The High Toll of Fast Fashion

The High Toll of Fast Fashion

The True Cost vividly documents the labor and environmental cost of our cheap clothes. The challenge it poses is direct: how can we stop this? But a deeper question remains: which “we”?

A garment worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 2013 ( NYU Stern BHR / Flickr)

The True Cost
BullFrog Films, 2015, 92 minutes

If your clothes’ budget has been cut down and you buy bargain dresses, it is only fair you should know who pays part of your bill—the women who made the dress. . . . The red silk bargain dress in the shop window is a danger signal. It is a warning of the return of the sweatshop, a challenge to us all to reinforce the gains we have made in our long and difficult progress toward a civilized industrial order. —Frances Perkins, 1933

Americans spend a smaller proportion of their (largely stagnant) incomes on clothing than they did a generation ago. Garments, now almost all imported, are ever cheaper. The first American impacts of the globalization of the clothing commodity chain were experienced by U.S. garment workers in the 1970s—when sweatshop conditions reappeared after a generation of relative decency in the industry. From the 1980s through to the new century hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers toiled in the “new sweatshops” at subminimum wages. Now, even these jobs have fled to Asian sweatshops.

The “true cost” of our clothes is neatly distilled in a new documentary of the same name by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed at least 1138 garment workers, amounting to the largest-ever loss of life in a manufacturing disaster. As the Bangladeshi leader of a worker education group said about those deaths in a symposium I attended: “It wasn’t a tragedy, it was a killing.”

The makers of The True Cost have given themselves a very broad brief, and they mostly deliver. Near the beginning of the film, one of the executive producers, journalist Lucy Siegle, says she has been obsessed with the environmental and social cost of fashion. The beautifully shot and well-edited film keeps a fairly close focus on South Asia and it features a lineup of left icons and politically engaged fashionistas—many of whom are involved in the film’s production team—to deliver the indictments. Eco-fashion activist Livia Firth, animal-rights fashion designer Stella McCartney (who is also the daughter of Paul), environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and radical economist Richard Wolff are all on board to bemoan consumerism, excoriate toxic chemical intensity in cotton production, and project the possibility of a different social order than cutthroat capitalism.

The film accomplishes its cost accounting with a combination of eyewitness testimony, expert commentary, and visual evidence. Vandana Shiva explains the heavy pesticide use necessitated by GMO cotton seeds; an Indian doctor narrates the symptoms he encounters in his village practice; images of kids with twisted limbs flash across the screen. The message is clear enough.

The film attributes worker abuse to “fast fashion,” following much of the current commentary on the fashion industry. “Fast fashion” refers to rapid reorders and new orders that retailers now exert as they discern sales trends in real time. Enabled by instant computer reports breaking down sales by style, color, size, etc., firms are able to respond quickly to the consumer trends they perceive and to order production just as quickly. This, many critics argue, results in highly compressed production schedules and increased pressures on workers down the line in South Asia and elsewhere.

The problem with this analysis is that the “new sweatshops”—both in the United States in the 1980s and abroad for the last generation—is that they precede “fast fashion.” There are many blocks adding to the weight that crushes garment workers. But the biggest and hardest to budge has always been factory owners who squeeze that last bit of sweat from their workers.

Still, The True Cost gets the story essentially right. Factory owners pass the pressure from the buyers (brands, retailers) on to the sewing-machine operators and cutters and pressers, demanding ever more pieces per hour, ever more hours when contract deadlines approach, ever more days when the buyers’ needs press upon them. The True Cost is a powerful documentary that will force conscientious viewers to wonder why workers are chewed up and the environment is poisoned all in the name of cheap clothes. It’s a documentary that can be put to good use in schools and associations and churches and synagogues.

Yet one critical ingredient is, for the most part, missing. After a brief moment early in the film, when a Bangladeshi woman reports that she and her comrades were beaten when their nascent union raised issues in their factory, workers as agents mostly disappear. The active doers in this film—those with agency, in current academic jargon—are ethical entrepreneurs and, implicitly, consumers. The makers of True Cost present a narrative that appeals to an ethical consumer to choose the niche producers they feature or, in general, to press retailers to Do The Right Thing. This approach has had some success. In the United Kingdom and in the European Union more broadly there is an important fraction of consumers who prefer “clean clothes”—when they can discern them. (The American fraction of ethical consumers is smaller and its preferences more ambiguous.)

The problem for the ethical consumer (or the proxy certifying agency) is to discern, in the thicket of brands, contractors, and subcontractors making up the fashion supply chain, who is screwing whom. The most usual positive signal is a firm that avers through its “Code of Conduct” that its “partners” (read contractor factories) are bound by its pious declarations to respect workers’ rights and who impose health and safety requirements on its supplier factories.

This sounds promising on the face of it. But all of the major catastrophes in Bangladesh (including the 112 deaths in the Tazreen fire of November 2012 and the 1138 in the Rana Plaza collapse) were in factories “certified” by an agency hired by a brand to do a social compliance audit.

Thankfully, the international labor movement has arrived at a different solution to the problem of worker safety and exploitation. At its heart is worker agency. After the April 24, 2013 tragedy at Rana Plaza, a European-led coalition of unions and allied NGOs worked with Bangladeshi labor groups to create a worker safety initiative focused on empowering workers themselves. Adopted largely by European firms (led by H&M) but also by several major U.S. brands, the The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh may be a template for worker safety and empowerment elsewhere.

The accord, first signed in May 2013, “is a legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry.” Governed by a board which includes both brands and union and NGO participants, the Accord requires its corporate signers to publish the results of factory safety audits; to agree to create worker safety committees in each of its contractor factories; and to acknowledge a worker’s right to refuse to enter an unsafe workplace. The missing piece in Bangladesh (and Cambodia, and elsewhere where the rag trade flourishes) is a government that is willing and able to enforce labor-standard laws. The accord addresses this problem by creating a kind of shadow labor ministry to back up inadequate enforcement of local law.

The benefits of the transparency the Accord requires have already begun to materialize. Seeking to hold H&M to the standards of leadership it has professed on Bangladesh worker safety and wage issues, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF)—a prominent U.S. labor rights campaigner—has used the Accord’s online records to press the retailer to promptly correct the safety defects in its own contractors’ factories.

The True Cost is a vivid documentation of the labor and environmental cost of our pursuit of cheap clothes. The challenge it poses is direct: how can we stop this? But a deeper question remains: which “we”?

As atomized retail consumers, we have few choices. They do not amount to an “adult” (that is, beyond t-shirt) wardrobe. As community or group members there are other choices; for example, wholesale t-shirt and logo ethical suppliers like ethixmerch. And as collective consumers our towns and cities and states who buy uniforms can join the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.* More: as citizens we can voice our demand that trade pacts (such as the TPP) more nearly honor workers’ rights.

Allies (consumers), laws, and unions: these are the three pillars that support decent lives for workers. The True Cost reveals what our sisters and brothers endure without these supports. Global capitalism is the architecture that poses the challenge of our era. The keystone that will complete an arc that bends toward justice is workers’ voice and power.

Robert J.S. Ross is a Research Professor of Sociology at Clark University’s Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise and the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.

*Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Directors of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.