t “fast fashion” before are adopting the methods of those retailers, feeling an increased need to produce more and more lines each year. Capitalism is about growth and for things to keep growing, more and more needs to be produced each year, even though the planet and the people living on it don’t benefit from the increased production.

As to the movie itself, it’s shot in that kind of familiar, liberal viewpoint documentary style. There is footage of the Rana Plaza tragedy and interviews with people who work in factories or who grow cotton on farms. There are shots and stories of people who have been mutilated, made ill, or otherwise permanently injured due to their work in the industry.

We hear from people whose point of view we’re clearly supposed to be appalled by (a man from a free trade organization who argues that working in a sweatshop for pennies a day really is the best option for some people), as well as from people who are doing something against the grain (the designer Stella McCartney and the founder and CEO of a sustainable fashion company called People Tree). The Marxist economist Richard Wolff appears to argue against capitalism and the focus on continuous growth.

“The True Cost” recognizes that the issue of cheap and fast fashion is a complicated one and one that will take some doing to extricate ourselves from. Although it’s common for a lot of documentaries to offer “solutions” or a call to action at the end, usually in the form of quick bullet points, this one doesn’t do that. The director, Andrew Morgan, noted in an interview that there aren’t really any easy or simple solutions to the issue.

I think what it boils down to is this: Until there’s a major shift or systemic change in the way people approach the production of clothing, the purchase price of clothing and how much clothing they ultimately need, there won’t be a major change in the fashion or clothing industry.

That doesn’t mean that I or you can’t do what we can to encourage change. It’s not so pat as “don’t shop at H&M (or where ever),” but it can be something along the lines of “buy less stuff.” You can’t have continuous, unrelenting growth if people are like, “no thanks, I’m good with what I have.”

It’s figuring out how to be good with what you have that’s the tricky part.

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