Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a range of startup fashion brands doing inspiring work on developing sustainable and socially responsible business models. However, it’s hard to escape the fact that the textile industry’s notoriously poor reputation means that these innovators are currently the exception and not the rule.
The consequences of a surge in cheap clothing and the fashion industry’s exploitation of its workers was brought to light two years ago after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which took the lives of 1,138 factory workers and injured thousands more. The tragedy — which has spawned consumer-awareness and activism campaigns such as Fashion Revolution Day and hard-hitting web series Thread and Sweatshop, among other efforts — also snapped filmmaker Andrew Morgan into digging deep for more answers.
The result: The True Cost, a Kickstarter-funded documentary that brings the harrowing truth of what really goes into the making of our clothes to light — a delivery that’s hard to ignore upon viewing. In addition to providing an insider’s view of some of the industry’s grimmest manufacturing hubs, Morgan captures interviews with some key fashion activists and force-changers, including Stella McCartney, Tim Kasser and Livia Firth.
In the lead-up to the launch of The True Cost on May 29, we caught up with Morgan to get more insight into the film, and how he feels the industry has evolved since Rana Plaza.
What was the real turning point for you that motivated you to direct and produce the documentary?
AM: I was finishing up my last film, and getting my coffee one morning when I picked up a copy of the New York Times. It was the day after the clothing factory collapse at Rana Plaza and as I read that cover story I knew right way there was an important and untold story here that needed to be told.
Rana Plaza brought the social impacts of the textile industry to light for many of us — have you seen much improvement or progress since then?
AM: There have been important improvements to some areas, including safety standards. That said, it has not disrupted the model of production (very little traceability, limited protection of any union rights, inhumanly low wages) and in that way the lack of real system change has been disappointing to a lot of people – myself included.
A lot of brands — primarily ones that capture the greatest percentage of the retail market — have made pledges and commitments since Rana Plaza to clean up their act. How much do you buy into these promises? Have any brands stood out as making clear, positive changes?
AM: Well, to begin with, those pledges have been made in the same way they have always been made: through voluntary codes of conduct with little to no real enforcement. I’m encouraged that more brands are beginning to see it in their best interest to step up here, but I would like to see it done in a truly accountable way. There are several brands doing business in this industry that stand out to me in a variety of ways — sadly, I can’t say that any of the major players who were operating at Rana Plaza are among them.
What are the key solutions you see for working towards a more sustainable textile industry model?
AM: Long-term committed relationships between brands and suppliers; increased visibility of factory relationships to customers; commitment to living wages across international supply chains; and an end to playing one country off another for the lowest possible rates. Finally, true awareness among customers. I believe this could mark a serious shift and put in place the kind of pressure that is needed to see real and lasting change.
What steps can individuals take to make a positive impact?
AM: To start, I think we can all step back from the constant consumption of cheap, throwaway clothing and choose to invest again in pieces that we love and will wear for a long time. As we begin to make that shift, it will naturally lead us to begin asking deeper questions about the things we buy — rewarding brands that do business in a way that aligns with our values.
What do you hope viewers take away from the documentary?
AM: On a very basic level I hope that people walk away with an unforgettable knowledge that human hands make the things we wear; I think for a lot of people this is something they have never been asked to consider. We all make choices every day and those choices both big and small are having a massive impact on our world. Only by understanding this I believe we can begin having a new and needed conversation about what comes next.