A new documentary highlights the exploitation at the heart of the fashion industry. But beyond empty sloganeering, it lacks a prescription for change.
The True Cost opens on the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that claimed 1,129 lives and left 2,500 more injured. We see bloody bodies trapped under the wreckage; wives and mothers screaming for their loved ones amidst the rubble.
It’s one of many devastating scenes in a documentary, which opens Friday, that presents the fashion industry as a destructive, rapacious creation of American capitalism.
“It’s a story about greed and fear, power and poverty,” says filmmaker Andrew Morgan in narrative voiceover. He shows us glamour juxtaposed with labor, models parading the runway in one clip, and rows of factory workers in the next.
Rana Plaza rallied renewed attention around the horrible conditions and low wages in so-called “sweatshops” in Asia, where fast fashion companies like H&M, Forever21, and Zara outsource their clothes.
The True Cost takes us to other factories in Bangladesh, interviewing disgruntled factory owners and workers who are “paying the price for cheap clothes.”
We meet 23-year-old Shima Akhter, one of 40 million garment factory workers in the world (more than 85 percent of whom are women earning $3 a day, Morgan tells us). Akhter is president of a factory union in Dhaka and recalls being attacked by dozens of staffers wielding chairs, sticks, and scissors after she and other union organizers demanded reforms from their managers. “They banged our heads against the wall,” she says. “I believe these clothes are produced by our blood.”
Morgan is appalled by people like Benjamin Powell, Director of the Free Market Institute, and others who “excuse” low wages and unsafe working conditions.
Of the dozens of people he interviews, only two offer dissenting opinions about garment factories. One is Powell, who explains that factory jobs in poor countries are “part of the very process that raises living standards and leads to higher wages and better working conditions over time.”
We see him on Fox Business Channel’s The Independents, where he underscores that factories are “places that people choose to work, admittedly from a bad set of other options. The alternatives are usually much worse than the factory job.”
Powell is meant to come across as a right-wing darling of Fox News, but his opinions on garment factories are shared by liberals like Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed writer for the New York Times who covers human rights issues.
Kristof has pointed out that big name companies “tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia.”
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