By Isaac Wurmann
A man in India walked into the middle of his cotton field, drank a bottle of fertilizer, and died. He is one of 250,000 Indian farmers who have commit suicide in the past decade, and his horrifying story is one told in The True Cost, a new documentary about the consequences of the global fashion industry.
The film alleges these farmers kill themselves due to the stress of debts owed to corporations like Monsanto. To keep up with competition, many Indian farmers are forced to buy seeds and fertilizers from these companies, which can cost twice as much as alternatives. The cotton they grow is one of the most common products used to make the clothes we wear.
Director Andrew Morgan was compelled to create The True Cost after the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh where 1,129 people were killed and thousands of others were wounded. It remains the deadliest garment factory disaster in history.
“For too long now, conversation around this topic has suffered from over-simplified blame games,” Morgan wrote in a statement on the film’s website. From growing cancer rates in rural Texas to political violence in Cambodia, the film documents some of the more complicated and distressing symptoms of the fashion industry.
Today, one in six people work in the garment industry, and three quarters of the deadliest sweatshop disasters have occurred in the past five years. This corresponds with the increasing consumption of clothing in America, which has grown by 400% in the past 20 years.
This dramatic spike in clothing purchases, and the culture within which it is entrenched, has a name: fast fashion. And garment workers overseas aren’t the only ones affected by this growing phenomenon.
By providing consumers with cheaper products, the fast fashion industry allows people to feel wealthier. But in reality, the middle class is becoming poorer because they are buying more, according to researchers quoted in the film.
Bangladeshi garment worker Shima Ahkter, who was interviewed for the film, knows first hand the dangers facing sweatshop workers in this competitive industry. “These clothes are made from our blood,” she said after being beaten for organizing a union in her workplace.
The True Cost had its Canadian premiere at the Ellice Theatre in Winnipeg, which remains its only featured showing in Canada. This puzzles the event’s organizer, Charyssa Erskine, who said she thinks more Canadian cities should be showing the film.
“We [Canadians] are big contributors to this whole issue as well. Joe Fresh is a Canadian company … and they were one of the number one culprits when Rana Plaza came down,” she said.
By the end of the film, it was clear there is an imminent need to recognize the hidden costs associated with buying even a single, simple item of clothing. But as the theatre lights rose on the crowd of well-meaning Winnipeggers, I couldn’t help but feel cynical.
An issue as entrenched and complex as this one can’t be solved by quick consumer fixes like shopping second hand. Instead, it will take political will to refuse to cooperate with corporations who deal in bloody transactions at the expense of consumer’s wallets and, more importantly, at the expense of people’s lives.
If given the chance, The True Cost is powerful enough to prompt a discussion about this issue that could influence even the highest echelons of power. The film forces viewers to confront their contributions to the harsh capitalist economy, and could make people think twice before their next shopping spree.