Thursday, 28 May 2015

Review: The True Cost - A Revolutionary and Thought-Provoking Documentary

It's not often you watch a film that really makes you stand back and question everything about your life - your place in the world, your values, and your responsibilities as a fellow human being. A film that asks questions no-one else will; that challenges the status quo of established political, economic and social systems; that dares to draw back the curtain on the otherwise hidden side of an enormously powerful global industry. A film that tells a story about "greed and fear, power and poverty", where profit is king and a price can be placed on anything, be that an Indian cotton farmer, a Bangladeshi garment worker or local eco-systems struggling to cope with the effects of man-made change. A film, that at its very core, asks, "What is the true cost of the developed world's constant need for consumption"?

The True Cost covers all this and more, using the medium of the fast fashion industry to explore just how integral our desire to consume really is to the global economy, and unpick the complicated psychology of our relationship with clothing - our own unique form of "personal communication", which is influenced and manipulated on a daily basis by advertisers and companies attempting to convince us to buy their latest products. Fashion is often considered flippant and frivolous, far removed from the 'real problems' facing the modern world, but in reality it is the driving force behind a colossal global business which has the greatest manual labour demands of any industry and produces over 80 billion garments each year. What the film rightly highlights is the urgent need for a great deal of focus, attention and legislation on a world stage, to ensure that all workers involved in the fashion industry are treated fairly, and that customers are made aware of true impact of their purchasing decisions.

"We need to make clothing a household conversation - it needs to be taken as seriously as all other important issues in the world"
Wayne Hemingway, designer, during the post-film Q&A session

The film follows director Andrew Morgan's personal journey as he starts to asks questions about where his clothes come from, and slowly, his eyes (and by extension, ours) are opened to the dark reality of the fashion industry, as we meet all manner of people from underpaid and intimidated garment workers in Bangladesh to Indian cotton farmers heavily indebted to global corporations, to Cambodian workers beaten for protesting working conditions and environmental activists who list the devastating impacts that manufacturing processes are having on the local area and its inhabitants. The film's biggest strength lies in perfectly balancing this complicated journey, by providing the viewer with enough information to create a comprehensive overview and placing it in its economic and political context, regardless of previous knowledge or experience, without overwhelming them with too much detail or losing track of the film's key message.

As with any thought-provoking documentary, the film asks more questions than it answers, even going as far as to argue the case for a new global economic system with the help of eminent economist Richard D. Wolff - one which stops viewing 'labour' and 'resources' as abstract terms and starts placing value both on the contributions of each individual and on the planet's finite wealth. But the film also provides us with examples of other people already doing things a different way - two key industry players being Stella McCartney and Safia Minney of People Tree. These leaders show us that other options are possible, by thinking about designing "from the bottom up" with a focus on the materials used and the workers involved rather than just the product's aesthetic.

"The most exciting thing about my job is thinking, 'How can I change my industry? What can we do differently?'"
Stella McCartney, designer

"It's about being a catalyst for change and and proving that the model works...partnering and creating solutions together"
Safia Minney,  founder and CEO, People Tree

After the preview screening I watched a Q&A session with Lucy Siegle (journalist for the Guardian/Observer), Wayne Hemingway (designer), Susie Bubble (blogger) and Orsola de Castro (designer and founder of Fashion Revolution). Similarly to the film, there were no easy answers to the big questions, with topics as diverse as buying 'intelligently' to re-educating customers on the impact of their purchasing decisions, and how to deal with the difficult dichotomy of making an industry ultimately predicated on constantly producing the new and exciting 'sustainable'. Perhaps a poignant comment from Safia Minney at the end of the film left us with the most food for thought:

"I'm sure we will see a drastic change in another ten years - whether that's in time is a different question."

Find out more about The True Cost to search for a screening near you!

Vogue interview with Livia Firth about the film

Fashionista's take on the film: "This film should be required viewing for anyone interested in the fashion industry — or anyone who wears clothes"

A more critical view by the NY Times

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