Documentary exposes hidden side of fashion industry

Vassar’s Office of Sustainability, along with the student-run fashion magazine Contrast, sponsored a screening of “The True Cost,” which exposes conditions behind the “fast fashion” phenomenon. Courtesy of Bullfrog Films via Alistair Hall

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, the Office of Sustainability and Contrast Fashion Magazine co-sponsored a film screening and clothing swap. The film, screened in Taylor Hall 203, was “The True Cost.” In spite of a meager audience and the fact that the clothing swap did not occur, the film was highly informational and is definitely one to be watched by all consumers of clothing.

“The True Cost” is a 2015 documentary directed by Andrew Morgan. The film focuses on the fast fashion industry and the ethical concerns raised by the unfair labor system that exploits people all over the world while also harming our environment. In the film, it is stated that in the 1960s, the American fashion industry produced 95 percent of the clothes its people wore, while now only three percent are produced in the United States, with the rest produced in developing countries.

Many of today’s clothes are produced in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Cambodia and China. The reason for this discrepancy is that major brand manufacturers are able to minimize costs and maximize profits by forcing companies in those countries to compete against each other. The international brands pressure the factory owners by threatening to close the factory and move production to another country if the clothes are not cheap enough. As a reaction to this, the factory owners pressure their workers to produce as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Sustainability Director Alistair Hall explained why this film was chosen to be screened. As he stated, “We wanted to tell a sustainability story that centered on the human and social impacts of business as usual, rather than the traditional environmental issues. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 killed more than one thousand people. This tragedy was and is connected to our ever-increasing collective demand for new, trendy and inexpensive clothing.”

Though the garment manufacturing industry is estimated to be worth three trillion dollars by Morgan, the film emphasizes that the working conditions in the countries that fuel the industry are poor. In addition to poor working conditions and low salaries, garment industry workers have a difficult time demanding their rights. For example, the movie provided evidence that in the event of worker protests and the demand for better working conditions and wages, Bangladeshi workers in Dhaka are beaten by their employers while Cambodian workers are shot by police. In Dhaka, workers must work in hot and chemical-ridden environments and structurally unsound buildings. The film shows the events of the 2013 Savar building collapse, when an eight-story commercial building named Rana Plaza collapsed.

I asked Lucas Kautz ’17 about his thoughts on the film. He replied, “In my opinion, ‘The True Cost’ successfully addressed the vast collection of problems we are facing due to today’s growing fashion industry. It did so through its comparison of multiple sides related to over-consumption.”

The film also highlights the negative impacts of the fashion industry on the environment. It interviews activists and workers in India and Texas about the rise in the use of genetically modified cotton and the negative repercussions this entails for the environment, especially many innocent lives forced to labor and live with harmful chemicals. Perhaps the most shocking piece of information from the film was that it stated that the garment industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. This is not being ameliorated by the fact that there has been a 500 percent increase worldwide in clothing consumption compared to rates from the 1990s. Despite this, clothes are quickly disposed of. For example, an average American wastes 82 pounds of textiles a year! And though the thought of thrift shops may be nice, only 10 percent of donated clothes actually go to thrift shops—the rest go to landfills. In addition to the weakening of local industries by this constant disposal of clothes, land and water are polluted since most clothing is made from non-biodegradable materials.

After watching the film, the concept of personal style came to my mind. Many lovers of fashion express their personal style by often buying new clothes. Kerry Ann Millin ’19 shared her thoughts with me regarding style and consumption. She said, “I don’t see that it is truly detrimental to one’s style to be less consumptive … There is no reason to have the high levels of waste that we have in order to be fashion forward. Buying second-hand, having hand-made clothing, specifically for you or having smaller wardrobes can all contribute to stylish, environmentally friendly fashion.”

Regarding in what ways Vassar students can do more to spread awareness of the “True Cost” of the fashion industry, Hall remarked, “The holiday season is the height of consumption and consumerism in the U.S., through buying local and second-hand or by giving experiences rather than things we can support brands and organizations that match our values. After the film screening a small clothing swap was organized in coordination with the Vassar Greens Free Store and with the student campaign mobilizing support for the #NoDAPL water protectors. Each year our SWAPR program diverts and donates more than 5,000 pounds of clothing at the end of the year. More clothing swaps could be organized on campus to reduce this amount.”

Overall, the screening of “The True Cost” showcased an important and pervasive—though often overlooked—issue facing modern clothing consumerism.

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