Dressed to kill

Andrew Morgan on The True Cost of the global fashion industry.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The True Cost director Andrew Morgan with producer Michael Ross engaging Danish Fashion Institute's Jonas Eder-Hansen
The True Cost director Andrew Morgan with producer Michael Ross engaging Danish Fashion Institute's Jonas Eder-Hansen Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

When I brought up Livia Firth's (aka Livia Giuggioli) Eco-Age Green Carpet Challenge last month to Fresh Dressed director Sacha Jenkins, this was his response: "I mean, when you talk inner city, green is the furthest thing. Because you are dealing with people who live in food deserts." Whereas Laurie David exposes the fast food industry in Fed Up, Andrew Morgan's global investigations into fast fashion in The True Cost have all the makings of a mini-series.

At an event hosted by Georgina Chapman, Harvey Weinstein, William Ivey Long, Cindy Sherman and Stella McCartney, attended by Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Yigal Azrouel, Giovanna Battaglia, Keren Craig, Stephanie LaCava, Anne Hathaway with Adam Shulman, Tonne Goodman, Timo Weiland, Laura Piety, Steven Kolb and Derek Blasberg, I spoke to Andrew at Lincoln Center about some of the issues that should concern all of us.

Organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper in Lubock, Texas speaks on GMOs
Organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper in Lubock, Texas speaks on GMOs

Andrew looks into the disastrous effects caused by the way clothes have changed their function in the last two decades. Greed, fear, power and poverty control the world's second largest polluting industry after oil. His documentary unveils a staggering amount of wrongs - cheap labour, violations of basic human rights, massive pollution that go hand-in-hand with that cheap item the consumer at a fast fashion chain store buys.

Mark Crispin Miller, NYU professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, explains that there are two kinds of consumption - the things you use and the things you use up. The shift and the disconnect that has happened is clear. Teenage bloggers, happily holding up the day's cheap "cute" purchase are shown. The textile waste sitting in landfills and the "up-cycling" of clothes that thrift stores can't sell are addressed. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, tons of used clothing are dumped on the Pepe Market with the result that the local clothing industry is disappearing.

Eco-Age founder and executive producer Livia Firth interviewed by Andrew in London
Eco-Age founder and executive producer Livia Firth interviewed by Andrew in London

The 2013 Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than a thousand people lost their lives and over 2,500 were injured, many severely and permanently disabled, was Morgan's starting point to investigate the deceptively simple question - where do our clothes come from?

The collapse of an 8-story building with trapped garment workers inside in the teens of the 21st century might remind you of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan in 1911, to this day the deadliest industrial disaster in the city's history. In both cases, a century apart, the victims were mostly women, working under horrendous conditions. Over 85% of the circa 40 million garment factory workers today are women, the documentary states.

In Texas, Andrew met with organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper to talk about pesticide spraying and the fact that most people worry about GMOs in the context of food, milk or apples, not the cotton that their clothing is made from.

In Delhi, India, we hear about a new gene being added to cotton, monopolies, and the resulting debt for farmers. In Punjab, the largest user of pesticides, Morgan finds an increase in birth defects, cancer and mental illness. Mothers are waiting for their children to die. At times, the same companies are selling the medication. A river in Northern India is so polluted by the waste from the tanneries producing cheap leather shoes that look like plastic, that the groundwater is contaminated with chromium.

Andrew Morgan with Michael Ross while in production in India
Andrew Morgan with Michael Ross while in production in India

Anne-Katrin Titze: You pack a lot into one film to show how everything is interconnected. Did it grow to this extent? Did you start out focusing on one problem alone?

Andrew Morgan: When I first came into it, Rana Plaza [the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013] was always in the headlines. This is what made me curious about this whole industry. What I decided right away was, if we decided to make a film just about Bangladesh, just a film about Rana Plaza, it would limit it. It would be a Bangladesh problem, or a China problem. We needed to do something that connected the dots.

There's a lot that has been done in certain areas. But there has never been for a viewer who had never thought about these things, something that put it all together, saying, here is an introduction. This is an intro. What we need now is for other films to go deeper. Because when we cut it, each element could have been its own film. We shot that much and there was that much there.

Shoe production in Kanpur, India: "Wait a minute, what kind of waste does that generate?"
Shoe production in Kanpur, India: "Wait a minute, what kind of waste does that generate?"

AKT: You could still do that, no? Go into depth with each concern?

