19 June 2015
According to a report in style.com between the Fifth Avenue flagships, ongoing designer collaborations, and what feels like new deliveries of clothes every single week, it’s almost difficult to remember where Americans bought cheap clothes before the fast-fashion revolution. There have been rumblings and reports about the darker, unsustainable side of fast fashion, and designers like Stella McCartney and Suno have long focused on the environmental impacts of production, but nothing has so pointedly captured the gravity and urgency of fashion’s sustainability than the new documentary film The True Cost.
The film draws power from the use of empirical facts and figures. Including the relevant segments of agriculture and manufacturing, 1 in 6 humans on Earth are somehow involved in the global fashion industry. In the mid-1960s, 95 percent of America’s clothes were made domestically; today, 97 percent are made abroad. Eighty million pieces of clothing are sold annually. And an especially disconcerting one: Fashion—a $2.5 trillion sector—is the second most polluting industry on Earth, right behind oil.
Last night, at a private screening at Lincoln Center for the film, executive producer Livia Firth discussed with us what got her to take on the issue: “We are sold this myth that to buy a dress for under $10 is democratic—but it’s democratic for who? We discard faster and faster, and that is how the consumer becomes poorer and poorer. Two of the 10 richest men in the world are the owners of Zara and H&M. I think it says a lot about how they make their money.”
The film is a searing glimpse at factory workers, particularly in Bangladesh and Cambodia. But more than that, it’s a look at the long-term health effects of pesticide use, the political effects of exploiting workers’ rights, and the economic effects of unchecked consumerism. “Even if you look at fast fashion only in terms of business, the business model is finite,” said Firth. “Fast fashion depletes the Earth’s resources and uses slave labor all over the world. Eventually the resources will deplete, the profit margins will shrink, and there will be revolutions in the streets. If you are a smart businessman, you would address those issues today.”
Make no mistake about it: The True Cost is to the fashion industry today what The Jungle was to the American labor movement a century ago. “The film isn’t meant to bum you out or make you feel guilty about what you wear,” director Andrew Morgan told us. “It’s supposed to pose the simple idea: There are human beings who make what we wear.”