When a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed at Rana Plaza in 2013 killing over a 1,000 workers, trapping many alive, filmmaker Andrew Morgan realized he didn’t know how his clothes were made. He quickly discovered he wasn’t alone, and few Americans knew who were making their clothes, what conditions they were working in, and how much they were getting paid. So, Morgan, a father of four living in Los Angeles, set out to investigate.
The result is The True Cost, an eye-opening documentary now available on Netflix that explores the human and environmental toll of readily-available, inexpensive clothes, known commonly as “fast fashion” (think Food Inc. for clothes). The subject of low-wage garment workers toiling in suboptimal conditions isn’t new — Nike and Gap were busted for using child labor in the 1990s. But as committed locavores consider the provenance of everything from beef to ketchup, more attention is being paid to who makes our clothes, and the subject continues to draw media attention.
Earlier this year, comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver tackled the subject on his show in a nearly twenty minute segment. In it, he argues we secretly know the man, woman, or child making our khakis isn’t being treated particularly well. Yet we choose to do little. The strength of The True Cost is it puts a face on those facts. We meet a single mother in Bangladesh who says she tried to organize a labor union, and was beaten by her employers. We hear from factory owners who explain why they have to be tough on their workers. And we see children playing near landfills of abandoned clothes.
The film stops short of casting blame on specific companies. Instead, it’s critical of the shadowy behemoth of “fast fashion,” which is usually thought to include H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. The film suggests the western world’s voracious appetite for stuff is at fault. In the meantime, the Morgan argues men and women should think of quality over quantity.
“We should invest in things that we love, that we’re going to wear for a long time,” Morgan told The Cut recently. “What I want people to get off of is that endless treadmill of bringing cheap, disposable stuff into their lives.”
While chefs around the world have championed the “Eat Local” movement, big box fashion retailers have been slower to embrace the trend of small-scale production. But Morgan says that’s changing, and points concerned consumers towards companies like Everlane, which prides itself on transparent production practices. He also buys a lot of stuff second hand.
“I don’t make a lot of money, so for me it was about getting creative,” Morgan added. “You’d be amazed how buying less disposable cheap stuff that’s going to fall apart that season, and just rethinking that money alone helped.”