Every few years we get such a film; the kind that really makes you stop, think and (hopefully) act. Super Size Me (2004) exposed some uncomfortable facts about the fast food industry while Food, Inc (2008) widened the lens to look at the food industry as a whole. Now we have True Cost – a documentary about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world – which opens today in cinemas around the world.
British journalist Lucy Siegle and sustainability ambassador Livia Firth are two of the high profile executive producers behind the film, which is directed by Andrew Morgan. Through a series of interviews with fashion industry representatives, factory owners, farmers, workers and more we are shown the scale of the world’s garment industry and processes, and the affect this can and does have on humans and the environment.
There are some challenging truths here, which deserve all the film and media coverage they can get. We revisit the horror of the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013, and meet a survivor who still carries the emotional and physical scars of this large-scale industrial accident. We meet another young Bangladeshi garment worker who is a trade union representative, yet has suffered physical violence at the hands of her own colleagues, for taking on this role. We’re taken to agricultural India, to meet families that are suffering from exposure to pesticides used to grow cotton or toxic chemicals used to produce leather. These stories are moving and harrowingly real; your heart cannot help but go out to these people that have sacrificed so much, just to make a living.
These stories illustrate the film’s wider point – that the global fashion industry has changed unrecognisably in the past few decades. Gone are the traditional launches of seasonal collections; we now have new styles hitting stores 52 weeks a year. Western consumers are buying clothes at lower prices and in greater quantities than ever before. Garment manufacturing does not take place close to market, but rather in countries where labour is cheaper and regulations are not as stringent, or at least where they may not be properly enforced. True Cost makes the powerful case that the current system is unacceptable, unsustainable and needs to be radically changed.
This is not the first documentary to critique the garment sector, nor will it be the last. The sector grapples with a number of labour rights issues, for instance company purchasing practices can put immense pressure on clothing suppliers, and as a result, workers feel the strain. There has been an over-reliance on social audits as a means of understanding working conditions, yet we all know that audits will only ever tell part of the story. Where companies have made concerted efforts to improve working conditions, these projects have often been at factory-level only and had little to no impact on the sector as a whole.
This does not mean that no change is taking place, yet True Cost only tells part of this story. We get to hear about the work of celebrated ethical trade fashion label People Tree, through a series of interviews with CEO and founder Safia Minney. But what doesn’t get screen time is the fact that there is a growing number of global clothing brands and retailers that are out in front of the pack, not only acknowledging their responsibilities within the supply chain, but actively doing something about it. These companies may be acting alone, but more often than not they are members of organisations with a socially-responsible business focus and international codes of a labour conduct, such as the Fair Labour Association or the Fairwear Foundation. The Ethical Trading Initiative alone has more than 80 company members, including many well-known global clothing brands and retailers.
Our company members were amongst the first to sign the Bangladesh Accord and Bangladesh Alliance; international agreements established to drive safety improvements in Bangladesh’s garments sector following the Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen Fashions fire. Two years on, the ensuing programme of factory inspections has led to Bangladesh’s garment factories becoming safer places to work. Things took a turn for the worse in Cambodia in January last year, when police and protesting garment workers clashed and at least four workers were killed, many more injured and 23 arrested. A group of 30 global brands and trade unions joined forces under ETI’s auspices, to raise concerns with the Cambodian government. This list included recognisable names such as H&M, Gap, Inditex and Primark (all ETI members). This engagement with government helped pave the way for two important outcomes – suspended sentences for the 23 detained Cambodian garment workers and a 28% raise in the monthly minimum wage.
Do we need more examples like this? Absolutely, these signal a turning point and not an end. But these stories demonstrate what is possible when companies, trade unions, NGOs and governments come together to collectively tackle issues at a sector-wide level. They highlight the positive role that business can play in emerging economies, when resources and buying power are leveraged to their full potential. Films like True Cost can be integral to raising awareness about workers’ rights issues, generating debate and discussion and ultimately, catalysing action. It’s also important that this debate and action is informed by the stories of changes that are taking place. We’ll certainly play our part in sharing them.