AM: We're wrestling with that. We're also interested in doing some more solution focused stuff. It took a lot of the film just to articulate the size and severity of the issue. We really wanted to thrust this onto the world stage, saying, hey, this is an issue that has never been treated seriously.

AKT: You have a statement in your film that we now consume 500% more clothes than 20 years ago. It's staggering.

AM: Yes, in the last two decades.

AKT: By "we" you mean in the US or worldwide?

AM: Worldwide. It's stunning. Because I didn't come from a fashion background and didn't know the industry, the whole story for me was filled with…. It was like stats I had to check three or four times. The shift really happened so fast. Rapid expansion, rapid growth, rapid behavioral change, how we shop, how we consume. It was a natural set of questions. Wait a minute, what kind of waste does that generate? Wait a minute, what kind of resources are we using? How is human labour surviving?

Waste water in Kanpur, India: "We really wanted to thrust this onto the world stage."
Waste water in Kanpur, India: "We really wanted to thrust this onto the world stage."

AKT: When people buy some cheap item, wear it once, throw it out, where does it go? Does that blouse end up in one of those floating islands of garbage in the ocean?

AM: Honestly, I kind of thought too that it all just bio-degraded. I thought these were all natural fibers. To learn how much of the clothing is synthetic now. These plastics, they really sit in landfills for two hundred years or more. They really don't decompose naturally. In country after country we felt that these landfills were literally as far as the eye can see filled with clothing, with textile waste.

AKT: I am wearing this bracelet I got from Connect4Climate. They have a branch called Fashion4Climate as well. Did you connect with them?

AM: I talked with them. We had a conversation about some screenings and stuff like that. They're really neat.

AKT: People have to start to realise that their individual daily private behavior has an impact on the world around them - positive or negative.

People Tree founder and CEO Safia Minney is featured in support of The True Cost
People Tree founder and CEO Safia Minney is featured in support of The True Cost

AM: I think that's what's so exciting about this of all things. To me, sometimes things like climate change or these big issues you can get overwhelmed by. We're growing in awareness but there is still the question of what can I do? When you connect it to something like clothing, we actually make choices, small choices. How much do I buy? What do I do with it? That I hope is empowering. I hope the film for people is a way to say: these big things that I care about? Some of my small choices actually impact those.

AKT: You have a great clip in the film where Stephen Colbert sums it all up. How exactly did he phrase it?

AM: "We're spending money, we don't have, to buy things, we don't need, to give to people, we don't like." That's the quote.

AKT: And those they don't like, often includes themselves. Someone describes in your film fast fashion as a way to feel less miserable. People who can't afford basic necessities can still get the quick fix.

Sound mixer Michael Flowe on location in Bangladesh
Sound mixer Michael Flowe on location in Bangladesh

AM: There's the psychological element in the film that we go into. A sense of wanting to feel beautiful, wanting to feel rich. Wanting to fill some hole inside of me with stuff. That really has led people to a very unhappy place. All of this would be one thing, if we were destroying the planet and harming people, but we were actually ending up happier? We're not! To your point, we're not ending up happier. All the studies of mental wellness and depression - that's where you go, we have to re-think this. We've been sold a story that just maybe isn't true.

AKT: People in the fashion industry, I suppose, were hesitant to talk with you. Stella McCartney, who is one of the big names, is on board. Others didn't want to go there?

AM: Yes, Stella is on board. People Tree is featured. Patagonia is featured. But by and large, the big retailers, big brands, certainly fast fashion shops, they just said no. It was sad to me. I honestly didn't want to trick them. We had meetings, we went to great lengths to involve them in the story and they just didn't want to do it.

AKT: By the omission, by the fact that they weren't in the film, you get a sense of the double standard. Are you hopeful things will change?

Port-au-Prince Pepe Market
Port-au-Prince Pepe Market

AM: Yes. I think business can really drive change here. But business is going to be slow, so lets go around business to the people who support business and that's me and you and everyone that buys clothes. If we can make this a conversation that in one or two years time more people are aware of it, thinking about it, that's a tremendous step forward. That will put an incentive in these companies to actually begin to operate differently.

AKT: As Livia says, don't buy anything you won't wear at least 30 times.

AM: It's returning to what fashion actually meant to begin with. It's getting off the treadmill of bringing cheap disposable stuff into your life. Slow down and actually invest in the things that you love. And then you'll ask the next questions. Who made this? Where did it come from?

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