If you've ever bought a top at H&M for $9.95 or swung by Forever21 for a $3.90 pair of leggings, there's a decent chance that the question of how fast fashion companies keep their prices so low has crossed your mind. You probably even know the answer: That somewhere down the supply chain, the clothing is getting produced for pennies by workers being paid even less. But it can be hard to think about this dynamic in a way that's anything but abstract, and concern is fleeting when a new pair of workout pants costs only a few cents more than an order of chips and guac from Chipotle.
However, a new documentary called "The True Cost" makes the ramifications of fast fashion very clear and very concrete.
In order to keep their costs as low as possible and therefore maximize profits, many mass brands force factories in countries like Bangladesh and India to compete against each other on pricing. Because the manufacturers want the business so badly, they play ball, agreeing to lower and lower rates for their work. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the people who lose out most are the factory workers, 85 percent of whom are women. One such woman interviewed in the film says that when she and a number of other workers attempted to form a union to demand higher wages, they were locked in a room and beaten.
"It's not only price pressure," says one factory owner of big brands' attitudes toward manufacturers abroad. "It's ignoring other people's lives."
It's painful to watch, made more so by the very few brand executives that allowed themselves to be interviewed for the film. Kate Ball-Young, who works in product development at Joe Fresh, tries to argue that there's "nothing inherently dangerous" about sewing clothing. And then you see footage from the Rana Plaza factory collapse.
Director Andrew Morgan traveled everywhere from India to Texas, speaking with cotton farmers, factory workers, company execs, fair trade brands, economists and environmental activists. When it comes to that last issue — the environment — the film's strength lies in showing that abusing the planet hurts its human inhabitants, too, and not just in the long term. An cotton farmer in Texas named LaRhea Pepper became an advocate for organic practices after her husband died from a type of brain tumor common among conventional cotton farmers. In the Punjab region of India, the use of pesticides in cotton farming has lead to a spike in cancer rates and birth defects in the children of farmers.
The thing about "The True Cost" is that Morgan isn't trying to tell us not to buy clothing. He's saying that we shouldn't enable the cycle of mass production, consumption and disposal on which companies like Topshop and H&M are built.
"I don't want anyone to walk away from this film and think less of fashion," Morgan explained at a screening of the film last week. "I don't want to feel guilty if I love the things that I love to wear. What I'm trying to get through is: let's all take a step back from this incessant process of consuming mediocre stuff. And let's go back to a place where we invest in pieces of clothing that we love, that we're going to wear, that we're going to hold on to."
Brands would clearly be well served to take initiative here, but when they're beholden to shareholders demanding to see growth in sales and profits quarter after quarter, the ethical choice isn't the easiest one. Change, as Stella McCartney points out in the film, might have to be led by consumers.
"The consumers have to know that they're in charge," she says. "If you don't like it, you don't have to buy into it."
"The True Cost" is out Friday in select cities and for weeklong engagements in New York and Los Angeles. Check out the trailer below.